By Karan Tejwani | This article was first published on Football Chronicle on November 7, 2019.
19 May 2012. Munich, Germany.
Bayern Munich, playing at their prestigious home, the Allianz Arena, were aiming to beat Chelsea and win the Champions League for the first time since 2001. After a one-sided affair that ended 1-1 after 120 minutes of play, the final went to penalties. Bastian Schweinsteiger, one of the most composed men in football and one of the senior figures of the team stepped up. His spot-kick – Bayern’s fifth of the shoot-out – hit the post and essentially handed the Blues the title, as Didier Drogba wrapped things up.
In their own den, they suffered the greatest heartbreak and for Schweinsteiger, the following days were traumatic. This was the club he had been with and loved since he was a child, this was the chance to make history amongst his own people, but the night ended with the midfielder hiding his face in shame. This was a stage set up for them to win, but instead the Bayern players ended up staring at blue confetti.
From here, Schweinsteiger’s career could’ve gone two ways. One would’ve been as a person drowned by the sorrow of being a part of his team that let his home crowd down, one that would take a while to recover on and off the pitch. The other way was the way he did take. In Schweinsteiger’s career, testing circumstances, tough decisions and change have played a massive part, and his reaction to the demons of that night in Munich was commendable.
Bayern Munich have always been synonymous with Schweinsteiger – it’s been his club since he started playing the game, and it’s stuck with him for much of his playing career. For the midfielder though, his career was supposed to be heading in a different direction completely off the field of play and on the snow.
In his younger days, Schweinsteiger was just as good at skiing, while basketball was also something he was excelling at. As a teenager, he would compete against a younger Felix Neureuther, the future Winter Olympian, so when the time came to decide just before his 14th birthday, he knew he had a tough choice to make.
As it would turn out, playing on the grass was where he saw himself, and it was Die Roten that had an influence on the decision: “I enjoyed both sports [football and skiing], but then came the offer from Bayern Munich and I just had a gut feeling it was right,” he once said in an interview with German outlet, DW. “Football was so popular, and skiing was never like that. Carrying those skis around was annoying too.”
The club had identified that they had a real gem on their books, and at the age of 18 in 2002, Schweinsteiger made his debut for the club in the Champions League, coming on as a substitute against French club Lens. That game also marked the debut of his dear friend and future captain Philipp Lahm, and this was a turning point for both club and country.
Although he was still a young man being eased into the first-team picture at the time, Ottmar Hitzfeld, his manager at the time, felt Schweinsteiger was good enough to get some minutes on the pitch. The 18-year-old featured sporadically in the second-half of the 2002-03 season, predominantly on either wing, as Bayern went on to win the league and cup double.
In the following season, Schweinsteiger was given an extended run in the side. In more than double the appearances from the previous year, 33, he even netted four times, but this season was more disappointing as Bayern finished trophyless. The end of the season bore some fruit, as the German national team recognised his progress and called him up for their roster that flew to Portugal to take part in the European Championships in 2004.
The next month would be a bit of a turning point in Schweinsteiger’s career. He did play for his country at the tournament, but Germany were knocked out of the competition and it was clear that this team was headed in the wrong direction. For years, the country had stalled in terms of progress – this, despite reaching the World Cup final two years prior – and mammoth changes were needed.
The scene was almost similar at club level, where Bayern Munich, despite winning the Champions League just three years prior, were inconsistent in Europe and were unable to challenge the very best. In the two years that followed their European glory, Bayern Munich exited the tournament at the group stages and the quarter-finals and this was not their level. Still only 20 at the start of the 2004-05 season, Schweinsteiger would be a key part of a revolution for both club and country, and the years that followed were certainly eventful.
Over the next few years, Schweinsteiger would be an integral component for both club and nation. Germany, led by their youth, were going through a revolution in order to avoid repeating the failures of the previous few years, whilst Bayern Munich were starting to build their dynasty domestically under the tutelage of Felix Magath. The Bavarian side would win the league title twice in the 2004-05 and 2005-06 season, and that prepped Schweinsteiger and Germany well for the World Cup which was to be hosted on home soil.
At the World Cup, Schweinsteiger was amongst a young set-up that included the likes of Lahm, Lukas Podolski, and Per Mertesacker. Unlike the Euros two years prior, the winger had a more frequent role in the team as Germany swept through the group phases with ease. There wasn’t much expected of this side, as the last few years had reduced optimism and that they were being led by an inexperienced Jürgen Klinsmann, who was in his first job in senior management.
Nonetheless, this Germany side, buoyed by their home support impressed. In the knockout rounds, they overcame Sweden and Argentina, before falling to Italy in extra-time in the semi-finals. There was some comfort for Schweinsteiger at the end of it, however. He scored twice in the third-place play-off against Portugal and could very nearly have had a hat-trick to end his campaign on a sweet note.
Back at club level, there were changes aplenty. Bayern struggled in the Bundesliga, finishing in fourth place as Hitzfeld returned midway through the 2006-07 season to take charge. However, the Meisterschale returned the following season. Since that period, Klinsmann and Jupp Heynckes also took charge of the club, failing to make much of an impact, but it wasn’t until the Dutchman, Louis van Gaal, took over in 2009 that both club and player were significantly affected.
Playing predominantly as a winger throughout his career, Van Gaal recognised Schweinsteiger’s tactical intelligence and supreme technical ability on the ball and decided to bring him to the centre of midfield. For Germany and Bayern Munich, Schweinsteiger showed great energy and willingness to cover in defence whilst playing as a winger, and the Dutch coach felt he could be much more effective if deployed in the middle of the park.
When Van Gaal joined the club, he was insistent on fielding a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-1-1, with the German being joined by Mark van Bommel in midfield. The two complemented each other perfectly.
Van Bommel was the defensive powerhouse, always capable of a strong tackle and having the power to initiate counter-attacks. Schweinsteiger was the silkier technician on the ball, calmly swaying the ball from defence to attack and being able to dictate the speed of the game. Being joined by Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry on the wings, Schweinsteiger’s presence and abilities in midfield were crucial.
In his first season in midfield, Schweinsteiger was an ever-present figure as Bayern would return to dominance. They would win the Bundesliga once again in impressive fashion, losing just four times all season. To add to that, Die Roten also won the DFB Pokal, beating Werder Bremen 4-0 in the final, with Schweinsteiger even getting on the scoresheet. It was, however, in Europe where they wanted to make the most impact seeing as they hadn’t really done much of note since winning the competition in 2001.
Bayern started slowly in the group phase, but as the tournament progressed, they got better. Fiorentina, Manchester United and Lyon were dispatched in the knockout rounds as they made it all the way to the final which was to be played at the Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid against José Mourinho’s Inter Milan. With a chance for both teams to seal a historic treble, this was an early chance for a major achievement in Schweinsteiger’s CV.
The match didn’t go to plan. As he traditionally does in major finals, Mourinho set his side up to perfection, with Diego Milito scoring a goal each in either half as Inter Milan strolled to a relatively untroubled victory. Whilst the season ended on a sour note, the progress was identifiable, and Schweinsteiger could go into the next stage with some positivity.
The World Cup in 2010 was the next step and looking at how far Germany had come over the last six years, they went into this tournament as firm favourites. Just two years prior, Schweinsteiger was vital in their run to the final of the European Championships, where Die Mannschaft lost to Spain.
After failing to make an impression early on, where he was sent off in a game against Croatia, he was forced to watch as a spectator and had a few conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She took the chance to make the player understand the differences between intensity and sheer foolishness, and it was perhaps those talks that inspired a better Schweinsteiger.
He returned to the side in the quarter-final against Portugal and he didn’t look back from there. The winger even scored in the semi-final against Turkey, but the Spanish side that they came up against in the ultimate match was just too good.
Those were baby steps taken on a long route to glory, and how they performed in South Africa in 2010 could give a clearer image of what the future would look like. The core group that included Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Podolski, and Mertesacker – the quartet that had been key members of the system since 2004 – stuck together, while they were joined by other young and emerging names such as Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira to create a formidable outfit.
Coach Joachim Löw, who had worked with the team through Euro 2008, was also a big beneficiary of Schweinsteiger taking up the midfield role. After making it through the group stages with two wins from three, it was in the knockout rounds where Germany and Schweinsteiger really turned it on. In the second-round match against England, the Germans won 4-1, and while there was a bit of luck involved there, the next round, a 4-0 win over Argentina, saw the best of Schweinsteiger.
The midfielder neutralised the threat of Lionel Messi, who was playing right behind the forward in a ‘number 10’ role rather than as an out-and-out forward or a false nine, as he had been playing for Barcelona. Messi was ineffective, and the awareness of Schweinsteiger played a key role in that. The Germans were ruthless, quickly being able to transition from defence to attack and absolutely battering the South Americans.
He was even involved heavily in the third goal, driving through the Argentine defence with ease before faking a pass and setting up a simple finish for Arne Friedrich. It was a day to remember, and for Schweinsteiger, a message to Argentine coach Diego Maradona, with whom he had a bizarre exchange of words with at a press conference in the build-up to the match.
In the last four, it was their old rivals Spain that stood in their way. In a cagey affair with both teams equally matched, it took a Carles Puyol header late in the game, and once again, there was heartbreak for Schweinsteiger. The Germans ended up finishing third after overcoming Uruguay in the third-place play-off, but given their performances in the previous rounds, there was a massive feeling of underachievement.
At club level, things didn’t change either. After significant progress under Van Gaal, Bayern went backwards in the 2010-11 season, finishing third in the league and losing out in the round of 16 to Inter Milan. Van Gaal was gone just before the end of the season, and it felt like things were all back to square one.
It was in the next campaign where Schweinsteiger had arguably the worst moment in his professional career with that missed penalty against Chelsea, and that pain was compounded by the second-placed finish in both league and cup. To add to it, Germany lost in the semi-finals of the Euros that year as well, so it raised the question: was Schweinsteiger football’s unluckiest player?
Since becoming a frequent fixture in the first-team for club and country, he had lost one Champions League final, two World Cup semi-finals, one European Championships final and one European Championships semi-final. While the domestic league and cup were won on several occasions, it was clear that Schweinsteiger’s talents were deserving of the biggest prizes.
Heynckes has always maintained a good relationship with Bayern Munich. The German manager had already taken charge of the club twice before and when the call came in to return in 2011, he didn’t hesitate once again. Despite completing a treble of runners-up finishes in 2012, there was still faith that he could do a fine job and help Die Roten return to the pinnacle of European and German football.
The signing of Javi Martínez in the summer of 2012 was crucial. He was the spark the Bayern midfield needed and was similar to Van Bommel, who had done his defensive duties well alongside Schweinsteiger under Van Gaal. That season, the club broke records as they were determined to put an end to the demons of the previous season and make history.
After the winter break, with Bayern sitting comfortably on top of the table, they only dropped two points from then until the end of the season and became champions in early April – the earliest for any team. By the end, they had won the most points in a single season (91), set a record for the highest league-winning points margin (25), enjoyed the most wins and most consecutive wins in a single season (29 and 14 respectively) and suffered just one league defeat.
In the Cup, they had also dominated opponents and overcame Stuttgart in the final, meaning their domestic resurgence was complete. That left Europe, where they were just as clinical. After easing through the group stages and stuttering against Arsenal, Bayern beat Juventus 4-0 on aggregate in the quarter-finals and then Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate in the semi-finals, to make their way to Wembley to face Borussia Dortmund.
That season, it was worth noting how well Heynckes utilised Schweinsteiger, keeping the balance in midfield by pairing him with Martínez whilst also integrating an emerging Toni Kroos into the team. That performance against Barcelona was noteworthy again, as they kept the Blaugrana’s fiery attacking line quiet and took advantage of an injured Messi, who was hardly at his best.
In the final, drama would ensue once again, and it took a late Arjen Robben winner to seal the victory for the Bavarians. They would win the treble to banish the memories of the previous year, and for Schweinsteiger, there was a personal moment of sweetness as he had finally won the big one after years of falling at the final hurdles for both club and country.
That form would carry on into the next year as Bayern began their dynasty in Germany. However, it was at this point that Schweinsteiger’s influence would reduce. Age and injury issues would see his time on the pitch reduce as his side, now led by Pep Guardiola, would romp to the league and cup double again, but fall just short in Europe.
On the international scene, Schweinsteiger wished to carry domestic form to the national team as they lined up for the World Cup in Brazil. They did just that in the group stage, romping through a challenging group that included Portugal, the United States of America and Ghana. It was in the knockout stage where the midfielder, who was also captain Lahm’s deputy, was needed the most.
After Germany struggled to break Algeria in the round of 16, only managing to beat them 2-1 after extra time, he was one of the senior names that stepped up and asked more of his team-mates. Knowing that this was the current generation’s best chance to win the World Cup, he wanted to leave no stone unturned. The squad had the right mix of experience, whilst the younger players from the previous finals had become vital names for their respective clubs as well as frequent faces in the national setup. This time was the best time.
They kicked on from there, beating France 1-0 in a hard-fought quarter-final, with Schweinsteiger putting his fitness concerns behind him and under gruelling temperatures and physicality, persevering against the biggest names. Although the win against France wasn’t fancy, it was a game where they showed great command on both sides of the pitch and they were now just two wins away from the gold.
Against the hosts, Brazil, in the next round, Germany really turned it on. They won 7-1 in arguably the most infamous match in World Cup history. The Brazilians were annihilated and after being 5-0 down at half-time, the squad decided to remain professional and not embarrass the hosts even further amongst their home audience. In the final, there would be another South American team awaiting in the form of Argentina, and this was Schweinsteiger at his best.
In the warm-up, Germany lost midfielder Khedira to injury, meaning that Schweinsteiger lost his ideal partner and saw him replaced by Christoph Kramer – who was making his first competitive international start. The responsibility doubled, but he maintained his traditional composure, despite some pain. Having come into the tournament with some injury concerns, he stood out in a testing final and even took some serious blows from the Argentines.
As the game went into extra-time goalless, he persisted, showing his leadership and inspiring the rest. There was an amazing moment where he dribbled forward with strength, almost as though he hadn’t just gone through nearly two hours of football. Lucas Biglia and Javier Mascherano were left hanging as they tried to stop him – but they eventually ended the move after double-teaming on him.
Later in extra-time, he received a brutal barge from Sergio Agüero in the face and he was cut open. Like a warrior, he had blood streaming down but he kept going and there was nothing that could stop him from lifting the gold. Schweinsteiger had suffered pain in the biggest of finals and knowing that this was likely to be his last chance, nothing could’ve got in his way.
Mario Götze received all the plaudits for his wonderful winner in the 113th minute, but Schweinsteiger was the real engine. This was a man with damaged knees and supporters that didn’t think he could last 90 minutes in a World Cup match, but here he was, playing 120 minutes in the biggest game in football with a bloody face and tired legs, driving his team forward. There was elation when the final whistle blew, and this was the sweetest success.
Within two years, Schweinsteiger went from eternal football bridesmaid to World Cup winner, whilst also adding a historic Champions League win in between. This was nothing short of what he deserved.
A year after winning the World Cup, Schweinsteiger would call time on his Bayern spell, leaving the club after 500 appearances. He would reunite with Van Gaal at Manchester United to become the club’s first German player, but that spell was hardly as special. United were in a tumultuous phase, as the 2015-16 season was largely overshadowed by the expectation of the manager’s sacking. He was gone by the end of it, but he left with a medal: they had won the FA Cup in his final match.
The next season saw Mourinho come in and that spelt the end of the midfielder’s spell in England. The Portuguese manager didn’t see Schweinsteiger as a part of his plans and asked him to train with the reserves until he found an offer to leave the club.
He was an adored figure and that respect grew as he remained professional and managed to sneak in a few minutes in the cup competitions. The adulation was evident when he came on as a late substitute in a League Cup match against West Ham United, where he was greeted with rapturous applause and the crowd cheered every touch of his.
In the end, that relationship ended sweetly, although it hardly met expectations. In Schweinsteiger’s final spell, he moved to Major League Soccer as Chicago Fire acquired his signature. Like his Manchester United spell, there wasn’t much of note here either, apart from a bizarre introductory press conference where he was asked if he would be able to spur the Fire to the World Cup. Schweinsteiger also re-invented himself, frequently playing in defence as a centre-half, but that was about it in America.
He retired in October 2019 as one of the best midfielders of this generation and a greatly respected and respectable person. A warrior, leader, and hero for many, Schweinsteiger’s career is one to take inspiration from. It started with a whirlwind spell for both club and country, had a hazy period in between where they were both able to go far but not all the way and ended with him winning all the hardware. That defeat against Chelsea in 2012 was disheartening, but perhaps there were a few positives: maybe Schweinsteiger became a better footballer, a more determined footballer or a better leader overall. Whatever it was, it worked, and the rewards were fully deserved. The Fußballgott [football god], as he came to be known in Germany, left the game with his head held high and perhaps more importantly, left the game with the respect of everyone who’s watched him.