Michael Ballack — Perennially Second

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Michael Ballack has won 4 Bundesliga titles, 3 German Cups, a Premier League title and 3 FA Cups. That is a collection which describes an illustrious career, yet Ballack’s legacy will read that he could and should have been so much more. In Germany, he has been described as der unvollendeter: the unfulfilled person. That is probably a tag too harsh for someone who has won as much as he has. However, try to imagine how we would perceive Michael Ballack if he had won a treble with Bayer Leverkusen, led his country to a World Cup or two & a European championship and won another Champions League with Chelsea in addition to the list of trophies he already has under his belt. If that was the case he would be talked of in the same breath as the Iniestas and Xavis of the world as one of the greatest central midfielders of this generation. Ballack was so painfully close to doing it all that he’s remembered as a nearly man rather than for his achievements.

“Ballack was the lone shining light in a leaden era for Germany”- Udo Muras

The 2002 Ballon d’ Or went to the Brazilian phenomenon, Ronaldo but could have so easily have been Ballack’s instead. Coming to the end of the 2001–02 season, Bayer Leverkusen were in pole position to win the Bundesliga for the first time in the club’s history, qualified for the DFB Pokal final and the Champions League final.

No one expected Leverkusen to display a three-pronged trophy charge. The Chemnitzer youth product was the star man behind one of the unlikeliest underdog upsurges of this era, scoring 23 goals from central midfield, including one of the great European performances in an exciting 4–2 win over Liverpool FC in the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

With 3 games left in the Bundesliga season, Leverkusen sat top of the table with a 5 point cushion. Their title charge fell apart in the next two fixtures as they narrowly lost 2–1 and 1–0 to Werder Bremen and Nurnberg respectively to concede the title to Borussia Dortmund by 1 point. To make matters worse, Ballack injured himself during a futile win in the final gameweek of the Bundesliga season.

Ballack and his team were distraught but they still had 2 more trophies to challenge for, the DFB Pokal final against Schalke and the Champions League final against the mighty Real Madrid. Despite not being completely fit and with the aid of painkilling injections, he limped through two finals where Die Werkself (Company XI) lost 4–2 to Schalke and then succumbed to a 2–1 defeat to Real Madrid thanks to “that Zidane volley”.

Within a few weeks, 3 possible major titles became 0. Bayer Leverkusen was quickly dubbed to be “Bayer Neverkusen” and their unique achievement, the “Treble Horror”. Ballack would soon be involved again over that summer, this time with the German National Team in the 2002 World Cup held in South Korea and Japan. This was Die Mannschaft’s first involvement in a major tournament since their disgraceful showing at Euro 2000 which made the German FA revise their domestic structure entirely.

Germany struggled to qualify for the World Cup but Ballack almost single-handedly dragged the side through the qualifiers and then to the World Cup final in Japan. German journalist and author Raphael Honigstein emphasised his presence as an indispensable cog of the German national team setup by saying:

Ballack didn’t just become the most important player in Völler’s system; he became the system itself. Germany were supposed to keep things tight at the back, then snatch a goal through a Ballack header or shot from the edge of the box.”

Ballack was harshly shown yellow(his second of the tournament, 1st being in the group stage) in the semi-final against South Korea which made him ineligible to play the final against Brazil which they lost 2– 0, with their best player suspended. Due to this incident, they introduced the yellow card amnesty rule(Ballack rule) which wipes out all yellow cards after the quarterfinals and before the semi-final so as to ensure the best players do not miss out on the final if the team makes it.

Over one summer, the versatile midfielder narrowly missed out on a Bundesliga title, a German Cup, a Champions League and a World Cup. There is no doubt that there is anyone who was as unfortunate as the German midfield maestro over one season. Ballack was the heart and soul of the Leverkusen and German team that almost became immortal.

Carrying Germany through the dark ages. “It was a classic case of people confusing cause and effect. We were missing two or three more Ballacks at the time.”– Rudi Völler, manager of the German National team

If 2002 was painful enough, that wasn’t the first or last time Ballack missed out due to the smallest margins possible. His first season with Bayer Leverkusen set the tone for what would transpire in the infamous 2001–02 season that was just described. Going into the last day of the 1999–2000 season, Leverkusen were top of the table with a 3 point lead.

Their task was simple, avoid defeat to then-middle tablers Unterhaching and Bayer Leverkusen would win their first league title ever. Halfway through the game, an unfortunate own goal while defending a cross from none other than Michael Ballack led to Leverkusen losing 2–0 and surrendering the title to Bayern Munich. That was the closest Leverkusen have ever reached to a title, closely followed by the debacle in 2002, Ballack was there both times.

Michael Ballack confronts Tom Henning Ovrebo in 2009

Ballack was to face more heartache both in his forthcoming international and club career as he has managed a “Treble Horror” twice in his career. First with Leverkusen in 2002, then with Chelsea in 2007–08 as they finished runners-up in the League Cup, the Premier League and the Champions League. Chelsea and Manchester United were tied on points going into the last day but the Blues could only manage a draw against Bolton Wanderers as they lost the title. Then there was the Champions League final in Moscow, most famously known for John Terry’s slip and Drogba’s red card for slapping Vidic as Chelsea suffered a heartbreaking penalty shootout loss, thus completing Ballack’s second Treble Horror.

Similar to the horrors of 2002, Ballack was called in for international duty soon after the heartbreak at Moscow as Germany looked to conquer Euro 2008 under Ballack’s leadership. Germany were coming off an impressive World Cup campaign held on home turf where they suffered an extra time loss to eventual champions Italy, as Ballack and his men finished 3rd. The Euros provided more heartache for Ballack as they lost a closely contested final 1–0 to Spain- one of the greatest international sides of the modern era. This became the second season in Ballack’s career where he finished runner-up in 4 different competitions.

“Titles are sometimes overrated. Of course, Lothar Matthäus is always going to be associated with the 1990 World Cup. But does everyone immediately remember what titles Günter Netzer, Johan Cruyff or Luís Figo won? Or do they also think about how those players played their football and how they led their teams? I hope that people will remember me as a special footballer.” — Michael Ballack after retiring

Michael Ballack will never be a name brought up when you make your fantasy teams for the 21st century, barring Leverkusen, he’s probably not going to be remembered as one of the greatest midfielders at his other clubs like Chelsea or Bayern Munich. For all his national heroics, even Germans might not remember him as fondly as they should because he was part of an era that seemed to be stuck in transition. He was never allowed to play a quick one-two with Toni Kroos or Marco Reus. Instead, he had Torsten Frings and Carsten Jancker as team-mates.

Like all the adventures in Ballack’s career, his international tenure ended on a sour note as he fell out with Joachim Löw and declined an offer for a farewell game against Brazil, a chance to reach 100 international caps only to call these arrangements “a farce”.

Michael Ballack will be considered a legend in his own right and no one can take away his contributions towards the numerous major trophies he won but Ballack will forever be just at the brink of football immortality. Winning 11 titles during his career and enduring insurmountable amounts of heartbreak, Michael Ballack is the only one to have earned a pass to say what he said after retirement, “Titles are sometimes overrated”.

This article was first published on medium

Image 1 via Twitter

Image 2 and 3 via Sportskeeda

Image 4 via Evening Standard

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