Written by Yuri Vasilyev
As the Bundesliga returned to action this past weekend, it seems only suitable to remember one of the best players in the history of the German flight. Probably not the best because of some bad luck, Michael Ballack was not only one of the best players in Bundesliga but also had a successful spell with Chelsea, where he won the Premier League in 2009/10 with Carlo Ancelotti in charge.
Nonetheless, the first big success for Ballack came his way pretty early. At the age of 20, Michael won the Bundesliga title with Kaiserslautern in 1997- 1998 season. Considering the fact that the team was playing in the second division just a year ago, it is was a remarkable achievement. However, it is important to notice that Ballack was not a starter on that team as he made an appearance on 16 occasions during the winning season.
Starting at Kaiserslautern
In the 1998 – 1999 season Kaiserslautern did not win anything but they made it to the quarterfinals in Champions League. What is more important is that Ballack became a starter on that team as he appeared in 39 games in all competitions and scored 4 goals. His progress as a player would not go unnoticed as Bayern Leverkusen signed him from Kaiserslautern for €4.1 million in 1999.
With the addition of one of the most promising German talents Leverkusen would be in pole position to win the Bundesliga in 1999 – 2000 season as they were 3 points ahead of Bayern Munich before the last matchday.
Leverkusen was due to face SpVgg Unterhaching in an away game and all they had to do is not to lose to the team who was in the middle of the table and had nothing really to play for. Despite all that Leverkusen lost 2:0 and Bayern Munich would become a champion. As it turns out that would not be the last time Michael Ballack would experience a bitter taste of defeat when the victory was just around the corner.
The Leverkusen Treble Horror
Ballack would establish himself further as the leader of the team as in 2000 – 2001 season he would end up with 39 appearances in all competitions and score 7 goals. Despite that, the team has not won anything during that campaign. It all turned out different when in 2001 – 2002 season Ballack and Bayern Leverkusen had every chance to win Bundesliga, DFB Pokal and Champions League. Despite that, he fell one step short in every one of them.
In Bundesliga with only three games to play Bayern Leverkusen was not only top of the table but also had 5 points margins over Borussia Dortmund in second place. In Champions League final Leverkusen scored an opening goal only to concede equalizer from Raul and a wonder volley from Zidane after Roberto Carlos cross. In DFB-Pokal final the team lost 4-2 to Schalke 04. No wonder that after those three runners up finishes were labelled ‘Treble Horror‘.
To make matters worse Michael and the German national team would lose to Brazil in the final of World Cup 2002. Ballack himself would miss the final game of the tournament due to the yellow card he got in the semi-finals. Despite that, he was one of the leaders on that team as he provided 4 assists and scored 3 goals and was recognized as one of the best players of that tournament.
Success at Bayern Munich
In spite of interest from Real Madrid in the summer of 2002 Ballack would sign with Bayern Munich in a €12.9 million deal. Over the next 4 seasons, Michael would win three Bundesliga titles and two times DFB-Pokal. However, team would fell short in Champions League every single season having only reached quarter-finals only once during his spell with Bayern Munich.
Big stage success avoided Ballack with the national team once again as they would not make it out of the group stage in Euro 2004 and in 2006 World Cup that Germany hosted would finish in third place.
The next stop for Michael would be Chelsea. He would sign a 4-year contract with the club as a free agent. Over those 4 years, he would win EPL title once and FA cup twice having also finished as runner-up in Champions League in Moscow when John Terry infamously missed a penalty in the shootout.
Ballack would be assigned as national team captain for Euro 2008 but they would go down to the golden generation of Spain in the semi-final. As it happened many times before, Ballack would be included in the team of the tournament.
His last chance to win something with the national team would be cut short by Kevin Prince-Boateng as his sliding tackle would end Ballack’s season forcing him to miss 2010 World Cup.
After that Ballack would get invited to the national team to play two more friendlies in order to help him reach 100 caps for the team but he called whole thing farce and would never play for Germany again.
Michael would sign with Bayern Leverkusen in the summer of 2010 and played two more seasons with the team. Despite not winning major silverware nor with clubs he played for neither with national team Ballack would be remembered as a leader, role model and probably one of the unluckiest players to play the game.
The fact that he never won a major European title with a club or national team shows that his career was not graced by much luck. However, even if a horse never wins one of the Triple Crown races does not mean he was not a fine competitor in the sport. Michael Ballack is still fondly remembered by all the clubs he played for during his career as one of the best players in the first decade of the 21st century.
Feature Image by Clive Mason