Philipp Lahm – The Magic Dwarf who became a football giant
How does one define leadership? One technical definition according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is ‘A person who leads’. Elsewhere it says that a leader is one who commands and influences a group of people towards the achievement of a goal. I could go on but you get the gist. However, to one Herr Philipp Lahm, the bookish definitions of leadership do not really do any justice. A terrific player, a tremendous personality and above all, a spectacular captain. An air of characteristic modesty surrounded the 5’7 Bavarian. One particularly famous quote of his states that “No one single player should lead the team but all players, each in their own way.”
Spoken like a true captain. Lahm may have looked like just another small and shy footballer but that was far from the truth. He was fierce and driven by an insatiable lust for success. He wanted to lead, to win and to etch his team’s name into folklore and he would let nobody stand in his way. Not even his own club. A tale of glory interspersed with heartbreak: This is the tale of Philipp Lahm.
Where It Began
Born to Roland and Daniela Lahm in 1983, Philipp began playing football at a very early age for the youth team of Gern in his hometown Munich. His ability was not subject to any doubt and he was scouted into the Bayern Munich youth setup at the tender age of 11. Jan Pienta was responsible for bringing him to the Bayern Munich junior team after scouting him while at Gern. It was clear that there was something special about the boy as one of his coaches Hermann Hummels even iterated that
”If Lahm does not make it in the Bundesliga then nobody will anymore”.
The traits of a leader were apparent in him even at such an early stage of his career. In fact, his second Bundesliga youth title came at a time when he was the captain of the squad. At merely 17 years of age, he was promoted to the Bayern B-team and once again in his second stint, he was made captain. His versatility on the pitch merely added to all these other qualities. Lahm could play as a fullback as well as a defensive midfielder and in his early career, he even played at left-back despite being right-footed in an age where inverted fullbacks were hardly a concept.
Torrid beginnings at the Top
One would imagine that a player with so much ability and acclaim from coaches would walk into the first team. But one would be wrong. Lahm also acts as a portrait of adversity and he was a prominent example that proved the adage ‘Success is not achieved on easy terms’ to be extremely valid. His debut with the first team came on cue in November 2002 when he came off the bench in a Champions League game against French side RC Lens. But alas, Lahm would not play for the first team again for the better part of 3 years.
Can you imagine the Philipp Lahm we know and love today having to play for a club other than Bayern Munich? Even the man who is now an embodiment of the crest of ‘Die Roten’ had to spend 2 seasons on loan at Stuttgart to gain top-flight experience and prove his mettle. The 2003-04 and 04-05 seasons were Lahm’s first proper experiences in the fast-paced Bundesliga. His first season was relatively successful as he made a name for himself as one of the best defenders in the league, earning an undisputed starting spot at left-back. Lahm ended the season as runner-up for the German Footballer of the Year Award.
The second season was rather unremarkable as Lahm did not adjust well to the tactical setup of the new coach Matthias Sammer. His loan stint finally came to a bitter conclusion as he suffered a stress fracture in his foot in January 2005. After spending more than 2 months on the sidelines, Lahm returned to action in April but a few weeks later, the Bavarian suffered a torn cruciate ligament as his loan ended and he returned to his home in Munich.
The first few months back were spent in rehab as he nursed his injury before finally playing for Bayern again in November. After a rough 3 years, his time had come. He began his meteoric rise and never looked back.
Lahm and His Journey to the Top
The Magic Dwarf, as Lahm came to be known, really started cementing his place at the club from 2006. He played every single one of the 34 Bundesliga games in the 06-07 campaign. While Lahm was the only left-back in the team, this was not detrimental to his ability. His performances were really good and even if the squad had another left-back it is hard to imagine he would have replaced Lahm.
Lahm also had a solid year with the German national team in 2006. He was Germany’s first-choice left-back at the World Cup, a tournament where he had solid performances throughout and he was the only player in the national team to play every single minute of the tournament. As a result of his contributions, Lahm made it into the All-Star Team for the tournament, a prestigious honor.
Transition to Right Back
In 2007, Bayern brought in German left-back Marcell Jansen. This meant that Lahm would be converted into a right-back, a position where he stated numerous times that he would like to play. This was not the only reason though since long-serving French right back Willy Sagnol had begun having continuing problems with his Achilles tendon. The unfortunate injury meant Sagnol would retire in 2009 and Lahm would eventually slot in at right-back under new coach Louis Van Gaal, a position he really made his own. He played very well but the 2008-09 season was fairly turbulent for Bayern Munich and by the end, head coach Jürgen Klinsmann was axed.
The recognition garnered by Lahm made him a hot target for many European teams. It is a well-known saga that Lahm was really close to joining FC Barcelona in 2008 and he is also rumored to have declined a lucrative offer from Manchester United. He put pen to paper for Bayern Munich, signing a new long term contract. This gesture was widely appreciated by the Bayern faithful.
The ’09 Interview Fiasco
November of 2009 would go on to become an unforgettable time for Bayern Munich, Philipp Lahm and the fans of the club. The incident in question? An interview given by Lahm for the ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung’. Apparently, the interview was not authorized by the club but Lahm spoke to the reporters anyway. And had it been a generic interview, it would not have created the ruckus it did.
The interview was bold, daring and showcased a whole different side of Philipp Lahm. Never would have anyone pegged him as a troublemaker but Lahm gave a really harsh and no-holds-barred account of his thoughts on the state of affairs at Bayern Munich. He publicly criticized the club for not having a definite philosophy and termed their transfer policies and business as ”erratic”. This probably stemmed from frustration at the turn of events of the 08-09 season. Lahm reportedly had agreed to stay with the Bavarian giants because club president Uli Hoeneß assured that Bayern would assemble a competitive squad that could pose a serious threat in Europe. Lahm also accused the club of lacking strategic planning. The entire situation ended with Lahm incurring the highest ever fine in the club’s history. A sum that was reported to be in excess of 25,000 Euros.
The entire fiasco ended with no bad blood however and Lahm’s playing career, fortunately, remained unaffected. Lahm was heavily criticized by many fans but equally adored for his honesty and willingness to put his head on the line for the club. It is hard to discount the possibility that this controversial interview was a catalyst for his claim to the captain’s armband.
An Unstoppable Juggernaut
After Louis Van Gaal’s appointment in the 2009-10 season, Lahm flourished at right-back and formed a formidable partnership with Arjen Robben and this season showcased his eye for an assist as he racked up 12. The same campaign saw him elected as the team’s vice-captain. His qualities were on full display from then on as he earned a reputation for being a fantastic passer as well as a really accomplished tackler. Not to mention his exemplary physical fitness and an impeccable disciplinary record. While in football, not everything goes your way and there are a lot of variables that can influence each moment in a match, Lahm showcased a certain meticulousness about him. Somehow he always knew what to do and when to do it.
Lahm led the team from behind, urging them to push forward even in the most bleak of circumstances. He was vocal and was always highly involved in the heat of battle. He really brought the words of Ottmar Hitzfeld to light as the former coach who wasn’t particularly famous for gushing praise, said that:
“He(Lahm) is a precision machine, with exceptional tactical intelligence, tremendous passing skills and a unique talent to anticipate situations and quickly find the right solutions.”
The 09-10 season turned out to be largely successful as Bayern won the domestic league and cup double and reached the Champions League final which they lost 2-0 to a very capable Inter Milan. Lahm was an integral part of this journey. Despite having a few initial issues in adapting to Van Gaal’s tactical setup which revamped the way Bayern Munich approached football, Lahm gradually felt at home in the right-back role which he had longed for.
His contributions were duly noted by Joachim Löw as Lahm was chosen as captain for the national team in the 2010 World Cup in the absence of Michael Ballack. This captaincy was eventually made permanent.
Taking a leaf out of Löw’s book, Bayern also appointed Lahm as captain of the club in January of 2011 following the exit of Mark Van Bommel. Thus began a vastly successful era where Bayern Munich would establish themselves as one of the strongest teams in the world. A team to be feared.
In 2012, Bayern Munich would once again make it all the way to the Champions League final under Lahm’s leadership. On the brink of total glory, Bayern, unfortunately, lost out to Chelsea after an excruciating penalty shootout. Despite Lahm stepping up and scoring the Germans’ first penalty, it was not meant to be as Bayern lost their second Champions League final in the space of three seasons.
However, this only proved as cannon fodder for what would be a rousing redemption. Under Lahm’s second shift as captain, Bayern wrote themselves into the history books as they completed a historic treble of league, domestic cup and Champions League. A feat that had never been achieved by a German club before. This also ignited a streak of domestic success. Ever since the 12-13 season, the Bavarian giants have won every single Bundesliga title to date.
In 2014, Lahm led ‘Die Mannschaft’ to an emphatic fourth World Cup victory. The national team with Lahm at the helm steamrolled through the tournament. The skipper’s omnipresence and fantastic contributions put him on the 10 man shortlist for the best player in the competition. Following the overwhelming World Cup triumph, Lahm announced his retirement from international football in a tearful tribute.
After the appointment of Pep Guardiola as a manager, Lahm converted to a defensive midfielder and once again showed his class even in a completely unique and challenging position. His sheer class led Guardiola to say that
“He is perhaps the most intelligent player I have ever trained in my career. He is at another level”
High praise coming from someone who has worked with the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, and Andres Iniesta among many, many others. The 2013-14 season would be another major highlight in Lahm’s trophy-laden career. He captained the side to a record 24th Bundesliga trophy following a thoroughly dominant season.
The diminutive German would go to captain Bayern for 3 more years making more than 500 appearances for the club before retiring in 2017. He signed off with another convincing Bundesliga title under his belt to an achingly beautiful ovation. Soon after, he was inducted into the Bayern Munich Hall of Fame and became the 17th player to ever receive the honor. He was also chosen as an ambassador for Germany’s bid to host the 2024 World Cup, another testament to his mammoth influence on German football. To this day there is a plethora of space dedicated to Philipp Lahm in the Allianz Arena’s Erlebnisswelt, for the Magic Dwarf immortalized his legacy at the club.
Philipp Lahm was the embodiment of true professionalism and excellence both on and off the field. His illustrious career has made him an icon in football’s rich history. He has well and truly earned his stature as one of the greatest defenders to ever grace the game. And of course, his leadership and loyalty can never be overstated. Lahm was an elite who battled hardships, potentially devastating injuries, conflicts with his own superiors, combated a seemingly endless stream of ups and downs and yet managed to cement his place in football eternity. It will be hard for you to find a defender as historic and impactful as this man right here, who concluded a career of his magnitude, without a single sending off. Not even one. Football fans and particularly longstanding Bayern Munich supporters cannot help but get dewy-eyed and mourn his retirement to this day. The sport, as well as its countless fans, are grateful to him for he made it all the more beautiful. Herr Philipp Lahm-‘Vielen Dank’. Football salutes you.
Written by Aaryan Parasnis
El Arte Del Futbol is an official content creator for OneFootball. Find more original features, Player Profiles and tactical analysis on www.elartedf.com. If you are reading this on our website, we’d like to thank you for your continuous support!