During the current decade, if German football has had an icon, it has to be Michael Ballack. His influence on the German national team has been even greater than that of Oliver Kahn. Along with Juergen Klinsmann, he formed one of the best captain-manager duos in international football in recent times.
Germany currently lies second in the FIFA World Rankings, but FIFA rankings may be a bit deceptive in the way that they are calculated. The German team's current situation can be attributed to the composition of the national team and the opposing force that Joachim Loew faces when trying to build a team for the future.
The German national team's game under Klinsmann at the 2006 FIFA World Cup was built on speed and counter-attacking flair. It saw them match the eventual World Champion Italians attack-for-attack in that memorable semi-final.
But since then, the German team seems to have lost the aura of invincibility. The nervous run in the group stages of Euro 2008—a loss to Croatia and a nervy 1-0 win against Austria—was followed by an almost perfect tactical performance against Portugal in the QF.
However, the Germans were lucky to scrape through the SF against a depleted Turkish side. So even though the Germans reached the final, their performance actually put into perspective their short-comings against the really good sides, when Spain exposed their vulnerabilities.
Since then, there has been a stop-start World Cup 2010 qualifying campaign—a nervy 3-3 draw against Finland and defeats against England and Norway in friendly matches.
The team's performance against Norway was devoid of any pace and penetration, and it looked like Germany may regress into their infamous slow-and-steady domination of possession mode.
Where do the problems lie for Germany?
Firstly, the relationship that Ballack had forged with Klinsmann has unfortunately not materialized in the same vein with Loew.
Secondly, the pace of the game tends to slow down as it seems that the German midfield does not have enough faith in its defense to push forward on a consistent basis.
Ballack and Loew
The German Football Federation is also in a conundrum whenever there are signs of a rift between captain and manager. It seems unable to choose which side to take. I believe it is the manager who should be "boss" for all practical purposes—especially when it comes to team selection.
If Ballack feels that Loew is disrespecting senior players (e.g. Torsten Frings) by not selecting them, he needs to sit back and think of when he benefited from a similar move by Klinsmann to name him captain in place of Oliver Kahn.
Then, Klinsmann did the unthinkable by overlooking Kahn in favour of Jens Lehmann as his No. 1 goalkeeper for the 2006 World Cup.
Joachim Loew may lack the charisma that Klinsmann has, but he is still the boss until the German Football Federation says so. No one player should be allowed to become bigger than the team itself. Ballack's recent performances have revealed his aging legs, and even at Chelsea, he is unable to justify his wages.
Ballack should focus on doing what is best for the team. I feel he is now better suited to coming on off the bench as an impact player for the German national team. That way, he can give his best for 20-25 minutes without slowing down the pace of the game. And no one can deny that his aerial threat does still exist on set pieces.
Who can take up the mantle?
The time is ideal for Loew to name Ballack's successor now. Klinsmann did it in similar circumstances while naming Ballack as Kahn's successor. Loew has tried various captains on a make-shift basis including Miroslav Klose, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Jens Lehmann, and Torsten Frings.
I feel that a team's best player in the midfield should be its captain—he is in constant contact with both the defenders and the forwards. Also, he should be someone who can pull out performances that motivate his team mates.
It is therefore, not entirely, ridiculous to envision Bastian Schweinsteiger wearing the captain's armband in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, if Germany qualifies. Schweinsteiger's performances speak for themselves.
He was instrumental in Germany's QF and SF wins in Euro 2008, and his talent was evident in the 2006 World Cup third-place game. He has already played 63 games for his country, while scoring 17 goals and providing numerous assists.
He is very much like Ballack was in his younger days—a drifting midfielder who can score from open play, create opportunities for team mates, and possesses an aggressive streak, which, perhaps, someone like Klose does not, despite his seniority.
If the "Mannschaft" is to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and do well there, it needs to return to the pacy—attacking football that Klinsmann gifted the fans in 2006. And even he did it with a team that was nowhere near as talented as the other teams in the World Cup QFs barring Ukraine.
Maybe a Loew-Schweinsteiger, manager-captain duo is the way forward. I'm one of the greatest fans of Ballack, but sometimes a player needs to be aware of his physical limitations as well as limitations on creating politics in a team dressing room.
Never underestimate the significance of team unity—an x-factor that can even cover up for lack of talent—at times.
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