Real leadership is hard to come by in football. There are many good teams with talent abounding, but what separates them from the best is that the truly great teams all have leadership.
Sergio Ramos proved himself as a leader in the Champions League this year, defending heroically for Real Madrid and scoring a key brace against Bayern Munich in the semifinal before netting a last-gasp equalizer against Atletico Madrid in the final. He justified his role as vice-captain and successor to Iker Casillas once the goalkeeper leaves the Santiago Bernabeu.
For Germany and Bayern Munich, Manuel Neuer has come into his own as a leader and the definitively top candidate for the captaincy of both club and country once Philipp Lahm and deputy Bastian Schweinsteiger step down.
Neuer has long exhibited the qualities of a leader. Even in his early days at Schalke, the goalkeeper was named the club's captain. His legendary performance against Porto in March of 2008, still before his 22nd birthday, set him up for the role. And his heroic display against Manchester United three years later cemented his reputation among the world's elite.
When Neuer left for Munich, Bayern purists refused to accept him. A group of ultras gave him a code of conduct (h/t Goal.com) that forbade him from kissing the club's crest or even approaching the south stand, among other things.
Neuer won over the naysayers by delivering the kind of performances the club desperately needed. After several years with the aging Oliver Kahn and Hans-Jorg Butt and the inexperienced Thomas Kraft, it had been a long time since fans had seen a top-class player between the Bayern posts. Neuer delivered for Bayern from day one, but it was his performance at the end of his first season that showed just how much of a giant he was among men.
In the Champions League semifinal, Bayern went to a penalty shoot-out with Real Madrid. And although teammates Toni Kroos and captain Philipp Lahm were unable to convert their spot-kicks, Neuer made brilliant saves to deny Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka. In the end, Real were able to convert only one of four penalties.
Weeks later, a massively superior Bayern side struggled to find a way past suspension-riddled Chelsea in the final. That game also went to penalties after Arjen Robben had failed to convert a chance from 11 meters that would in all likelihood have ended the Blues' hopes of winning their first-ever major international title.
Neuer had less luck defending his goal in the shootout against Chelsea, saving only one of the five attempts on his goal. But when his teammates, devoid of confidence, looked sheepishly at one another, with none brave enough to take Bayern's third penalty, it was Neuer who stepped up.
Kroos, arguably the most technically gifted player on the pitch, refused. Veteran Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, Ukraine's most capped player, also declined despite Thomas Mueller (who by that time had been substituted) three times screaming at him to show his nerve and do what had to be done. Always a man of strength and composure, Neuer did what none of his teammates had the gall to do: He stepped up to the spot and converted his penalty. Ivica Olic and Schweinsteiger missed their subsequent shots, and Bayern were eliminated, but not for lack of effort and leadership on Neuer's part.
Neuer has since been adored by Bayern fans and led the team to consecutive domestic doubles as well as victory in the Champions League final. And at the 2014 World Cup, his heroics have made the difference between Germany facing an early exit and reaching the semifinal.
Although only minimally tested for much of the group stage, Neuer has been an ace for Germany in the knockout rounds.
The defense ahead of him was an absolute wreck against Algeria, but Neuer took matters into his own hands and came out of his box time and time again to deny the African side. According to the official Bayern Twitter account, he made 21 touches of the ball outside the penalty area, including one brilliant move to run down Islam Slimani and deny the striker as he attempted to round the goalkeeper.
Germany could have conceded at least a couple goals to Algeria if not for what was a truly exceptional performance. And against France, Neuer was again heroic. Although he had some excellent support from Lahm and Mats Hummels, the goalkeeper was called into action on many occasions, particularly at the death when Karim Benzema broke through the German defense and fired a rocket of a shot on goal. With cat-like reflexes, Neuer stuck a strong arm in the air and punched the shot away.
As Jerome Boateng said (per Goal.com) after the game, "You can't stop France for the whole 90 minutes." But: "Neuer is a fantastic goalkeeper."
For all the great things Lahm and Schweinsteiger have to offer, even they can't turn a game the way Neuer can. The 28-year-old transcends what goalkeepers are meant to be; he acts as a distributor, a sweeper and even a scorer if his teammates don't have the gall to take a penalty.
Some might call this versatility, but it's more than that. Neuer indeed has not only the breadth of skills but the desire to use them. Whereas some might be content to rely on the defense to do its duty and blame the back four for any goals conceded, Neuer has the Nietzschean Will to Power, a desire to win that's so strong, he'll do anything necessary to win. And he has the skill and cool nerves to deliver, time and time again.
Still 28 years of age, Neuer will be playing long after Lahm and Schweinsteiger retire. And in him, Bayern and Germany will have an exceptional leader and indomitable captain.