What makes a football player great? The understanding of how to read the game? Scoring ability? Versatility on the pitch? Team leadership?
When fans take a trip down memory lane, contemplating football’s greats, one reply stands out above all others: the trophies a player has collected.
Would Maradona be revered in the same manner had he not won the World Cup in 1986? To a lesser extent, would Cristiano Ronaldo be remembered for his 42-goal season without a Champions League and Premiership title in 2008?
Compare Pele with Eusebio, Beckenbauer with Cruyff, or Zidane with Baggio—those who win become great and are not forgotten.
Monday’s revelation that Michael Ballack will not be able to participate in the World Cup next month is much more than a blow to German fans and their World Cup hopes: It seals his fate of never becoming a lasting football great.
Not only does this injury end his dream of ever winning a World Cup title, it is yet another blow in aiming for any international title.
Indeed, it is astonishing that a player of Michael Ballack’s caliber, who has competed at the highest levels, has won—well, nothing. Sure, he has had successes in domestic play, winning a few Bundesliga titles and German Cup competitions. As of the end of this season, he can add a Premiership title to his achievements, too.
But internationally, he has never hoisted a trophy, in spite of coming so close so often.
In 2002, his Leverkusen side surprised Europe by reaching the Champions League final, narrowly losing to Real. A couple of months later, a suspended Ballack was forced to follow from the bench as Germany lost the World Cup final to Brazil.
In the 2006 World Cup semifinal against Italy, Ballack was three minutes away from a shootout when Fabio Grosso shattered Germany’s dream of another World Cup final.
In 2008, Ballack lost his second Champions League final, as Manchester United defeated Chelsea on penalty kicks. (Ballack had converted from the mark.)
Shortly thereafter, followed the defeat to Spain in the final of the Euro 2008. And in 2009, it was poor officiating by referee Tom Henning Ovrebo in the Champions League semifinal against Barcelona that ended Ballack’s dream of another shot at the crown.
2010 was supposed to be different, yet Ballack’s injury might very well have eradicated his last shot at international glory.
The 33-year old can surely be ruled out for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and possibly for the European championship in 2012 . With his future unclear at the club level—it is not certain whether his contract with Chelsea, which expires on June 30th, will be extended—he may not receive another shot at the Champions League title, either.
Ballack’s injury makes Germany’s bid for its fourth World Cup title this summer a much more daunting task.
But for him personally, it means that when Germans reflect on its country’s football greats 30 years from now, players like Beckenbauer, Müller, and Matthäus will make the list, and his name will not.