"Philipp Lahm is perhaps the most intelligent player I have ever trained in my career. He is at another level."
It would be quite an accolade for anyone, but when it comes from Pep Guardiola, one of the greatest coaches of our time, it must leave you glowing with pride. Not that a level-headed, feet-on-the-ground man like Lahm would be getting carried away.
The Bayern Munich captain, the man Guardiola quite literally expected to transmit his footballing heart's desire onto the pitch (see the video below), is a rare beast in modern football, and not just because he doesn't have any tattoos. Well, none that are visible to anyone bar his Bayern team-mates and Mrs Lahm.
Intelligent—in both a football sense and a human one—erudite, polite, he is the ideal son-in-law as well as the model captain whose feet only leave the ground to make headers that belie his 1.70-metre frame, and whom Guardiola quite rightly places among the giants of the Bayern pantheon.
"He's an absolute legend of this wonderful club," the now Manchester City boss said, per TZ (in German), on leaving Bayern last summer—Lahm's 300-plus appearances for his hometown club have put him in the all-time top 10. "He's at the same level as Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, Uli Hoeness or Karl-Heinz Rummenigge."
With Lahm's blindingly glittering career now drawing to a close, he also seems poised to join those figures in the Bayern boardroom, with suggestions he will become manager/sporting director of the record Bundesliga champions, a post vacant since Matthias Sammer's departure last summer.
Speculation shot from background noise to the front pages when Lahm, who had previously stated he would retire when his current contract expires in 2018, suggested the end may be somewhat nigh-er than many Bayern fans would hope.
"I wouldn't rule it out," Lahm told Sport Bild (in German) shortly before celebrating his 33rd birthday earlier this month when asked whether this season might in fact be his last.
When he does—sadly—hang up his boots and pass on the captain's armband, can he step into the Italian hand-stitched loafers he will need to rub shoulders with the power-brokers and stockbrokers he will meet in the Bayern boardroom?
Former Bayern goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, thinks not.
"The risk of failure at a club like Bayern without more management experience is not negligible," Kahn told Bild (in German) of his former team-mate for Bayern and Germany. "The club can't afford 'learning by doing' in an exposed position."
Incredibly, and probably for the first time ever, Jens Lehmann—Kahn's former great rival for the Germany goalkeeping role—agrees with his nemesis, though not for the same reasons.
"I don't think Philipp will do it. It would mean he would go on holiday and then immediately have to start work," Lehmann told Bild (in German), noting Lahm's final-season curtain call could come as late as the UEFA Champions League final on June 3. "He wouldn't have had a break, and that's unimaginable. I think the step from the green grass to the sidelines is very difficult to take."
After 15 years at the very highest level, Lahm might need a break, perhaps even a year-long sabbatical like Guardiola took. But Lahm already ended his international career two years ago—after lifting the FIFA World Cup, talk about going out on a high—so has only had Bayern and his family to focus on since.
Given his energy stood out in Wednesday's Champions League defeat in Rostov when many of his team-mates, much younger team-mates, looked heavy-legged, Lahm does not appear to be a man who needs a rest, particularly given what his duties as manager would entail.
"A German 'manager' has no influence on tactics, coaching or team selection," explained Germany-based football journalist Matt Howarth to Bleacher Report. "The nature of the role varies depending on the club in question, but it is broadly similar to that of a sporting director."
That means, in part, spotting and helping sign players who will strengthen the squad. There is no doubt—just as with coaches—you do not need to have been a great player to have an eye for talent. Christian Heidel (ex-FSV Mainz 05, now FC Schalke), who never played professionally, and Max Eberl, who made one appearance for Bayern before a solid but unspectacular career at Borussia Monchengladbach where he is now their sporting director, are ample proof of that in the Bundesliga.
Yet it is difficult to believe Lahm would not be able to perform the role just as successfully. The position requires a deep understanding of football.
Many players cannot explain what they do or why, but Lahm, who has played full-back on both flanks to world-class standard and also moved with almost insolent ease into midfield under Guardiola, clearly can. Otherwise, he would never have been such a success in different areas of the pitch.
"I was always smaller and more slightly built so I had to adapt my approach, and I learned a lot through that. Pep then added ideas that made it more fun and put me in midfield—and that gave me a different perspective," he told Jamie Carragher in an interview for the Daily Mail.
That knowledge would be priceless in such a position, as would the instant respect he would command, not only from his former team-mates, but also prospective additions to the squad at the Allianz Arena.
In the "show me your medals and I'll show you mine" world of football, Lahm would need a suitcase to carry around his eight Bundesliga titles, seven DFB Pokals, one Champions League winner's medal (and two runners-up) and—oh yes—that World Cup.
That in itself would give him limitless credibility when talking to players, parents, coaches and media, and open numerous doors with sponsors. Given the glories of Hoeness and Rummenigge are well beyond the memory of the digital generation, a face they actually recognise and respect—and for many, even hero-worship—is not something that should be taken lightly.
Often in the past, the Bayern greats of yesteryear have used their positions to give the team a well-timed, well-intentioned kick up the rear when they have felt it necessary. Rummenigge, the Bayern forward turned CEO, did so earlier this season when he felt the team's attitude required a paternal-esque realignment via the media.
It is not hard to imagine Lahm doing the same. As team captain, he has not been shy in speaking his mind in public, most recently following the shock defeat in Rostov in which he labelled the team's play as "carefree," per Bild (in German).
"He was always a player who thinks a lot and always gives his opinion clearly," stated Joachim Low, per n-tv (in German), upon appointing Lahm as Michael Ballack's successor as Germany captain ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. "His feedback is always open and honest."
Such qualities, rare in the "Je t'aime, moi non plus" world of football, would make him a valuable addition to the backroom at Bayern, and ones that any coach—present or future—would happily make use of, seeing Lahm as an aide as well as an effective buffer between himself and the voracious media.
Whereas Beckenbauer, formerly president of Bayern, had a tendency to shoot from the hip that made him a great pundit but a liability as the face of the club, Lahm would surely be a more astute and constructive critic, helping the club and the team move forward rather than get bogged down in controversy.
His refusal of a number of offers to become a TV pundit himself for last summer's Euro 2016 was no doubt motivated by those thoughts, because if he said anything negative about Germany, it would have translated into huge headlines.
Furthermore, his adamant declaration that "I'll never be a coach, I can't imagine standing outside again every day and having to do more work than as a player," per the aforementioned interview with Carragher, suggests he will never position himself as a potential threat to the man who actually does pick the team at the Allianz Arena.
He will, however, be no pushover. It seems incredible now to think Kahn questioned Lahm's suitability for the Germany captaincy following Low's decision.
"I don't know if he was born for this task," he told TZ (in German). "Whether Lahm has the leadership qualities for the tournament, he still has to prove that."
Lahm has since done more than that, and his low-key, firm-but-fair style—very different from the dictatorial, outspoken manner of predecessors Lothar Matthaus, Ballack and Kahn himself—is much more suited to wearing a suit rather than a strip. You simply do not make it in professional football if you are of Lahm's physical stature and good nature without also possessing the most steely of streaks.
He has natural class—allowing Guardiola to lift the DFB Pokal after his final game as Bayern coach last season being the most stunning example—making him a natural ambassador for the club with whom he has been so closely identified, and he has already set about addressing Kahn's other concern: his lack of experience outside the dressing room.
Hoeness, who ended his career in 1979 and immediately became Bayern Manager aged just 27, told T-online (in German):
Especially in the last two, three years I've observed how Philipp has been preparing his future and which activities he has been developing in the background.
If Philipp doesn't only want to be an ambassador, but someone who has something to say, then he has to bring with him the ability to make connections. A football club now consists of a network in which you have to be able to discuss and argue with all the important leaders of the economy and politics. This network can not be established early enough.
Lahm is clearly already aware of that and has started compiling contacts. His Philipp Lahm Holding has its fingers in a number of commercial pies, and he is an adviser for a communications company.
"Step-by-step, I am interested in developing an understanding of economic contexts," Lahm told Business Insider (h/t Bild, in German).
Further, Die Welt wrote (in German): "Lahm has regular exchanges with the directors, distributors and marketing staff of his companies. Through his company participations, Lahm has contact with the economy, which could also help him as a club representative, and garners experience."
When discussing the Bayern captain's suitability for the role of manager, Howarth said: "The record German champions would be hard pushed to find someone more suited to that particular role than Lahm."
It is surely a conclusion that, sooner or later, the pragmatic heads in Munich will come to. In fact, they probably already have.