Michael Ballack – The Little Kaiser
Undeniable ability as a footballer doesn’t always lead to a glittering and infallible career – just ask Michael Ballack. Cameron Wanstall profiles Germany’s world-class midfielder, who still has plenty of question marks over his 17-year career.
Michael Ballack is as East German as they come. His childhood address was named after socialist Salvador Allende; his childhood city was named after communist thinker Karl Marx; his only escape from the German Democratic Republic? Fußball. The city of Karl-Marx-Stadt was renamed Chemnitz soon after his birth, and the local team is where Ballack’s professional career began. Despite the lack of football infrastructure that is still felt in the eastern regions of unified Germany to this day, the iconic number 13 rose to the top.
He started as a sweeper before showcasing his versatility in a range of different roles throughout his career. Physically imposing and ruggedly handsome, Ballack backed up his appearance with his undeniable footballing talent. He was combative in defence, an elegant playmaker and renowned for his goal scoring prowess – that prowess was elevated by the dexterity of Ballack’s natural ability with both his feet, as well as his commanding aerial presence. He collected an impressive five league titles and 10 domestic cups during his 17 years in the game.
Despite his brilliance and his honours, Ballack has admitted his career was incomplete. The absence of any continental and international accolades, and the manner of those notorious failures, will forever taint the swaggering midfielder’s legacy. The Little Kaiser was expected to replace Franz Beckenbauer, the original Kaiser, as German football’s next great emperor. But the debate over whether Ballack ever truly fulfilled that promise as an East German leading a unified Germany is what makes him so divisive, so misunderstood and so harshly condemned.
Bayer Leverkusen snapped up the finest German prospect of the late nineties after short spells with Chemnitzer and Kaiserslautern. Ballack ended his first campaign with Die Werkself in tears. His own goal on the final day against minnows Unterhaching lost the club their first ever Bundesliga title, handing the trophy to Bayern Munich instead. Two years later, Ballack would truly earn his also-ran reputation, while Leverkusen would also earn their new moniker: Neverkusen. 23 goals in 50 appearances could not prevent the infamous ‘horror treble’.
From a position of strength, the league was surrendered to Borussia Dortmund. From an early lead, the cup was yielded to Schalke 04. From an iconic Zinedine Zidane volley, the Champions League was conceded to Real Madrid. It was a catastrophic collapse that forced an uncharacteristically selfish move for Ballack. Aged 26, the 2002 German Footballer of the Year moved across enemy lines to Bayern. He won three domestic trebles in Munich before a public fall-out with the club’s president: Beckenbauer.
The Kaiser slammed Ballack for “playing against” the Bavarians and “saving his strength” for his next club as he waited out his contract. The disparaging remarks stuck to the departing midfield maestro, who was now perceived as a mercenary for hire. The truth was Ballack just wanted Die Roten to compete in Europe. “What can I achieve with Bayern Munich? Are they willing to improve the team like we really can attack the Champions League?” Ballack recounted. As his slightly tarnished reputation began to harm the media and public’s opinion of him, Ballack had more pressure on him to succeed than ever before. The German captain just had to get the next move right: Chelsea or Manchester United?
“United were showing interest, but they also had not the best year in 2006. I think I remember them going out in the group stage. Winning the league is one thing but, for me, it was always a dream to win the Champions League.” So, Chelsea it was. In his second year in West London, he suffered an unprecedented second ‘horror treble’. Collapse in the league and League Cup final was just a precursor for a Champions League final loss to, of course, Manchester United. Ballack was exceptional on route to Moscow, scoring winning goals in the knockout rounds and putting in some of his greatest performances in hope of finally lifting the European Cup that continued to elude him.
Everybody knows what happened. The heavens opened, a penalty shoot-out was to decide the match and John Terry slipped. It is easy to forget Ballack stepped up and slammed Chelsea’s opening penalty home that night. As he had all season, he led by example. When Terry collapsed, so did Ballack. The image of him clinging to teammates shirts as his legs give way beneath him is distressing. The anguish, the tears, the acceptance of defeat… before the shoot-out was even lost. It was the same old story and the Little Kaiser knew exactly how it ended. He never fully recovered from yet another ignominious series of defeats.
He became unhinged when numerous scandalous refereeing decisions stopped a potential Champions League final appearance in 2009 – stopping just shy of assaulting referee Tom Henning Ovrebo, who is still potentially the most hated man in West London. The next season, The Blues were defeated in the last 16 by eventual winners Inter Milan. Two injury-plagued and unfulfilling years back followed back at Bayer Leverkusen and soon after, retirement. The European Cup never felt the grip of Ballack’s hands. Tragically, the Little Kaiser did not fare any better when it came to international football.
As a child of the Cold War, the socialism that formed Ballack during his adolescent years also moulded his mentality as a professional footballer. He did not lead the national team like the captains of Germany’s past, such as his hotheaded predecessor Oliver Kahn. Ballack was instead an altruist. He was a role model, leading by example instead of screaming orders and placing himself above his peers. Perhaps a figurehead, rather than a captain. That is what made his nickname so ironic. ‘Little Kaiser’ suggested the Eastern kid would become a pompous leader, ruling with an iron fist like West German World Cup winner Beckenbauer. Though the two, as we have already discussed, could not be any less alike.
Maybe this is what prevented Ballack from succeeding at international level. A lack of grit and resolve, a missing spark to galvanise his team. When the Kaiser would inspire, the Little Kaiser perhaps stayed quiet. Ballack would simply prefer to set standards and make sure his teammates aspired to reach that lofty level of performance. Even before he was captain, Ballack was still Germany’s ‘leader’ on the pitch. He dragged a second-rate squad to the 2002 World Cup, scoring thrice in the qualification play-off to secure qualification before proceeding to carry the team to the final. Ballack scored the winner in two of Germany’s three knockout round ties before the Yokohama finale.
Ballack was his nation’s only world-class outfielder, and they were without him for the final game. He not only scored the winner in the semi-final but also sacrificed himself by committing a necessary tactical foul, picking up a yellow card and subsequent suspension. Ballack was labelled a ‘hero’ by head coach Rudi Voller but, ever the modest man, he refuted the idea he was any greater than his teammates. “I’ll be with the team on the pitch in my heart even if I won’t be out there with them.” Ballack told the press, holding it together until he reached the changing room before the floodgates opened; it was yet another tearful end. Die Mannschaft, without their figurehead, submitted to a superior Brazil brimming with the world’s greatest talents.
Three tournaments in three years showed the progression the national side was making. First, Euro 2004 forced a change in the guard. After a humiliating group stage exit, Ballack replaced Kahn as captain. Germany hosted both the 2005 Confederations Cup and 2006 World Cup, with the national team finishing third-place in each tournament. Coincidentally, after their very recent war of words, Beckenbauer handed over Ballack’s bronze medal. The footballing emperors of the East and the West exchanged pleasantries but have failed to reunite since. Just weeks after the second treble collapse of Ballack’s career with Chelsea, he rallied and guided an improving national team to the Euro 2008 final. A tenth runners-up medal of his career awaited an unfit Ballack however, and German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel twisted the knife by dubbing the skipper the “European Champion of Pain.”
Ballack’s international career unsurprisingly ended in pain. Injury ruled the captain out of the 2010 World Cup, and he never found his way back into Joachim Low’s setup. Ballack travelled to South Africa with the squad but departed early after stand-in captain Phillipp Lahm admitted he had no plan to give the armband back to the veteran. With a variety of multi-skilled youngsters such as Marko Marin, Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos already settling into a squad with experienced pair Bastian Schweinsteger and Lahm already starring, Joachim Low stated there was no room an injury ridden Ballack in his squad. The 98-time international was offered the opportunity to reach a milestone 100 appearances through exhibition matches but Ballack dismissed the symbolic gesture as a “farce.” Cruelly, he finished his time with Die Mannschaft without a single gold medal.
Private and unpresuming, Ballack never reached a level of global fame that Goal II: Living the Dream stars David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane achieved. He let his football do the talking. Questions will forever linger over his performances in certain games, his atypical leadership style and even whether he had too much ambition. And there will always be masses of scepticism over the Little Kaiser’s glorious failures; near-misses incredible enough to overshadow the multitude of honours he did achieve in his career.
“Titles are sometimes overrated. Of course, Lothar Matthäus is always going to be associated with the 1990 World Cup, but does everyone immediately remember what titles Gunter Netzer, Johan Cruyff or Luis Figo won? Or do they also think about how those players played their football and how they led their teams?” said Ballack after his retirement. “I hope that people will remember me as a special footballer.”
And that is exactly how we should remember him: special. An East German leading a united Germany is unorthodox on its own, but the way Ballack led that side, embracing his eastern values and upbringing was brave and wonderful. Special could also apply to his all-round talent. He was the most complete midfielder of his generation, perhaps in history (if we really want to start an argument) and his ability raised the quality of every single team he turned out for. There will not ever be a collective agreement on whether Ballack was a success or a failure – or just both. He will forever remain a footballing paradox. An Eastern enigma.
For the record, Little Kaiser did have one final hurrah. A testimonial was arranged in the eastern city of Leipzig, with over 45,000 supporters attending to bid farewell to the emperor. Ballack displayed his popularity by bringing in some of the world’s greats to play, his generosity by donating the proceeds of the match to flood victims in East Germany and, of course, his footballing brilliance by scoring a hat-trick.
He switched kits at half-time, leaving behind Ballack & Friends for the Rest of World XI, to make sure he walked out of the beautiful game as a champion. Can you really blame him?