Alan Tardieu takes a look at Germany's talismanic midfielder Michael Ballack, and his rise to stardom at both club and country level...
Name: Michael Ballack
DoB: 26 September 1976, Görlitz, DDR
Height: 188cm (6'2")
Weight: 85kg (13st 5lbs)
The man dubbed “Little Kaiser” as an 18 year old has always been in the spotlight, even before his teenage years. As early as age 7 he joined local club Chemnitzer in East Germany and began to shine. His talent was obvious early on as young Ballack was showing equal ability with both feet. He continued to excel and rise through the system and made his professional debut in 1995 in the Bundesliga 2 with his beloved Chemnitz.
One professional season was enough for the youngster to make his mark, and despite his side's being relegated to the country's third division Ballack was selected for the German U-21 side. The season 1996-1997 saw Ballack run out with Chemnitz in a huge bid to regain promotion. Now a first team regular, playing every game and amassing 10 goals in total, and as valiant as his efforts were, Chemnitz were unable to gain promotion and as a result Ballack was forced to move on to ultimately recognize his true potential.
It was in the summer of 1997 when now Greek legend Otto Rehhagel signed the “Little Kaiser” to his newly promoted Kaiserslautern. His transition to the Bundesliga was gradual and he was warranted his first starting appearance against a Leverkusen club that he was later to make his name with. His Kaiserslautern season was one of dreams and one of the most historic and memorable in German Bundesliga history as the Red Devils went on to become the first newly-promoted team to win the championship in their return season. Ballack made a total of 30 appearances the following year and would help guide Kaiserslautern to the Champions League quarter-finals where they were truly punching above their weight: they came up against Bayern Munich and went out 6-0 on aggregate.
Realising that Kaiserslautern couldn't hold him. In 1999 Michael Ballack agreed personal terms with Bayer Leverkusen and it is here where his potential, and big break through as one of the world’s leading players came to fruition. At Leverkusen Michael Ballack was at the heart of everything, and over his 3 years he bossed the midfield, scored almost 30 goals, and led his team to the 2002 Champions League final before they where undone by the brilliance of Zidane and some spectacular play from Iker Casillas.
That this small club had come so close, yet fallen at the last hurdle, was all but impossible to take. The 2002 season was enough to scar any professional player, even more so the driven and ambitious Ballack, and the events of that year would earn Bayer the title of “Neverkusen”. Despite playing an attractive quick brand of football that saw Leverkusen reach the heights of Europe and Germany, with players like Oliver Neuville, Carsten Ramelow, Bernd Schneider, Lucio and Ze Roberto, Leverkusen would blow a five point lead in the last 3 games of the season to give Dortmund the title, lose the aforementioned Champions League to Madrid and then fall in the German Cup to Schalke. And, if this, were not enough a Michael Ballack-led Germany would lose to Brazil in the World Cup in Asia.
From Bavaria To London
That year Michael Ballack would sign a contract with Bayern Munich as his thirst for silverware went unquenched. He spent a total of four years with the Bavarian giants and along the way would finally once again get his hands on the Bundesliga title. He won a total of 3 league and cup doubles and would score 47 goals for Bayern in 135 matches.
But after his four seasons, Ballack yearned to test himself abroad and despite interests from Europe’s elite he finally signed for Chelsea on a free transfer after the World Cup in 2006. At Chelsea, Ballack has yet to achieve the one true club trophy that has eluded him over the years: he joined the Blues solely with the Champions League in mind and in his first season in London, Chelsea would fall at the semi-final stage in a penalty shoot out with Liverpool.
This season Chelsea powered through the knock out rounds on the back of some impressive displays from the German and went one further than the previous year, but still came up short as John Terry’s miss in the final kick of the penalty shoot out against Man United handed the initiative back to United and they went on to complete a Premiership and Champions League double over the London club.
Big In (Korea And) Japan
With Germany, Michael Ballack has without doubt been the banner player. Since his debut for the national team against Scotland in 1999 Ballack has since earned 85 caps and has scored 38 goals up to the quarter final in the 2008 Euros over Portugal. Under Erich Ribeck in 2000, Ballack was a bit part player at the Euros, where Germany lost to England and Portugal and where held by Romania. This result signaled the emergence of former great Rudi Voller, who Ballack would flourish under. It was a tough qualifying campaign for Germany to reach the 2002 World Cup, as they fell quite embarrassingly at home to a Michael Owen inspired England 5-1. This result helped to condemn the Germans into a play-off with Ukraine with the winner over two legs advancing to the Finals. It was Ballack’s stage, he would score in the first leg in Kiev to take a 1-1 back home to Dortmund, here he would score a further 2 goals to give Germany their tickets to the World Cup. At the 2002 World Cup Ballack would lead his team by example to the finals, later scoring the winning goal in the Semi-final against Korea but would miss the big show itself as a result of a brave challenge to prevent a Korean goal scoring opportunity, he would receive a yellow card and thus earn a suspension for amassing two many yellow cards and would go on to miss the final against the favourites Brazil. Germany would fall 2-0 to Brazil.
Germany would qualify reasonably well for the Euros in Portugal, but again its short comings were easily exposed and despite scoring a spectacular goal against the Czechs they where to ultimately fall 2-1, combined with a 0-0 against Latvia and a 1-1 with Holland, Germany would timidly limp out of the Euro 2004. This result was in retrospect seen as a blessing as it heralded the appointment of one Jurgen Klinsmann as the new German coach, tasked with leading the national team to success in the World Cup on German soil. Under the Klinsmann era, Ballack was made National Team captain and thrived in his new role. He would score in every game in the 2005 Confederations Cup as they fell short in the semis against Brazil. But the National team’s new confidence echoed the drive and ambition being displayed by Ballack as he thrived in the new attacking style of football being played by Klinsmann. In the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Ballack would led his team to the Semi-finals once again but will fall at the feet of the wily Italians in the second period of extra time 2-0.
After easily negotiating the qualifying phase to reach the 2008 Euros in Austria and Switzerland Germany came in as heavy favourties to win it all. A poor display in their second game saw the doubters and critics come running to the forefront, but it was Ballack’s goal-scoring captains display against Austria that sent the Germans into a Quarterfinal against new favourties Portugal. Here once again at their time of need, Michael Ballack delivered. He scores the third German and game-winning goal to send the Portuguese packing and Germany into a Semi-final against the Turks.
His rise to stardom has been hard and difficult but as is often the case with Germans, Michael Ballack has thrived under these circumstances. He remains the only player to reach a Champions League quarterfinal with 4 different teams. His drive and ambition have led him to one international final and various semis, and he is more driven than ever before as he is undoubtedly playing the best football of his life to finally land international honours in the white and black of Germany.