"This is an absolute catastrophe. Ballack cannot be replaced." Germany legend Pierre Littbarski was not alone in thinking that the injury Michael Ballack suffered in Chelsea's FA Cup final meeting with Portsmouth, just under a month before the World Cup kicked off, signaled a significant dent to -- if not the end of -- Germany's hopes in South Africa. Though Ballack's impact, at least at club level, had been diminishing, Germany coach Joachim Löw seemed genuinely somber when he told the press: "It's very, very unfortunate for us... we are all very, very sad."
The success with which Löw has since forged a new-look Germany, however, has invited all of us to wonder how fortunate the Germans are to have been forced to shuffle the pack. In the 2002 World Cup Spain celebrated beating the Republic of Ireland on penalties thanks to the heroics of Iker Casillas, who only ended up playing because first-choice keeper Santiago Canizares dropped a bottle of aftershave on his foot shortly before the finals. In 1966, the scorer of England's trophy winning hat trick, Geoff Hurst, had only made it into the team at the quarterfinal stage because of an injury to Jimmy Greaves.
In 2010 Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira's midfield partnership has all but retired Ballack, who has watched helplessly from the stands.
Schweinsteiger, until a season ago a winger, had made the move into the middle for Bayern Munich following the arrival of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. As Löw looked to move the ageing Torsten Frings, Ballack's usual partner, out of the picture, it made sense to try Schweinsteiger in the role. A Ballack-Schweinsteiger combination wasn't entirely convincing against Argentina in a friendly in March, but Schweinsteiger appeared to revel in his role. By May, when Germany took on Hungary, it was for the Bayern man that Löw was auditioning to cast a partner. Khedira took his chance, showing that he could replicate his classy performances in the holding role for Stuttgart at international level.
In a final warmup for the World Cup against Bosnia & Herzegovina, Khedira and Schweinsteiger were Germany's star performers, alternating attacking and defending roles and both producing crisp, incisive passing while offering the back line near faultless protection. For the six years of Ballack's captaincy, Germany had played to his rhythm. It was a steady beat, but one that was slowing, and -- as we've seen time and again in South Africa -- this new partnership gives Germany the edge on the counterattack, allowing it to snap into a forward move almost instantly.
Khedira is 10 years Ballack's junior and it shows. Schweinsteiger might seem to have been around forever, but he's still only two years older than Khedira at 25. Both have Ballack's knack for defensive disruption and eye for a fine forward pass but, crucially, both (though particularly Schweinsteiger) can carry the ball up the pitch for themselves, at pace. Against Argentina at the weekend, the comparison between the German pair and their opponents was staggering, though Diego Maradona's omission of a second defensive midfielder to aid Javier Mascherano helped. Perhaps the way they handled England's midfield in the previous round offers a better argument.
Either way, it is Germany, one of the World Cup's youngest squads, that has produced the tournament's finest soccer, and in Schweinsteiger it can boast one of the finest central midfielders around. No German team has been this exciting in 20 years, and it is Die Mannschaft of the 1970s that springs most strongly to mind. It is difficult to imagine that the team, or "Schweini" (as he's known back home), would have performed with such boisterous energy with Ballack. That may sound unfair on the newly-signed Bayer Leverkusen midfielder, but his absence had the added bonus of leaving Germany unburdened by expectation. What could these youngsters achieve, really? people wondered.
In fact, the success of youth has been noticeable at these finals. It's not the case that those teams that have gone furthest have been the youngest -- quarterfinalist Brazil was amongst the oldest, while Cameroon, the first team to be eliminated, was among the youngest. But while ageing squads such as England, Italy and France (which held onto 27 players from four years ago between them) struggled to get their campaigns off the ground, Germany was joined by nations such as Ghana and Chile in fielding young sides and seeing it pay off.
Ghana too lost its talismanic midfield general, Michael Essien, to injury, but coach Milovan Rajevic put his faith in players from the U-20 World Cup-winning squad and watched Dede Ayew, Dominic Adiyiah and Samuel Inkoom repay him with a run towards the latter stages that was only halted in the dying moments of a quarterfinal meeting with Uruguay, and in the cruelest fashion. Chile conceded three without reply to Brazil in the round of 16, but was still welcomed home by popular tabloid La Cuarta's headline: "Thanks for everything kids!" The non-stop attacking soccer the relatively young side had produced had won over the nation, if not the match.
At 32, striker Miroslav Klose is the old man of Germany's side, and wasn't a universally popular pick after a season spent on the bench for Bayern Munich that yielded only three goals. But he has been rejuvenated at this tournament, and after Germany romped to victory over Australia in the opening round of matches, Klose (who scored one of the four goals the Socceroos conceded) praised the lack of self-doubt shown by young teammates such as Thomas Müller (another scorer that day), saying: "We're a young team. We love playing."
How crucial an ingredient might that love be? France, England, Italy ... all looked overwhelmed by ego and expectation as well as the advancing years. In contrast, Germany -- and Ghana, Chile, plus less successful young squads such as North Korea -- have shown such passion and hunger, translating that into the kind of selfless teamwork that creates irrepressible movement around the pitch. That it has brought Germany the greatest success perhaps suggests that the responsibility and experience afforded to young players in the Bundesliga better eliminates the nerves and mistakes of youth.
Now Die Welt is talking openly about how close another World Cup trophy -- and that fourth star embroidered on Germany's kit -- really is, though pre-tournament favorite Spain awaits on Wednesday. Schweinsteiger insists that a fit-again Ballack will return to the Germany squad, and inevitably there will be opponents against whom the fearless swashbuckling of the past three weeks will fail to reap such rewards. But it is now Ballack's young understudies whose replacement appears heretical.