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Ballack's fortunes continue to slide

This Sunday marks the anniversary of an English game that changed German soccer forever. It wasn't just Kevin Prince Boateng's boot and Michael Ballack's ankle that collided on the Wembley pitch on May 15, 2010 but two worlds. On the one hand, you had the self-styled "Ghetto kid" Boateng (then playing for Portsmouth FC), a tattooed loudmouth who'd flopped at Spurs and Dortmund and controversially switched allegiance to the national team of Ghana, the country of his father. Chelsea midfielder Ballack, 33, was the man to guide Jogi Löw's young, inexperienced team to glory at the World Cup in South Africa, the talisman and undisputed leadership figure that German soccer so often loves to obsess about. He wasn't just the captain of the team: he was an icon. The one player of international stature that could be relied upon to deliver when it mattered.

Ballack ended up wining the FA Cup that day but it was the hollowest of victories. Boateng's cynical foul had torn a ligament; for "Balle," the World Cup was over before it had begun. "This is certainly the worst diagnosis of my career," said the former Bayern Munich player at the time. Germany was shocked. "There are players in the team who can't be replaced and Michael Ballack is one of them," said former national manager Rudi Völler.

Predictably, a huge media backlash against Boateng ensued. Tabloid Bild came close to calling the "public enemy number one" a terrorist, even his half brother Jérôme, who was in the Germany squad turned against him. "He's the bogeyman, the scapegoat. But he didn't mean to injure [Ballack]," claimed Boateng's father Prince. The player didn't help his cause, though, by insinuating that it had been a premeditated attack: Ballack, he claimed, had provoked him with a slap in the face beforehand.

What happened next amounted to a slap in Ballack's face, however. Boateng shined at the World Cup with Ghana and earned a move to AC Milan (via Genoa) while Löw's Germany team played great attacking soccer all the way to the semifinal. Ballack came to visit the squad in its hotel in Pretoria, but soon left again, frustrated: no one had time for him. The team had moved on, time has passed him by.

Fast forward 11 months and it looks as if Boateng's triumph is complete. The 24-year-old has just won the Scudetto with the Rossoneri and is being feted as a "phenomenal transfer" by Milan general manager Adriano Galliani. The tifosi love him; Turin-based La Stampa called him "the prince of Milan's midfield."

"My popularity has grown enormously," Boateng told Corriere dello Sport, "the supporters appreciate me as someone who's worked his way up from the street."

Boateng has undoubtedly matured, at least on the pitch, where his intrinsic aggression has given way to a more civillised, measured style. But he's clearly still happy to court controversy. In an interview with Sport-Bild this week, Boateng proudly described the Ballack foul as "the turning point" of his professional career. "I didn't want to be cursed, I didn't want to be bullied (by people)," he said. "I made the decision to show everyone what I was made of." The public outrage in the wake of the Wembley incident had forced him to hire security guards, he added.

Boateng's logic is akin to the one employed by Stoke City manager Tony Pulis, who somehow felt that Ryan Shawcross was the real victim after breaking Arsenal midfielders Aaron Ramsey's leg. It's an insult that will only add to Ballack's injury. The Bayer Leverkusen player has endured a terrible season at the BayArena, where a series of injuries and problems with manager Jupp Heynckes have reduced him to a bit-player. This Saturday, Leverkusen must secure at least a point away to SC Freiburg to finish the season in second place; a defeat would probably let in Bayern Munich and revive all the "Neverkusen" cliché's. "We hope that they'll be true to their reputation," said Bayern's Thomas Müller. Second place in the league guarantees automatic Champions League qualification whereas the third-placed team will have to brave the playoffs.

Ballack was explicitly signed to help Leverkusen overcome its traditional nerves in pressurized encounters but it's unclear whether the 34-year-old will be able to help on this occasion. In the disappointing 1-1 draw with Hamburger SV last Saturday, Ballack only played for the last 33 minutes, without making much of an impression. "He's still got presence but lacks sharpness and a goal-threat," wrote Berliner Zeitung.

No one is surprised that Ballack has once again been omitted for the next set of international games (Uruguay, Austria and Azerbaijan) by coach Löw. He's still, officially at least, Germany's captain, but the best Ballack can now hope for is a de-facto testimonial against Brazil on Aug. 10. That friendly would take his tally to 99 outings in the national team, a sadly fitting number for a player who came tantalizingly to close winning the really big ones (World Cup, European Championship, Champions League) on a number of occasions. The most talented German player of his generation's oeuvre is destined to remain unfinished.

Löw, meanwhile, has played his card rights. The 51-year-old kept on delaying a decision on Ballack's future after the World Cup in the hope that the problem would solve itself. And it has. Even Ballack's critics concede it is unfortunate that his international career has ended this way but no one can argue that his inclusion would be warranted on current form.There are five or six central midfielders ahead of Ballack at the moment, enough to fill three whole teams. This state of affairs was unthinkable before Boateng decided to go in late and hard in Wembley.

Ballack won't win the Champions League with Leverkusen next season so is it possible to hope that this tale will have one more chapter? The luck of the draw could pit Ballack against Boateng's Milan and provide the man from Görlitz with one last chance of revenge. One wouldn't begrudge him a bit of success in that respect -- in purely sporting terms, it goes without saying.

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