World Soccer
Wednesday October 21st, 2009

Forget the mustard deposited in the shoes of teammates, the water fights and the madcap episode in Dubai when he drove the team bus into a bollard. Bayern Munich's attacking maestro Franck Ribéry no longer seems in the mood for pranks; his usual happy-go-lucky demeanor considerably darkened by the club's steadfast refusal to allow him to leave for Real Madrid during the offseason. It's a severe shock to the system for any headliner to be told his desires are of no account.

Although Ribéry is one of the world's top performers, can boast two of the game's most influential agents in Alain Migliaccio and Jean-Pierre Bernès, and had Real and its limitless line of credit on his trail, he and his entourage were never likely to prevail in this particular battle. Not with two years left on his contract and Bayern unwilling to countenance the departure of its most valuable asset.

Bayern just had no reason to do business. Unburdened by debt and having qualified directly for the Champions League, its only thought was to bounce straight back after a highly disappointing 2008-09 season and the last person it wanted to jettison was its totemic creative leader. Bayern minus its French star is nuclear threat downgraded to knuckle-dusters. He is irreplaceable.

During a summer crammed with reports of big-money offers for Ribéry -- $70 million from Chelsea, $98 million from Manchester United, then Real's $115 million -- a widely held assumption was that Bayern was stoking a bidding war, hoping to spectacularly cash in towards the end of the transfer window. Not the case. The Bavarians never wanted to sell, and when general manager Uli Hoeness and chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge play hardball, they play for keeps.

Former Bayern stars Michael Ballack and Owen Hargreaves bear witness to how stubborn the club can be. Both midfielders thought they could engineer a move away. Both discovered there was no visible means of escape and were forced to wait a year or more before eventually going.

This is not the first time Ribéry has been ordered by a club board to unpack his bags. Back in the summer of '06 he made it clear he wanted to quit Marseille for Lyon, only to be unceremoniously told by OM president Robert Louis-Dreyfus that he was going nowhere. Over the course of the following season -- his last in Provence before a $41 million move to Bayern -- a palpably unhappy Ribéry often went through the motions ... and the fear in Munich is that history may repeat itself in the coming months.

Already the signs point to the end of the affair. Ribéry has voiced dissent at Bayern coach Louis van Gaal's decision to use him centrally rather than on his preferred left wing, and in an interview with L'Equipe, he did not hide his antipathy for his new boss.

"It's the first time in my career that my relationship with a coach is not positive. It doesn't feel right," said Ribéry. "In training no one is laughing. Everything is too serious. I don't think this club needs a hard line. You must have a balance between fun and seriousness. And the fun is missing in my daily life with my teammates."

Hard to see where "Kaiser Franck" and van Gaal go from here. Free spirits and barked orders tend not to mix. While Rummenigge scoffs at the suggestion that Bayern's recent $36 million purchase of Real Madrid's Dutch winger Arjen Robben forms part of an agreement to send Ribéry in the opposite direction in 2010, such a deferred exit does look probable. Next summer, after three seasons at Bayern, he will be able to buy himself out of his contract with a payment of $5.9 million (a year's salary) and if he does not turn up at the Bernabéu, the end of the world may be nigh.

After failing to win one of its first three Bundesliga games this season, it was fourth time lucky for Bayern, comprehensively outgunning reigning champion Wolfsburg 3-0 at the Allianz Arena. Dynamic and purposeful from back to front, Bayern looked on a mission to ram talk of a crisis down critics' throats.

But when the post-match laurels were doled out, the only recipient of praise was Robben, who exploded off the bench in the second half to score twice, both goals made by Ribéry.

Robben, 25, has a point to prove in southern Germany. He hoped to feature in Galácticos II and still believes he was worthy of a place in the Real lineup this term. However, the Madrid decision-makers thought otherwise and now he has to make the best of it. But it's not as if he has been packed off to the amateur ranks. Bayern provides an important European stage, and his world-class pace and dribbling ability should help his new team narrow the gap which exists between it and the crème de la crème in England and Spain.

If he stays fit -- admittedly a hard-to-fulfill proviso for much of his career to date (he's back in training after knee surgery and could be out another two weeks) -- Bayern is on a winner.

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of World Soccer magazine. To subscribe, click here.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.