Back in 2006, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski had the whole of Germany at their feet. "Schweini & Poldi," as they were affectionately known, were the poster boys for Jurgen Klinsmann's young, surprisingly successful team, and more: They transcended football to become something akin to a boy band. In a country not exactly blessed with native pop cultural icons (30 years on, Kraftwerk is still the best we can do), they were genuine stars.
Podolski's $14 million move to Bayern Munich from 1. FC Köln was set to catapult the close friends to new heights. But reality intervened. Midfielder Schweinsteiger struggled to replicate his Germany form at the Allianz Arena, while Podolski found his opportunities limited. Roy Makaay, Claudio Pizarro and later Miroslav Klose and Luca Toni took the starting berths; the Polish-born prodigy was mostly on the bench, complaining about a "lack of trust" to successive managers.
Fast forward four years and you'll find that Schweinsteiger has finally begun to live up to the hype (again). He, too, felt underappreciated at Bayern. He said people were too critical of him. But instead of sulking, the 25-year-old decided to concentrate on improving his game. He no longer wanted to be "Schweini," the teen mag celebrity, but a respected, serious player. Under Louis van Gaal's tutelage, he's been allowed to play in his preferred position in central, defensive midfield. After less than a full season in this role, he has done so well that he is certain to line up next to Michael Ballack at the World Cup in June. What's more, he has become the only guaranteed starter in Germany's midfield apart from the captain. Schweinsteiger, a product of the club's youth system who used to model himself on Zinedine Zidane, has easily been Bayern's second-best player after Arjen Robben this season.
"Prinz Poldi," on the other hand, is still lost in a funk. Cologne rescued the homesick striker from Bavarian exile for a fee of $13.5 million in the summer and made him the most expensive player in the club's history. He was instantly hailed as a messiah by the local tabloids, who wasted no time debating Cologne's imminent return to European greatness. Manager Zvonimir Soldo built a whole team around the attacker.
The (provincial) stage was all set for the return of the prince. Podolski had obviously not lost any confidence during his unhappy spell down south. "I've got nothing to prove, I know what I can do," Podolski said.
Five games before the end of the campaign, however, his goal-scoring tally stands at two. Last Saturday's 3-0 home defeat to bottom-feeders Hertha BSC was emblematic of his season. Podolski spent 90 minutes running aimlessly at a moderate pace, unable to get hold of the ball and influence the game in any manner. Sections of the local press still loyal to the star player blamed Soldo for continually changing Podolski's position. While it's true that he's been asked to play on the left, as a sole striker or behind Slovenian forward Milivoje Novakovic, one can't help but wonder if he is simply beyond tactics.
Never the most industrious attacker to begin with, his cult status in the Rhein-Energie-Stadion has prevented people, including himself, from asking serious questions about his work rate. He would also benefit greatly from some instruction on the pitch, but sadly, he doesn't know it. When German captain Ballack pointed out where the attacker should be going during the match against Wales a year ago, Podolski angrily dismissed him, adding insult to injury with a slap.
Cologne is 13th in the Bundesliga table, six points clear of the relegation playoff spot. But based on Saturday's shocking evidence, the club could yet go down. Podolski isn't the solution but very much part of the problem -- something that is obvious to all but the most blinkered Podolski aficionados. Senior players like Novakovic, Manuel Petit and Maniche are said to be envious of his exalted position, and of privileges that aren't justified by his performances. They also have noted that the team's best performances, including the 4-1 win away to Hannover the week before, have mostly come in Poldi's absence.
"He's a red rag to Petit and Maniche," one dressing-room insider told the Kölner Express. Soldo, however, can't really touch him. The club has stretched itself to the limit in order to afford his services and needs to keep all of its sponsors happy.
In a way, Köln, a club prone to delusions of grandeur, and Podolski, a superstar in his own mind, simply deserve each other. But there's a serious side to this farce, one that concerns the rest of German football fans. Two months before the World Cup, his dramatic loss of form is a big worry.
The reemergence of Schalke's Kevin Kuranyi has put extra pressure on Podolski, who owes his continued involvement at the international level to a tactical switch. Jogi Low's move to a 4-2-3-1 system during the Euros has seen Podolski line up as a left attacking midfielder. Officially, he is still of central importance to Germany -- but only on the photo on the national team Web site. He'll be lucky to feature in South Africa now that Mesut Ozil, Marko Marin (Bremen), Toni Kroos (Leverkusen) and Thomas Muller (Bayern) have emerged as credible challengers. If international call-ups would really be dependent on current form, as Low often claims, Podolski would be nowhere near the Poland squad, let alone Germany's.
Schweinsteiger and Podolski used to be a great double act, on and off the pitch. Now, their differing career trajectories prove that in football, exceptional talent is but the starting point. It takes determination, humility, lots of hard work and some soccer IQ to make the most of your gifts. Those who understand that succeed. Those who don't, won't. The fear is that Podolski, for all his skill, firmly belongs to the second category.
Jermaine Jones is still struggling to regain match fitness following a stress fracture in his leg. The Schalke 04 midfielder was close to rejoining regular training with the rest of the squad a couple of weeks ago but feels he might have "started too early." Time is running out for the new U.S. recruit to get back into the swing of things before the season's over.
Gladbach midfielder Michael Bradley left the Mercedes-Benz-Arena frustrated after his team had somewhat needlessly lost 2-1 to Stuttgart on Saturday. The 22-year-old is having a good second season at the Borussia-Park and recovered well after surgery two weeks ago for a broken nose.
Hannover 96's horror season surprisingly didn't take a turn for the worse away to Hamburg on Sunday. Right back Steve Cherundolo and his teammates held out for a valuable 0-0 draw that will give some hope to Mirko Slomka's men. The bad news is that they have the top three -- Schalke, Bayern and Leverkusen -- next and are still likely to get relegated.
Two weeks ago, Jared Jeffrey, 19, was part of the senior Mainz 05 squad that traveled to Freiburg. The midfielder didn't get any playing time during the 1-0 defeat, however, and has since been demoted back to the amateur side.
Salvatore "Sal" Zizzo, Hannover 96: He's still recovering from ACL surgery last October.