Soccer can be a cruel game sometimes. You can be the undisputed main man for your country's team and do exceptionally well over two years in the World Cup qualification games. But if you then miss the tournament through no fault of your own, chances are someone else will usurp your place during your injury layoff. And they might keep it, too.
Few issues have excited the public as much as the debate surrounding the No. 1 position in recent years. This time, however, it was merely a sideshow, completely overshadowed by what the German media have dubbed the "K question." Who will be Germany's
The answer that Löw gave on Wednesday was
This could be interpreted as a defeat for the fullback from Bayern Munich, who had openly -- and some say somewhat unwisely -- expressed a wish to stay in the job on the eve of the World Cup semifinal against Spain. But Löw's loyalty to Ballack comes with enough caveats to keep the soon-to-be 34-year-old Bayer Leverkusen player fretting about his international future.
"At the moment,
That first "if" is a pretty big one. The former Chelsea player was not called up to the squad this week as he's still trying to regain his fitness. No one knows if he'll be in shape in time to play for the national team in the next round of matches in early October. And even he will be fit enough, Löw's words suggest that he would then still have to get past the favored duo of Schweinsteiger and Khedira. Ballack is but a theoretical captain, a skipper in absentia at the moment.
"A little bit Ballack, a little bit Lahm: Germany's new captain is Ballahm," the newspaper
Experienced players like strikers
Ballack, who has ruled the dressing room with typical alpha male bloody-mindedness in recent years, conforms to the traditional idea of a "leader on the pitch." German soccer used to idolize strong-willed bullies who could be trusted to take on "responsibility" when the going got tough. This anachronistic "leadership" principle still has influential backers. Former German captain and keeper
Löw and his staff beg to differ. "The World Cup has shown that responsibility must be shared by many," Bierhoff said. "One single player can't do it anymore. We need many bosses." He added that the new generation of players was used to a "flat hierarchy." Lahm, a soft-spoken young man with impeccable manners, is not the boss of Schweinsteiger or
A (long-term) "yes" to Lahm would enable German soccer to emancipate itself from one of the few remaining backward obsessions. The cruel irony is that Ballack would be the victim of this development. He spent a good part of his career arguing that a functioning collective was much more important than an all-powerful leader, before deciding that he better give the public what it wanted.