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.
Germany manager Joachim Löw was certainly unwilling to make any special dispensation for a former hero this week, when he addressed his team ahead of the Euro 2012 qualification games against Belgium (on Friday) and Azerbaijan (next Tuesday).
Schalke 04's Manuel Neuer will remain his side's goalkeeper, Löw confirmed. "He played an outstanding World Cup. We were very happy with him," the 50-year-old coach told reporters. This was expected but nevertheless bad news for Rene Adler of Leverkusen, who had been quite brilliant in the German goal before breaking a rib in the run-up to the competition in South Africa.
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 Kapitän, the captain?
The answer that Löw gave on Wednesday was Michael Ballack, who did not play in South Africa because of an ankle injury. "After a personal meeting and open, faithful discussions [with Ballack], I have decided that Michael will keep the armband," the coach said. "Philipp Lahm, who filled the role so brilliantly during the World Cup, will remain the deputy captain."
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, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira are first choice in defensive midfield," Löw said. "I frankly told him that he's not ready yet and that the World Cup has created a new situation. But if Ballack comes back and finds his way into the team, he will be captain, too. If Ballack doesn't play, Lahm is captain."
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 Bild commented sarcastically. It's tempting to deduce that Löw is playing for time with this strange compromise. Should Ballack fail to regain his form in the Bundesliga, he won't have to recall him to the squad -- and Lahm would stay in office by default.
Experienced players like strikers Miroslav Klose (Bayern) and Cacau (Stuttgart) have demanded more respect for Ballack in recent days; Löw's quasi-vow to keep the veteran should be seen in this light. It'll be interesting to find out whether Ballack himself can be placated with this neither-nor solution, however. Germany's best player of his generation has seen Löw get rid of his friend and trusted teammate Torsten Frings (Werder Bremen) in similar fashion before. Frings was slowly edged out of the team after the European championship in 2008, in the absence of a clear statement from the manager. Ballack implicitly accused Löw of dishonesty in the autumn of the same year in a newspaper interview that caused a huge rift. Ballack only apologized for criticizing the manager in public afterward, not for the substance of his allegations. In the player's camp, there are, understandably, worries that Löw could now settle the score by going down the Frings route.
Oliver Bierhoff, the general manager of the national team, has tried to downplay the issue. "The main focus will be on the match against Belgium this week," the 42-year-old Bierhoff told reporters this week. But the Lahm-vs.-Ballack debate does have a significance that goes well beyond the two players in question. It marks a possible watershed issue for the way in which football is talked and thought about in Germany.
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 Oliver Kahn, for example, told Munich's Abendzeitung that "there has to be one obvious, definitive boss" in a team.
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 Mesut Özil, in other words. He "leads" them no more than Carles Puyol leads Xavi or Lionel Messi at Barcelona.
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.