by Quazi Zulquarnain
One of the most enduring football images of the last decade is of a balmy night in Hampden Park, Glasgow. In it, French maestro Zinedine Zidane is seen poised on the brink of hammering home an unstoppable volley to decide the fate of the Champions League final of 2002.
Zidane’s gaze is steady, his balance phenomenal. You see the photo and you know with absolute certainty where the dropping ball will finish its journey.
But this is not about Zidane; instead it is about the other man captured in that iconic picture.
Just two steps behind the Frenchman, with his mouth stretched in an elongated ‘O’ of surprise that suggests he already knows he is a second too late, is Michael Ballack. The German is second to the ball, his covering run not enough to stop Zidane’s pirouetting left foot. Thus began the cyclical hell that is the life of perhaps the cruellest football career to date.
Because, for Michael Ballack, life has always been about finishing second.
Which obviously begs the question, why settle for second best? Why choose to write about a nearly man who has never won any of football’s biggest prizes? Why choose Michael Ballack when you have Zinedine Zidane?
To understand that is to paraphrase Bill Shankly. Football, after all, is only partly about the game. In actuality it is about so much more.
So my fancy for Ballack stems not solely from his performance on the pitch, but perhaps because Ballack has been forever misunderstood. And hey, everyone loves conflict. He is loved and loathed in equal measure; some call him superb while others think he is vastly overrated. He is often the victim of false praise and misdirected criticism and it may well not be an exaggeration to say that no modern footballer divides opinion as much as Ballack.
And then I wonder that perhaps, for me, the charm of Ballack lies in this uniquely divisive nature of his perception.
But hey, who really knows?
What matters is that, like anyone else, I like to idealize (and rationalize) my intentions. Hence, I would like to believe that Ballack is my favourite player, not because of some random chemical reactions in my brain, but because he knows the one thing that is more important than possessing all the football talent in the world: sacrifice.
He has consistently sacrificed personal honours for his wavering belief that the team is bigger than the individual. That the team is the real star.
So let’s rewind to 2002 and South Korea when a young Ballack put the fabled tears of Paul Gascoigne and Italia ’90 into perspective. Here’s how it worked: an English footballer and a German footballer receive yellow cards in separate World Cup semi-finals and realize that they will be suspended for the respective finals, should their side reach them. The English player wept in self-pity and is still being encouraged to talk about those tears on television; the German player scored the goal that took his quite shoddy team into the final and is yet viewed with circumspection by his countrymen.
You see, conflict.
That day, Coach Rudi Voeller spoke to Ballack about God and divinity and karma, and assured him that one day he would be rewarded for that sacrifice. Ballack listened and, as any good subject would do, he interpreted that what was required most of all was another sacrifice; that of himself.
So whether it was playing in a defensive role, a distributor role or his favoured attacking role, Ballack always strived to do what was best for his team, be it Bayern, Germany or Chelsea. How can you not like someone like that?
And even as trophies eluded him, Ballack’s fight for a functioning collective for Germany was met with scorn across numerous quarters. Everyone was obsessed with this leader of men, a player who would dominate dressing-rooms and call out orders to unite a struggling Nationalmannschaft.
For many Ballack was that man, for many others he wasn’t.
Ballack fought tooth and nail to establish his view, but in the end he gave up to the masses and gave the public what they really wanted; an arrogant, alpha-male with a hierarchical view of his team.
And the irony is that it was at that point the public decided that it was not really what they wanted at all.
To consider the implications of these rapidly shifting attitudes is also to understand with abrupt clarity the greatness and humility of Ballack. And that is why he is my favourite player. With him, you only know what you had when it’s gone.