During Germany's 4-0 victory over Argentina in last Saturday's quarterfinal, Michael Ballack, the German midfielder and former captain unable to take part in the tournament due to injury, was sitting in the crowd next to team manager Oliver Bierhoff, and at one point exchanged a few words with Chancellor Angela Merkel. In his dark blazer, pullover and shirt, with his ticket dangling from his neck, he looked a little like a football federation official.
After the final whistle Ballack rushed down to the pitch to congratulate the players who until a few weeks ago were his teammates. He seemed intent on making clear that he was still part of it.
These must be difficult days for Michael Ballack. It is tough to watch matches while you're injured. It is even tougher to have to spend weeks watching matches while you're injured. But having to see your team playing better without you -- that must be almost unbearable.
The German side skilfully defended its early lead against Argentina, and midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira kept on separating superstar Lionel Messi from the ball with supreme confidence. Even when Argentina was pushing forward, coach Joachim Löw's players never lost their nerve and counter-attacked with impressive precison. Germany hasn't played better than this in years. "It's a little disturbing," Ballack admitted. "It hurts me, I would have liked to be on the pitch."
Ballack's Feted Successor
The team plays with a wisdom that belies its youth, and its carefree approach reveals a love of the game. Bastian Schweinsteiger has taken Ballack's place. He directs the team, dictates its pace, shows true leadership. The team of the coming years will be built around Schweinsteiger.
The core of the team has already been established -- goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, defender Jérôme Boateng, midfielders Khedira and Mesut Özil -- they all won the Under-21 European Championship in Sweden last year. The success in South Africa has welded the team together even more.
Schweinsteiger and captain Philipp Lahm, both only in their mid-20s, are the old hands providing the experience. It looks as if the team that is emerging in South Africa will be very hard to beat in the years to come.
Of course Ballack cheered at the goals and enjoyed Germany's historic win on the pitch. But he's an intelligent man and he knows that every goal made his return to the national team that much more difficult.
"We should stop believing that there are irreplaceable players," said former German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, now a football analyst on German television. In Ballack's case, the alarm signals are plain to see. The fact that his coach and former teammates are praising his contribution to strengthening morale is a sign of how his position has weakened.
Lahm, who has been heaped with praise for his role in organizing the German defense, has made clear that he intends to remain Germany's captain. "Why should I give the position up voluntarily?" Lahm told Bild newspaper this week.
Schweinsteiger was little more diplomatic. Of course Ballack should return, he told Focus magazine, with all the courtesy an heir would show to his predecessor. "It could well be that we play even better with him. Here and there one still notices that we lack a little experience."
Yet there was no sign of any shortage of experience against Argentina. Not even a little here and there.
So what role will remain for Michael Ballack? Before his injury he was Germany's dominant player, his style of play and his presence on the pitch automatically made him the leader. Last year he admonished striker Lukas Podolski for tactical mistakes during Germany's 2-0 victory over Wales in a World Cup qualifying match. Podolski was so furious and taken aback that he responded by slapping Ballack's face.
"Everyone's Running for the Others"
The team is different without Ballack. Lahm, Schweinsteiger and striker Miroslav Klose exert quiet leadership, the team is less hierarchical. "Everyone's running for the others," has become one of the players' favorite sentences. It's hard to see how Ballack would fit back in here.
There is no denying that he would be an asset to any team, including Bayer Leverkusen, which has become his new club after Chelsea refused to renew his contract. In Löw's favored 4-2-3-1 system, the only position for Ballack, whom former Germany coach Jürgen Klinsmann referred to as "Capitano," would be in defensive midfield. But it will be hard to push Schweinsteiger out of that position, and Khedira is unlikely to be willing to budge either.
"One lesson from this World Cup is that the average age of a team must be very low," Löw told SPIEGEL ONLINE. The key factors are quality, resilience and a will to win. "All that clearly takes precedence over experience," Löw said.
Ballack remains a top footballer and his goal remains to play for Germany in the 2012 European Championship. But at some point a team has to break with its past. Maybe the chance of that happening has never been greater than now.
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