Schweinsteiger's Metamorphosis The Newfound Maturity of Germany's Key Player
For years, German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger seemed more like a mascot that a national football star. Now, with Michael Ballack out injured, he has become key to Germany's World Cup dreams. Is he up to the challenge?
From the start of the national anthem, he radiated self confidence, just like Michael Ballack used to. Mesut Özil and Lukas Podolski looked like weaklings alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger whose chest was swollen with pride during the German anthem ahead of last Thursday's World Cup warm-up match against Bosnia-Herzegovina.
It seems as if everyone is looking to Schweinsteiger right now. "Statesmanlike" is how one television commentator described his game. On meeting the footballer for the first time, people found him "gentlemanlike." All of a sudden, everyone is regarding him as mature and praising his composure, presence and sense of responsibility.
They are talking about the one and the same Schweinsteiger who, under the nickname "Schweini," seemed little more than a cute little mascot during Germany's fairytale hosting of the World Cup in 2006. A butcher named a sausage after him, he danced the chicken dance for the Bifi salami company, one of the companies he advertises for.
Schweinsteiger, FC Bayern Munich's enduring midfield talent, looked like he would never grow up. He came with silver hair to training; one day his finger nails were painted black; he was seen in all sorts of snazzy sports cars. About once a year he would change his agent and he left Bayern's manager Uli Hoeness to argue about his payment with his at the time much disliked advisors.
The Philosophy of Luck
A classic moment was the night that he was found on the club grounds in a Jacuzzi with a young woman. He insisted she was his cousin but the story stuck with him for a long time. Typical Schweini, people said.
A change of position from wing to central midfield abruptly changed his image. Hoeness now thinks he has become a "proper man." For trainer Joachim Löw he has is now the key player for the World Cup following Michael Ballack's injury. He thinks Schweinsteiger is now "even more in a position of responsibility."
He no longer dances for Bifi. In the latest ad for the company, he appears as a kind of gladiator. And he has done ads on news channels N-TV and N24 for the Stuttgart stock exchange. Sometimes Schweinsteiger, who is now 25 and no longer wants to be known as Schweini, talks like a priest.
Shortly before the end of the German Bundesliga season and he was sitting at the conference table at Avantgarde, the Munich agency that advises him. He fiddled with his ring and was philosophizing about luck, pondering the question of whether luck can be created through hard work, discipline and integrity. He spoke about luck in football and in life -- the "life next to life" as he sometimes says, since his life is really all about football.
Schweinsteiger, who his friends call Basti, was wearing a simple gray T-shirt -- a leather wristband was the only sign of extravagance. He said one has to do good to be rewarded. Discipline, virtue, all of this has to come "from oneself, from the heart."
Life, and that also means that other life, is not a trade-off between giving and taking, one cannot make a deal with the man upstairs and get luck as a return. This is how the young man from Oberausdorf, near the Austrian border, likes to preach. After the 2006 World Cup, his home town made a bronze impression of his footprint and placed it in the ground in front of the town hall. It's where he used to go to mass on Sundays, and where his mother and grandmother still do.
He says he inherited his down-to-earthness from his mother, as well as his ability to "stay quiet and reflect first."
Someone quiet, who reflects upon things, that is certainly not how one would have described Schweinsteiger two years ago. During the second game of the European Championships, in a moment of hot-headedness, he threw a Croatian player to the ground, earning himself a red card. On his way to the bench, he showed the Croatian bench an insulting gesture.
Now he is playing the sheriff. He is known for his white sweatbands on his hands and his light footwork, not unlike that of a boxer.
Growing Up At Last?
Since November, Schweinsteiger has been responsible for organizing and securing play, and he gives the commands for the build up and attacks with words and particularly with passes. These are so accurate and exact that they have given him an undreamed-of authority. He shows amazing finesse in capturing the ball and with over 100 ball-contacts per game. He is a central figure; on a chess board he would be the queen.
German trainer Löw had little choice but to give him a central role on the national team too. "I am always close to the ball. I missed that when I was playing on the outside," he says laconically. The former follower is now the leader. Former Bayern Munich trainer Jupp Heynckes made him captain for the last five games of the previous season and new trainer Louis van Gaal gave him the same role beginning with the Champions League game against the Israeli team Maccabi Haifa. Schweinsteiger sees the task as an honor. "I want to take on responsibility and, with a few others, lead the team. That is why it is clear that I have to claim the ball and try to steer the game."
Has he grown into this role? Or was he always underrated? Did he change in a short time, like a teenager during puberty? Has he simply grown up?
"In a certain way of course you stay like you were before," he says. "For me personally the switch in positions was a very important step." On the one hand, this step caused a development of personality. On the other hand, it came as a result of this development. Because Schweinsteiger had already started to live more professionally. Before, he used to drive home straight after training. "Now I pay more attention to my body: stretching, weights, a proper diet. For me Lucio and Ze Roberto were always true professionals," he says of his former Brazilian teammates who he now resembles.
He had long had the technical abilities. However, the competition for the central midfield position was intense. In Munich Jens Jeremies, Michael Ballack, Owen Hargreaves and even Ze Roberto were all vying for the same spot. So for years he played in the wrong position, not being fast enough for the wing role he was given.
Now he has to quickly become experienced in the role of strategist. During Bayern Munich's defeat in the Champions League final at the hands of Inter Milan, Schweinsteiger was the most active player on the pitch, he made the most passes and 90 percent were accurate. That, though, is no great art when there were hardly any surprising or risky passes on that night in Madrid. After the game was lost he silently walked through the tunnels of the Bernabeu Stadium, a hoodie pulled over his head.
- Part 1: The Newfound Maturity of Germany's Key Player
- Part 2: The Team without Ballack