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.
The Team without Ballack
Schweinsteiger hasn't become a completely different person. He still pulls his socks right up over his knees, emulating the French striker Thierry Henry. And he still lets his father sell merchandise with the brand "Schweini" online.
"I still have a certain amount of cheekiness in me," he believes, although he now has to make sure his passes are safe. He earlier role has been taken on by others, like bubbly Marko Marin, bustling Cacau, or the class clown Thomas Müller. In the youngest German World Cup squad since 1934, Schweinsteiger almost seems like a serious chaperone. "In this position you can't allow yourself to make any mistakes. You have to think quickly: Is it better to push forward or to gain some time, to get the team reorganized and compact."
The thought of Schweinsteiger bringing order to the team is unsettling to many die-hard football fans. It is as though they are being asked to buy a used car from an ex-convict.
In the German cup final against Werder Bremen, trainer van Gaal sent him forward and the result was that he immediately scored a goal in the style of a center forward. He said he had promised his grandmother the goal, in honor of his recently deceased grandfather. Yet again he sounded like the overgrown schoolboy of 2006.
The Team's 'Emotional Leader'
For the World Cup he has been given the role of thinker, alongside the Stuttgart player Sami Khedira. He says he likes to study the game and thinks hard about how he can best "hurt the opponent." It would perhaps have been more difficult playing alongside Ballack. If two players in midfield are supposed to organize the game and one of them charges forward, the other has to cover him.
Schweinsteiger debuted in this position alongside the seasoned captain during the game against Argentina in March. After 10 minutes the younger man captured the ball and ran forward. Ballack suddenly overtook him from the left and stormed into the penalty box in order to receive a cross -- a tactical breach of duty. It was as if Ballack didn't want to submit to the younger player.
Now Löw is the undisputed boss and Schweinsteiger is his most important partner on the pitch -- the team's "emotional leader," as the trainer said during the team's World Cup preparations. Löw took a sip of water and puckered his lips. The way he spoke about the new hierarchy in his team made it clear that new captain Philipp Lahm might represent the team but Schweinsteiger would lead it. In the warm-up match against Bosnia-Herzegovina last week, which Germany won 3:1, he directed the team, fired them up, and with self assurance converted two penalty kicks into goals.
Everyone wants to know what has happened to him. "I have achieved a certain amount of wisdom," he revealed to German football magazine Kicker. Hans-Dieter Hermann, the national team's psychologist, says that Schweinsteiger's development occurred over two or three years. His physical strength and his sensitivity and empathy, coupled with the rich experience of 74 games with the national team, could help to compensate for the loss of Ballack.
Ballack was a dominant leader. That was helpful on the pitch, but caused irritation off of it. A member of the training squad says Ballack was like Attila the Hun spreading fear and terror -- an alpha male along the lines of former goalie Ollie Kahn, one of the last of his kind.
Now leadership and responsibility will be shared. The German Football Association (DFB) says that Schweinsteiger and Lahm will lead in a different manner, quietly, instructively, encouraging in the way they speak to teammates. After the last warm-up game, Schweinsteiger said that this German World Cup squad plays stronger and is better at passing than that of 2006. He is right.
Getting Away from the Schweini Image
"Taking on responsibility is something he does intuitively," says his brother Tobias. "He has always tried to help people." The older Schweinsteiger brother is also a professional footballer. He has just arrived in the club restaurant after training with Unterhaching, a team in Germany's third league. The club has just told him that he has no future there. The 28-year-old wears a T-shirt featuring the word "Destroy" and an Anarchy symbol. On his right arm he sports a large tattoo.
Much in the two brothers' lives has run in parallel. Both were first-class skiers When Bastian was 14 he opted for football and moved into the Bayern Munich boarding school. Tobias was 16 then and chose skiing. He was the best of his year and made it onto the national junior team. In 2002, however, he decided to give up the sport. "In the world rankings I was only placed between 80 and 150." That was not enough to make a decent living. That year, Bastian made his debut for Bayern Munich against RC Lens in the Champions League.
The two phone each other every day. "We have the same sense of humor," says Tobias, "and the same taste. For example, when it comes to cars, he just drives the bigger one." The difference in their careers doesn't surprise him. "Only those who are self-critical develop themselves further."
During the European Championship in 2008 there were constant pictures of Bastian Schweinsteiger and his girlfriend Sarah canoodling -- the football star and the model even went to interviews together. Those times are past. They decided that she would step back from the limelight, following the advice of his manager Rober Schneider.
Schneider says that there was a reason why he had Schweinsteiger do adverts for the Stuttgart stock exchange. "We want to communicate how he really is. To get away from the Schweini image."
Schneider's first client was Benny Lauth, who now plays for TSV 1860 Munich, a team in the German second league. He was once the teen heartthrob of the nation but had a series of setbacks and never became a star. The manager feels that Schweinsteiger's strength is that he can stand his ground under pressure.
He learned that from skiing. Schweinsteiger explains: In slalom, the Alpine discipline, the best skiier in the first run skies last in the second. "That is pressure. You know that to stay in first place, you have to be perfect from one gate to the next."
He smiles his typical smile that can be mischievous, enigmatic or just proud. He has to replace Michael Ballack, as the leader of Germany.