Time to recognise the genius of Philipp Lahm
Hermann Gerland remembers perfectly the conversation he had with his wife. In almost two decades as Bayern Munich's youth coaching guru, Gerland -- known as "Der Tiger" -- has seen dozens of players come through, but this one stands out.
The prodigy in question was 17. He was a small, slight boy. Gerland thought he had a potential world-beater on his hands, a once-in-a-generation talent, but nobody else quite saw it that way. "He had no chance in the first team," he said earlier this year. "Nobody thought he would make it."
The doubts played on Gerland's mind. He could not make the others understand. He could not grasp how the club's hierarchy, full of intelligent, sanguine former players, could not see what he could see. He recalled, "My wife said that maybe I was wrong, that maybe if everybody said he was not good enough, then maybe--"
He did not finish his sentence. Maybe, she meant, he just was not good enough. Maybe, for once, the eye that had led Gerland to unearth Dietmar Hamann, Christian Nerlinger, Samuel Kuffour and the rest had let him down, just this once. But Gerland was not willing to contemplate the possibility. "I told her that if he did not play for Bayern, I would throw in my licence and go and coach water polo," he said.
Gerland threw his weight behind making sure he did not have to don his Speedos. He contacted an old friend, Felix Magath, then coach at VfB Stuttgart. Gerland told Magath about a player "who can play right, left, No. 6 [a defensive midfielder]." Lahm could play anywhere, in fact, "except he is maybe too small to be a goalkeeper. He looks 15, but he plays like he is 30."
Magath was sold. He took him on loan. A few months later, Gerland was called into Karl-Heinz Rummenigge's office at Bayern's base at Sabener Strasse. They had to have another chat. Sir Alex Ferguson had been on the phone. He wanted to know if the teenager they had sent on loan to Stuttgart might be sold to Manchester United, seeing as Bayern were not using him.
Rummenigge had realised the error of his ways. Ferguson's interest proved what Gerland had been saying all along. The boy would play for Bayern after all. "At 17," Gerland said proudly, "Philipp Lahm was unbelievable."
It is a little more than 12 years since Gerland went to war for Lahm. Even Gerland must be surprised just how spectacularly he has been proven right. Lahm is captain of Bayern. He has led them to titles and to the Champions League. Few would debate he is the finest fullback in the world. You could make a case that he might also be the best midfielder in the world. Bayern manager Pep Guardiola has hailed Lahm as the most intelligent player he has ever encountered.
On Sunday, in the Maracana, the little boy that most everyone at Bayern thought would never make it might become the first-ever captain of a united Germany to lift the World Cup.
Watching Lahm is a wonderful experience. It is to enjoy the beauty of utter simplicity. Lahm is not spectacular. He is not blessed with exhilarating speed. He does not leave clutches of players in his wake. He does not score breathtaking goals from 30 yards; not often, anyway.
But he is always -- always -- in exactly the right place. He always -- always -- does exactly the right thing. In midfield, he switches the angle and the speed of the attack with his choice of pass. He orchestrates everything with the same quiet authority as Xavi.
Lahm is that rarest of players when deployed in defence, too: a footballer capable of dictating the game from fullback. He knows when to go and when to hold. As his tackle on Marcelo in the semifinal against Brazil proved, his judgment is flawless. In the course of six games at this World Cup, he has made one mistake. He is a quite sublime footballer.
Yet few would ever consider describing Lahm as the best player in the world. That is a title exclusively preserved for players like Lionel Messi (his opposing captain in Rio de Janeiro), Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and Neymar. It is a crown only attackers seem to be eligible to wear.
To many, that is because what they do is harder than what everybody else does. Theoretically, it takes more talent to unpick a packed defence, to find a corner from distance, and to slalom through the massed ranks of defenders. These are the men who provide the moments of magic that make football so exciting, the men who lift the sport beyond the ordinary and do things normal people couldn't.
Perhaps that is true. It seems unfair, though, to suggest that what Lahm does somehow requires less talent and ability. To read a game, to have the instinct to understand exactly what is about to happen three, five, 10 seconds into the future: That is a gift. To be able to tune into the subtle rhythm of a game, to perceive the pattern of play, to twist it and contort it just a little to give your side an infinitesimal advantage: That is a gift. To make what you want to happen, happen: That, too, is a gift, and it is a gift Lahm has in abundance.
If Argentina win the World Cup on Sunday night, if Messi is showered with ticker tape, he will win the Ballon d'Or. Of that there is no question. If Germany win it, Messi may still get the Ballon d'Or, simply for taking his side to the final. Or it may go to James Rodriguez, the undoubted star of this tournament, or to Ronaldo, for leading Real Madrid to Champions League glory.
Perhaps, though, it should go to Lahm. He is the finest fullback in the world. He may well be the finest midfield player in the world. That takes talent, too. To write it off because it does not garner headlines, or because it is not easily packaged into a highlights reel, is a waste.
It took Rummenigge and Bayern some time to see what Gerland was talking about all of those years ago, to realise just what greatness they had on their hands. It would be a shame if the rest of us continued to make the same mistake.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.