Thanks for everything, Philipp Lahm
Surprising everyone, Philipp Lahm announced his retirement from international football on Friday, not even a week since he hoisted the World Cup trophy in Rio. "On Monday, I told Joachim Loew that I would resign from the national team," he told Sport Bild. "I came increasingly resolved to take this step over the course of last season."
"I am grateful [my decision] coincided with winning the World Cup."
His national career started with man-of-the-match honours in a 2-1 win over Croatia back in February 2004 -- a promising 20-year-old who had started his Bayern Munich career aged just 11 -- before playing 90 minutes in all three of Germany's group stage matches at the European Championships that summer. Despite the disaster that the tourney turned out to be for the DFB, he'd be one of the -- no, the only -- bright point in the teams' lowly display in Portugal.
Missing the 2005 Confederations Cup and most of the run-up to the 2006 World Cup due to injury, he would return in time to smack in a spectacular opening goal for the tournament against Costa Rica after just six minutes. The humble Lahm took no credit after the match, instead thanking the fans. "You could see what euphoria there was in the stadium. Part of the victory should be credited to the fans. They were the 12th man on the pitch."
While that goal against Los Ticos was jaw-dropping, I'll most fondly remember Germany's 3-2 win over Turkey in the Euro 2008 semifinal and Lahm's 90th minute winning goal -- redemption for giving up the equaliser with just four minutes left. I burst into tears at St. Jakob Park, running triumphantly and drunkenly through the streets of Basel with the rest of the German support to a massive celebration in Marktplatz.
He gained his captaincy of the Nationalelf preceding 2010's World Cup after Chelsea's Michael Ballack was forced to withdraw following a injury sustained in the FA Cup final. At the time, German supporters would roundly disparage Ghana's Kevin-Prince Boateng for the tackle -- even his half-brother, Germany defender Jerome, refused to speak to him. But after the aggressive, brash captaincies of Ballack and Oliver Kahn before him, the calm, quiet leadership of Lahm would be a breath of fresh air.
Lahm learned the value of temperance in 2009 after giving an unauthorised interview to Sueddeutsche Zeitung about Bayern's lack of philosophy and transfer policy at the time. A quote from him sums it up: "Top teams in the Champions League have first-class players in seven, eight positions -- we don't," Lahm said. "Other clubs have a system, a philosophy, and buy the players accordingly. We don't. It's not enough to buy good players, one has to develop a team."
His "transgression" would earn him a reported fine of 25,000 euros -- at the time, the largest in club history -- but, his fortitude and honesty would gain him the helm of Bayern Munich, as well as Germany, after Mark van Bommel's departure mid-season in 2011.
With two massive teams on his rather small shoulders, in 2012 he'd suffer the indignity of losing the Champions League final to Chelsea at the Allianz Arena followed quickly by a semifinal meltdown against Italy that caused many to question if he and Germany's Bayern core were strong enough to win.
There were two possible outcomes after the final in 2012: either we fell apart as a team, or we grew even closer together," he told the club's official website after securing the treble with Bayern in 2013. "The second of these is what happened. This footballing tragedy and our bitter tears of grief released incredible inner strength."
He'd get criticism again at the beginning of the 2014 World Cup with an uninspiring midfield performance against Portugal followed by poor defending that led to a Ghana goal in their eventual 2-2 draw. But, once Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger proved healthy -- and Lahm returned to his right-back spot -- things steadied for the Germans culminating in their fourth title and the first for the united nation.
Now, some questions linger. The first, and most obvious: Who will replace him as captain of Germany? Look no further than to vice-captain Schweinsteiger -- so vastly deserving of the honour after his remarkable career for club and country. I'd expect Manuel Neuer to be named vice-captain as well.
But maybe as important: Who will replace Lahm on the pitch, specifically at right-back? Here is where it gets a bit more tricky. Jerome Boateng is the obvious contender but he was been stellar at centre-back position in Brazil this summer; it would be a shame if Loew was again forced to reshuffle his back four.
The German manager seems to have soured on Borussia Dortmund's Kevin Grosskreutz, who failed to get a single minute during the World Cup despite being part of the 23-man squad -- but perhaps a spark will come from Grosskreutz' new teammate at Dortmund, Matthias Ginter. They've got two years to figure it out.
I, for one, am happy that Lahm is bowing out of international football while on top, as I'm sure Pep Guardiola is as well. Lahm has signed his final contract at Bayern Munich, which runs until 2018, and can now fully concentrate on his club without the continued distraction of country. Yet he pulled it off with quiet style, calm yet firm as a leader, and a gentleman the entire time.
Susie Schaaf is longtime blogger for ESPN. She co-hosts the only English-speaking Bayern Munich podcast @Rekord_Pod and talks Bundesliga on BBC World Service and SiriusXM FC. Follow her on Twitter @fussballsusie.