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Feb 20, 2006

Ballack: The definition of unperturbed

I will openly admit that I'm in a bit of a jam. It's late Sunday evening, which means I should turn in my new column pretty soon now. And while there's a few nice things in front of me right now - among them a Barry Bonds figurine, roughly seven inches of height - what is most definitely nowhere to be seen is even a rough sketch of a column.

But don't feel sorry for me, and don't suspect I'm whining. I have only myself to blame, and I know it. See, the plan was to tell you about a book I got sent. It's got to do with the January 9 column, which an as yet unknown headline peddler quite rightfully entitled 'Literary Criticism 101'.

Towards the end of that column I said I'd like to be able to recommend a book on Germany and German football culture but felt a bit at a loss.

In the meantime I have received a review copy of a tome enticingly called 'German Football: History, Culture, Society' and thought I could tell you all about it today. But I can't. It is taking me much longer than anticipated to read and then digest the content, as you'll come to understand in two weeks' time, when I, fingers crossed, can at last let you in on what to expect.

So, what am I going to do? Often it's best to just say the first thing that comes to your mind, which right now is: isn't Michael Ballack utterly amazing?

I have just seen highlights from Saturday's Bundesliga matches, which I missed yesterday because we got home from the ground quite late. As you'll know, that ground is the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund. Oops, sorry - the Signal Iduna Park, as it's now properly, but unfortunately called. A minute from time, the scoreboard informed us that Bayern had nicked a late equaliser at Hannover, whereupon the guy behind me said: 'Ballack.' And somebody else added: 'Header.'

And sure enough, a friendly TV station has just shown me that Willy Sagnol crossed the ball in the 89th minute and that Ballack timed his jump perfectly, even though there were two defenders directly in front of him. Both missed the ball, but Ballack didn't.

It was Ballack's fourth goal since the restart of the league in late January. And we're not talking about tap-ins to make it three-nil here.

A week ago, he scored the goal that won the Bavarian derby against Nuremberg: Roy Makaay went to the byline, pulled the ball back and Ballack met it first time with the inside of his right foot. That sounds simple, but it was a technically difficult finish, as the ball was almost too close to his pivot leg and because he had to twist his ankle ever so slightly upon making contact with the ball to wrong-foot the keeper.

Eight days earlier, Ballack had scored the only goal of Bayern's match with Bayer Leverkusen, when he trapped a long cross with his chest, swivelled around and hit the ball home with his left foot. It was voted the Bundesliga's 'Goal of the Month'. A week before that, he had scored with a fine, dipping free kick at Gladbach to make it 2-0 - another crucial goal, considering the hosts pulled one back less than a minute later.

So, that's four important goals for you in three weeks, one scored form a set piece, one with the head, one with the left foot, one with the right one. In between he also set up a goal for Claudio Pizarro nine minutes from time that kept Bayern from being eliminated from the German FA Cup.

You could say that all this is amazing in itself, which it probably is, though it's not what I find so stunning at this point in time. Ballack has been doing these things all along. After all, every single one of the seven goals he scored during the first half of the season, six in the league and one in the Cup, was a go-ahead goal for his team. I repeat: every single one! You would think Bayern have enough lethal strikers to lead the way in moments of crisis, but it seems their one-man cavalry is really called Ballack.

When Bayern announced that the contract offer for Ballack would be withdrawn the applause from the members in attendance was deafening
However, we already knew that, and despite the occasional sneering remark from the occasional self-styled expert, every German football fan will admit that Ballack is our best outfield player by a wide, wide margin. But what he is doing right now is, I think, adding another dimension to his game. Because these should be pretty rough times for Ballack. He still hasn't signed a contract for next season, neither with Bayern, nor with anyone else. And quite a few people are getting restless in Munich, not least of all the fans.

Yes, you might be surprised to hear that, but there is a sizeable number of Bayern supporters who wouldn't shed too many tears if Ballack moved on. He isn't the kind of player you love - unless you're a teenage female, I reckon -, and while he commands respect even from people who by default hate any Bayern player, respect is a fragile thing.

When Bayern's chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge announced in November, during the club's general annual meeting, that the contract offer for Ballack would be withdrawn because the player had let a deadline pass to make up his mind, the applause from the members in attendance was deafening. You would have expected this reaction to bring a smug look to Rummenigge's face, but that was not at all the case. Instead, he looked concerned. Like a man who was beginning to fear the fans were coming close to turning against the man who is still his most important player.

More than three months have passed since that November day, and there has been no progress whatsoever in the great Ballack transfer debate. In fact, there are now many who believe that he still hasn't told us which of the glamorous offers - from Real or Barcelona or Inter or Manchester United or whoever - he will accept because there are no such offers.

And yet Ballack himself is not only unperturbed, he is getting better by the hour.

How often have you heard a player excuse a dip in form by saying he's mentally unstable because the contract situation is getting to him? Here we have a player who appears to be gaining confidence and strength the more muddled things become. He must know that two bad games in a row or a missed penalty will let the press hounds loose and rapidly darken the mood in the stands.

But Ballack simply rises above the defence and coolly heads the ball home to level the score. Amazing.


  • Uli's seminal history of German football, Tor!, is available online.

    Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.

  • Any thoughts on this article? Email us.