It might seem a tad odd to describe a footballer who has won 12 major trophies and a litany of individual honours, not to mention possessing the sparkling good looks of a matinee idol, as one of the most desperately unlucky sportspeople of the modern age.
Certainly Michael Ballack – the well-do-do son of an architect who spent five seasons at Bayern Munich, playground bully of the Bundesliga, and another four hoovering up trophies with west London’s oil-rich arrivistes Chelsea – was never anyone’s idea of an embattled underdog.
Yet peer a little closer at Ballack’s gloriously gilded career, squint a bit, and suddenly it doesn’t seem so glorious at all. As much as it is a story of rampant success – and it is – it’s also a story of wretched disappointment.
Not that it started that way: in fact, Ballack’s first taste of top-level football was a bona fide footballing fairytale. In 1998, the FC Kaiserslauten side that a young Ballack was breaking into became the first and only newly promoted club to win the Bundesliga.
Not bad going for a 21-year-old whose sum total of prior experience was at lowly Chemnitzer FC – although his role in proceedings was only really a cameo, 16 appearances altogether and just three in the starting XI.
It was the following, trophyless year when Ballack became a mainstay of the side and it wasn’t long until Bayer Leverkusen handed over £4m for a rampaging young midfielder whose skill-set – the centrepiece of which was a venomous long-range shot off either foot – was frighteningly all-encompassing.
Bad luck Bayer
Yet his three-year spell in Leverkusen would unfold in sadistic and scarcely believable fashion. His first season set the tone: going into the final fixture, Leverkusen – who had never won the Bundesliga in their history – were three points clear at the top of the table.
Their mission on the last day was simply to avoid defeat to mid-table middleweights Unterhaching. Midway through the first half, Ballack, stretching to defend a cross, put the ball past his own keeper. Leverkusen lost 2-0, and thereafter became known as Never-kusen.
Two seasons later, that nickname would become even more apt as the club found themselves on the cusp of an unimaginable treble. With a fortnight of the campaign to go, Leverkusen led the Bundesliga by two points, and were in the finals of the German cup and the Champions League.
It was largely Ballack’s splendour that had got them there: this was the season he truly announced himself to the elite, scoring 23 goals, delivering one of the all-time great European performances in the frenzied 4-2 quarter-final win over Liverpool and generally providing the marauding driving force behind a three-pronged trophy-charge, one of the unlikeliest underdog upsurges of the modern age.
Yet, having hauled his team to the brink of the unthinkable Ballack saw his team squander their Bundesliga lead in the penultimate game before injuring himself in a futile final-day win.
He limped through the two cup finals with the aid of painkilling injections, a diminished force. Neverkusen lost both. Over four short matches, three trophies had become none.