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.
To cap a mind-bogglingly brutal nearly-year Ballack then jetted off to the World Cup, where he dragged Germany to within 90 minutes of the greatest trophy of them all.
But Ballack was forced to sit out the tournament decider after a self-sacrificing strategic foul in the semi-final. Without their talisman, an uninspired Germany lost the final 2-0.
Four years later, this time on home turf, Germany would depart the World Cup by the same scoreline, going down in extra time in a knife-edge epic against Italy, one of the great heavyweight matches of the modern age.
Ballack’s selection in the team of the tournament for the second successive time did little to sweeten another bitter pill.
Injuries get in the way
Thoughts, and hopes, turned to 2010. In his early years with Germany, Ballack’s status as the lone light among a desperately pedestrian generation saw him suffer for his brilliance.
“They wanted me to win the ball at the back, dominate in the centre, play a pass to myself in the final third, and score the goal,” he has said.
More often than not he would be the target of public ire after a loss.
“It was a classic case of people confusing cause and effect,” said Rudi Völler. “The problem was that we were missing two or three more Ballacks.”
In 2010, though, everything was in place for a now 30-year-old Ballack to lead Germany’s emerging generation of dazzling youngsters – Ozil, Muller et al – on the world stage. The perfect blend of grizzled experience and youthful exuberance. All Ballack had to do was get through the FA Cup final without injury.
Enter Kevin-Prince Boateng. A vicious foul from the Ghanaian – petty vengeance after an earlier flare-up – left the Germany skipper in a crumpled heap on the Wembley turf, fists beating the floor in pain, ankle ligaments shredded. No World Cup.
Between those two tournaments came Euro 2008 – and another runners-up medal, Germany losing a tight game to Spain, 1-0, Ballack coming closest to equalising with a rasping half-volley.
That was the same year his Chelsea team, already runners-up in the League Cup and Premier League, made it to the Champions League final, taking it to penalties.
Again Ballack did his bit, tucking away the first spot-kick with characteristic cool, but then John Terry nominated himself for the all-important fifth and fell over.
Absurdly, it was the second time in Ballack’s career when he received four runners-up medals in the space of one summer, winning precisely nothing. In what seemed like a cruel coda from God himself, Ballack came second in the German footballer of the year award that year, too.
But while silver medals outstripped silverware for much of Ballack’s career, that theme was put on ice when he joined Bayern Munich. Four seasons at the club known as Hollywood FC brought the inevitable slew of honours.
But you always sense that with Bayern, a club whose MO is to cherry-pick their rivals’ standout players each summer, success comes with certain caveats. Ballack won three doubles in four years. Yet the fact that the first league title was won by 16 points, the second by 14, is telling. There’s a difference between winning and glory.
Bayern’s failure to compete in Europe despite hoarding the trophies at home added to the impression that such domestic dominance should be marked with an asterisk.
Yet it was during this time that Ballack produced the best football of his career. He was imperious for Bayern, averaging almost a goal every other game across four years and winning the country’s player of the year award twice.
He said he felt unstoppable in every game. But even so, it’s hard to imagine that Bayern, so ludicrously far ahead of their peers, would have struggled without him. After deciding to leave for Chelsea on a free transfer, Ballack saw out his final days in Bavaria being jeered by his own fans and labelled a mercenary by the various club legends who populate the Bayern boardroom.
Another five titles – a League Cup, two FA Cups and a league-and-cup double – were won at Chelsea. But while the competitiveness in England was less debatable, Ballack’s contribution to the success was similarly dubious.
The team had not been built around him, instead he had been shunted in alongside the awkwardly similar Frank Lampard and forced to adjust accordingly. He did so well enough, often playing in a deep-lying position or off one of the flanks in a midfield diamond, and to good effect.
But this was not the gloriously unshackled Ballack who had been such a force of nature in Germany. Having been at the heart of a team that cantered to titles, now, just like his debut season at Chemnitzer, he was now a peripheral figure in a team that had to fight for them.
His place among peers
As well as his personal odysseys, Ballack had the broader misfortune to be a great central midfielder in an era littered with them.
Ballack’s peak years coincided exactly with those of Scholes, Gerrard, Xavi, Makelele and Lampard, along with the venerable later years of Keane, Vieira and Zidane. Compare that to now, when there are no truly serious proponents of the position beyond perhaps Luka Modric and an ageing Andres Iniesta, and the noughties suddenly seem like a authentic golden age for the engine room. But being surrounded by geniuses doesn’t make Ballack any less of one.
In fact, silly as it might sound, he might just have been the best of the lot. He may not have had Zidane’s velvet touch, Keane’s ceaseless engine or Gerrard’s one-man-band heroics, but he was a far better all-rounder than any of them – including Lampard and Scholes – with the add bonuses of being two-footed, fearsome in the air and with the towering physique of a nightclub bouncer.
It was a physique that he made good use of, too, with a taste for battle that easily matched that of Keane or Vieira. The difference is that while those two saw red mist, Ballack was always a model of chilling Germanic calm. He rarely lost his rag, yet always simmered with menace.
Perhaps Ballack’s real problem, to British eyes at least, was precisely that he was able to do what Gerrard, Keane and Vieira couldn’t: make it all look so easy. Alan Hanson wrote at one point that the midfielder “seems to be playing with a huge cigar in his mouth”.
That he meant it as a criticism perhaps said less about Ballack than the culture he was failing to impress. More than anything, English football loves a trier. Ballack, on the other hand, gave the impression that he lived life by the famous Ronald Reagan maxim: “Hard work never killed anyone, but I figure why take the chance?"
In the end Ballack will go down as a player defined by a curious clutch of paradoxes: the midfield stroller who provided unstoppable driving force; the serial winner remembered for his heroic failures. The nearly-man with a bulging medal drawer.
You sense that Ballack knows it, too. “I hope that people will remember me as a special footballer," he said after retiring.
“Titles are sometimes overrated.”