There is no doubt that captaining a national team is one of the greatest honours that can be bestowed on a footballer, one made all the more impressive if it takes place at a FIFA World Cup™. That feeling of pride must be greater still for any player who gets to pull on the armband at a World Cup Opening Match, especially when that means leading out the hosts.
This dream became a reality for Germany’s Bernd Schneider, even if his appointment came as something of a surprise. “I knew [then Germany captain] Michael Ballack wasn’t completely fit,” he said while recalling the eve of the 2006 World Cup in an interview with FIFA.com. “At some point the coach came to me and said that I’d be captaining the side the next day. Naturally that made me very proud.” What followed was one of his fondest footballing memories - a 4-2 win over Costa Rica - and the start of Germany’s summer fairytale. “It was the kind of experience you never forget.”
Just a few weeks later, the midfielder learned first-hand just how quickly delight can turn to disappointment. He ranks his team’s 2-0 semi-final defeat by Italy as among the worst moments of his career, particularly as he had an opportunity to change the course of the game. “I had a good chance to score the opening goal but couldn’t get the ball under control,” the now 41-year-old admitted, recalling the incident midway through the first half in Dortmund with total clarity. He has similarly bitter recollections of the 2002 Final loss to Brazil. “It could all have played out so differently,” he said, albeit without a hint of remorse.
Schneider believes his side’s failure against the eventual world champions eight years ago was even worse than the Brazilians’ 7-1 collapse against Germany last summer. “Our loss to Italy in 2006 was tougher to take; at least this time the result was clear,” he explained. “There’s no doubt that it hurts to go out of a World Cup in your own country at the semi-final stage. Like Brazil, we were aiming to reach the Final back then and unfortunately we didn’t manage it, but it’s definitely more frustrating to receive that knockout blow in extra time.”
He believes Germany’s current crop of players can go on to win another couple of titles, even though some reinvention is needed first. “Some important pillars of the team have retired – Klose, Mertesacker, Lahm,” he said. “They were top-quality players who shaped an entire era. Germany now need to replace them, and that process will take time. But if you look at the national team’s overall potential and the players who are now moving up, it’s clear that there’s no need to panic.” The former international skipper believes the team will be able to compete for the title at EURO 2016. “Of course you always need a little bit of luck in the knockout stages, not to mention your form on the day, but Germany have the quality required to be among the frontrunners.”
Schneider himself secured his place among the world’s elite a full four years before his home World Cup, with he and Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen causing a stir in both Germany’s top flight and the UEFA Champions League in 2002. “We were a small club against the top sides,” he recalled. “It’s a shame we didn’t make it all the way to the top.” By the end of that campaign, Bayer had finished second in the league, the cup and in Europe’s most prestigious club competition. This unusual achievement earned the club the nickname ‘Vizekusen’ [a play on the German term ‘Vize’, meaning ‘deputy’ or ‘number two’], a moniker that has followed the team from North Rhine Westphalia around ever since.
For Schneider, these three runners-up positions were followed by another with the national side in the summer of 2002. Germany reached the Final in Korea/Japan, where the midfielder, by his own admission, delivered the best performance of his career. After the encounter with A Seleção, the media dubbed him the ‘White Brazilian’. “I’d gladly have done without that nickname if it meant we could have won the World Cup instead,” he said when reminded of that.
The finals in Asia also brought Schnix, as he is known, the first of his four international goals. “It was the decisive strike in our match against Saudi Arabia; I scored a free-kick to make it 8-0,” he told FIFA.com with a wink. “I’ve scored many goals, with my heel, from the halfway line, and some were named Goal of the Month. They’re all memories I cherish and enjoy looking back on.”
Growing up in the former East Germany, Schneider first earned his spurs at Carl Zeiss Jena before making the leap to the Bundesliga with Eintracht Frankfurt in 1998. Having immediately established himself as a first-team regular, he moved a year later to join league rivals Leverkusen. He made more than 260 appearances there over ten years before injury forced him to hang up his boots in 2009.
“I’m satisfied with the way my career played out,” he said. “I had so many great experiences along the way and although there were only a few beautiful moments, that’s all part and parcel of sport. Although you never want to give up when you’re injured, I had to call it a day in the end. Perhaps I could have gone on for another couple of years, but I’d had ten years at the highest level, and that’s something to be proud of. Naturally it would have been great to play abroad, but for various reasons it wasn’t meant to be.”
In contrast to many of his contemporaries, Schneider has no plans to become a coach, and it remains to be seen what the future holds for him. But while this skilful midfielder may not have any winners’ medals to his name, he can always take pride at having been a defining figure in Germany’s national team for almost a decade.