The merest glance at Germany captain Michael Ballack's
steely expression and blazing eyes tells you that this is a man
determined to achieve greatness - at long last. At the mature
footballing age of 31, Ballack will never quite be mentioned in the
same breath as the true all-time greats of the game unless he leads
his Germany side to the UEFA European Championship crown against
Spain at the Ernst-Happel Stadion in Vienna on Sunday evening.
The consuming passion of Ballack's life is the pursuit of a major honour on the international footballing stage, and he will go to extraordinary lengths to claim such a prize having having had it denied to him so very often. The superbly conditioned 1.89m athlete, an elegant and commanding pivot in the centre of the German midfield for almost a decade, has ended up on the losing side in the UEFA Champions League final twice, and is utterly determined to repair the one serious omission in his otherwise impressive career to date.
Viennese setting for skipper's glory?
The man with the number 13 on his back possesses an unbending desire to win, as the match stats indicate: no other player in Joachim Low's side covered anywhere near as much ground in the first five matches at UEFA EURO 2008. The Chelsea midfielder ran the longest distance of all in four of the five games. His burning desire to lift the continental trophy drew sympathy and encouragement from Franz Beckenbauer: "He's had so many disappointments in finals. I'd be delighted if he was to crown his career tomorrow at the Ernst-Happel Stadion in Vienna."
The Kaiser's statement is understandable in the light of Ballack's desperate misfortune in the later stages of major tournaments. The man rated the solitary world-class figure in the current Germany side first came to global attention at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™, but was suspended for the 2-0 defeat to Brazil in the Final. Earlier that summer, Ballack and his then-club Bayer Leverkusen were desperately unlucky to lose the UEFA Champions League final 2-1 to Real Madrid.
Four years later, Ballack suffered the misery of a 2-0 extra-time exit to eventual winners Italy in the semi-finals of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, before arguably the most painful reverse of them all, defeat on penalties with Chelsea to Manchester United in the Champions League final in Moscow just a few weeks ago. The indelible images after Nicolas Anelka missed the vital spot-kick were of Ballack physically collapsing to the turf in tears of despair, but just a few days later, and in typically defiant mood, he had retrained his sights on the continental showdown in Austria and Switzerland: "I'm aiming for the European Championship with the national team. Our goal has to be a place in the final!"
Now with Germany's chance for glory in sight, final-match misfortune threatens again as an injured calf leaves him doubtful for the date with Spai.
Ballack seeks career highlight
Xavi Hernandez and Co now stand between Ballack and his heart's desire in the Austrian capital on Sunday. The man who appears so languid and even arrogant on the field of play, but whose agile movement disguises tremendous power and fighting spirit, has set his sights on the European crown. He is now but one step away from the throne in the appropriately magnificent setting of Vienna.
Perhaps the time has come for Germany's leading footballer of recent years to add a painfully missing chapter to his career story. Ballack has never been more important to his team. In the third and decisive group match against Austria, his fulminating free kick saved Germany from grievous humiliation at the hands of their smaller neighbours. And ahead of the quarter-final with Portugal, he is reported to have personally persuaded Low to adopt a 4-5-1 formation instead of the coach's favoured 4-4-2, before Ballack himself headed home to make the score 3-1 and confirm the genius of the tactical switch in overcoming Cristiano Ronaldo and Co.
Tactics on their own will not be enough to neutralise Luis Aragones' Spain. Even a Ballack on peak form would be unable to cope alone against the lithe, adaptable, technically gifted and instinctive midfield trio of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas. If the man who more than any other has shaped Germany's renaissance as a major footballing power is to achieve his dream, he will need the support of every one of his team-mates.
"Every German player will have to run until he drops," Beckenbauer demanded in his column for the Bild tabloid. Hard-running effort then, for the trophy and for the captain. The skipper has led by example so far. Perhaps the trademark German virtues will be enough to scale the summit, where Ballack has so often fallen just short up to now.