An ankle injury kept Germany captain Michael Ballack out of this summer's World Cup, and when Joachim Loew's young German side showed surprisingly strong in South Africa (finishing third), many felt time had passed on the Nationalmannschaft's Ballack era. Whereas at one time he was seen as the usurping face for a new generation, Ballack was suddenly 34-years-old, injured, and between clubs. Then suddenly Germany looks better than at any time Ballack wore the armband, and stand-in captain Philipp Lahm becomes the new usurping face of Germany Fußall.
Thus the rivalry between Ballack and Lahm was born, a conflict that the veteran midfielder rekindled today with criticism of his South Africa stand-in. Though Michael Ballack has been out all season with a knee injury, there is talk of him returning for Germany's February friendly with Italy, at which time he's expected to regain his captaincy, though Lahm had expressed hopes of retaining the armband.
Speaking to German outlet Express today, Ballack made clear his displeasure with Lahm's captaincy aspirations - or, at least how they were expressed:
"It is a question of respect towards the captain," Ballack told German daily Express with Germany due to face Italy next in a friendly in February 2011.
"I have a clear opinion on this: to focus attention on the issue publicly at that time was wrong.
"If he had spoken to me, it would have left me with a very different impression.
"We have since spoken briefly. I still maintain you shouldn't do something like that.
"But we are professionals and something like that should not ever play a role."
When Ballack says "you shouldn't do something like that," he means speak the truth. Philipp Lahm was asked whether he would want to stay captain. He said yes. He didn't put out a press release or otherwise start a media campaign, and in saying he wouldn't mind keeping the armband, he was merely exhibiting the same qualities that gave him the captaincy in the first place. But those qualities have threatened Ballack, who would rather Lahm be disingenuous about his ambitions. Ballack could acknowledge Lahm's desires, say I have no intention of giving up the captaincy, but I'm sure Philipp will make a great captain one day. Instead, Ballack trudges on the low road.
Lahm's want of the captaincy is not news, nor is Ballack's desire to hold onto it. The news here is Ballack's desire to keep talking about the conflict, a wayward search for an apology from Loew and Lahm. Ballack is not so blind as to overlook the fact he's a fading force, and he can't ignore how good Germany has looked with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira in central midfield. His quest for recognition - desire for the last bit of attention - is a symptom of a man coming to grips with his own sporting mortality, and while he's likely to wear the armband again, these complaints are not the actions of a man who sees a long international career in front of him.