Michael Ballack's return to the Bundesliga has got off to a decent start. But there's no guarantee that he will pick up where he left off in the national side - especially as an ugly rumor is making the rounds.
Loew and Ballack may have to redefine their working relationship
Last week was a good one for Ballack, as his club Leverkusen picked up wins in both the Europa League and the Bundesliga. But the next several days could be an entirely different story.
On Friday, August 27 German national team coach Joachim Loew is to nominate his squad for European Championship qualifiers in early September against Belgium and Azerbaijan. It's an open question whether Ballack will be among those invited - and whether he will resume as a captain.
The 33-year-old midfielder has been Germany's captain since 2004 and remains German football's biggest active international star. But he was unable to play in this year's World Cup after picking up an injury in the English FA Cup final while playing for his former club Chelsea.
And that not only opened the door for a rival - but also cost Ballack the support he previously enjoyed among German football fans.
Too old for the job?
Lahm, r, wants to keep Ballack's former job
Before the World Cup in South Africa, many saw Ballack as the one player Germany and Loew could not afford to lose.
But the Nationalelf did just fine without their long-time field general, with Ballack's former teammates from Bayern Munich, Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, taking over as captain and on-the-pitch leader respectively.
Lahm has said repeatedly that he does not want to yield the captain's armband. And Germany's recent run of form has dramatically weakened Ballack's once untouchable status among the fans.
In a poll carried out by the German sports news agency SID, more than 60 percent of those asked said they thought Lahm should be captain, compared with only 20 percent for Ballack. In a survey done by the newspaper Die Welt that pitted the two players head-to-head, Lahm received a whopping 79 percent support over Ballack.
Moreover, Bayern Munich potentate Uli Hoeness even suggested this summer that Ballack should voluntarily retire not just from the captaincy but from the national team.
Ballack performed decently in Leverkusen's opening-day win against Dortmund but only won around half of his challenges. He'll need better performances than that to convince skeptics that he's not too old to captain a German team that emphasizes youth over experience.
And he'll also need to change the way he's perceived off the pitch.
Ballack could get tripped up by off-the-pitch events
Ballack has always been seen as a model athlete, but he's been in the tabloids for the wrong reasons this summer.
In a handful of interviews earlier this month, former Bayern teammate Christian Lell blamed Ballack for his having to take an extended break from football for personal reasons.
Lell did not specify precisely why he was upset with Ballack, and his current team, Hertha Berlin, has ordered him not to discuss the matter further with the press.
But the fact that Lell mentioned his pregnant girlfriend in those initial interviews led Germany's yellow press to start counting back the months and speculate about amorous misadventures with permanent consequences.
It should be stressed that those reports are based on mere conjecture and should by no means be taken as fact. But their very existence has to be unsettling for Loew, captains of national sides are expected to be beyond serious reproach in their personal lives.
Earlier this year, England coach Fabio Capello stripped defender John Terry of the captain's armband after it emerged he had an affair with a former teammate's former partner.
A cold shower could be headed Ballack's way
What is clear is that Joachim Loew faces a difficult choice.
At present, he has three holding midfielders, Ballack, Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira, who can all stake a legitimate claim to a spot in the starting 11. Reinstating Ballack as captain would essentially assure him of major playing time and runs contrary to Loew's youth philosophy.
On the other hand, there's no guarantee that the 23-year-old Khedira will maintain the form that allowed him to fill Ballack's shoes at the World Cup - especially as Khedira has moved to Real Madrid, where many promising players have tried to establish themselves and failed.
The most attractive option for Loew would likely to be to keep Ballack in the national team, but not as captain. No one likes a demotion, of course, but Ballack could perhaps be sold on the idea since he has never won a title with Germany and would undoubtedly like to fill that hole in his resume.
Or the two could agree to postpone the decision by saying that Ballack is not quite ready to rejoin the national team after his injury.
Ultimately, though, a decision will have to be made. And at the moment, the risks of reinstating Ballack would seem to slightly outweigh the benefits.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Chuck Penfold