Despite slowly returning to fitness after two leg injuries in the past year, there is still no place in the Germany squad for Michael Ballack. The signs are beginning to look increasingly ominous for the former captain.
Is Ballack heading for a tearful farewell with Germany?
The captaincy battle that so consumed Michael Ballack after Germany's impressive showing at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa may now be the least of the midfielder's current worries.
After injury ruled him out of that tournament, Ballack lost the arm band to Philipp Lahm. With the European Championships in Ukraine and Poland just over a year away, Lahm looks set to retain the captaincy while Ballack faces losing something much more important – his place in the Germany team. He could even lose his status as an international player by the time the Euros come round in the summer of 2012.
Germany coach Joachim Löw did not include Ballack in his squads for the Euro 2012 qualifier against Kazakhstan in Kaiserslautern on March 26 and the friendly with Australia in Mönchengladbach on March 29. It could be argued that this was a reflection of the lack of playing time the Bayer Leverkusen midfielder has had since returning from the shinbone injury he picked up earlier in the season.
It is true that Ballack is struggling to impose himself on the Bayer Leverkusen team he joined from Chelsea last summer and has yet to become an integral part of Jupp Heynckes' first-choice line-up after joining with the ankle injury which kept him out of the World Cup and his subsequent shin problem. He has played just nine Bundesliga games this season after picking up his latest injury in September in only his third game back in a Leverkusen shirt.
New midfield created in Ballack's absence
However, with the former Germany captain also absent from international soccer for nearly a year, it looks increasingly like Joachim Löw has not only been planning for life without Ballack but has taken the opportunity to bring his schedule forward. Far from installing a deputy in Ballack's position to keep his place in the team warm, Löw appears to have already crowned his successor.
Löw has established a solid midfield partnership of Real Madrid's Sami Khedira and Bayern Munich's Bastian Schweinsteiger at the center of the Germany team and after a series of commanding performances which helped the Germans finish third in South Africa, the coach seems loath to break this up just to reintegrate the aging Ballack.
Schweinstieger has assumed Ballack's role in midfield
Schweinsteiger has adapted well to the role Ballack was known for, swapping his more attacking role for that of midfield creator. Much of Germany's play now goes through the Bayern Munich midfielder in much the same way that it used to be dictated by Ballack.
While he may not wear the coveted armband, Schweinsteiger has also developed a commanding presence in the center of the pitch and inspires confidence in the players around him, making even Ballack's leadership qualities in midfield surplus to requirements.
Khedira now provides the defensive midfield qualities which another ex-international star, Torsten Frings, used to bring to his partnership with Ballack. Together, Schweinsteiger and Khedira have gelled to become the midfield fulcrum of Löw's increasingly modern Germany side.
Even if he doesn't start in the first team, some may argue that having Ballack in the squad for the European Championships next year could provide Germany with an experienced campaigner ready to come off the bench to steady the ship should Löw continue to favor youth.
Ballack's presence and game knowledge could be drawn upon should Germany face some sticky moments at the business end of that tournament at a time when young nerves could become frayed.
Media reports suggest Löw will call time
Pointing the way: Löw could ease Ballack toward the exit
Löw appears to have other ideas. Not only is Ballack unlikely to win back his place in the starting line-up any time soon, it seems that the writing is on the wall when it comes to his entire international career.
According to media reports in Germany earlier this month, the curtain could fall on the occasion of Ballack's 99th appearance for his country – most likely during the friendly against Brazil in Stuttgart on August 10.
Ballack, who has scored 42 goals in his 98 appearances for Germany to date, may be afforded this as an official farewell game, an honor last bestowed on ex-captain Oliver Kahn in September 2008. It is thought that Löw will discuss Ballack's international future in the coming weeks and, according to tabloid Bild, he will present this scenario to his former captain.
If this scenario plays out, Ballack is unlikely to ever feature in a competitive game for Germany again, his last being the 1-0 win in Russia in September 2009 which secured qualification for the 2010 World Cup. Just how that sits with the midfielder – a fiercely proud and patriotic man – remains to be seen.
Ballack is already at odds with his club coach, Jupp Heynckes, after refusing a place on the bench for Leverkusen's 3-0 win over Wolfsburg on March 5. Telling his boss that he is not the kind of player to start a match among the substitutes, Ballack again showed his abrasive side.
Should he choose to call time on Ballack's Germany career just one game short of a century of appearances, Joachim Löw may get to see that side of him one last time.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Nicole Goebel