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Sports

Ballack's latest comeback clouded by uncertainty

Provided he keeps his limbs out of harm's way in training, Michael Ballack will be back for Leverkusen on Friday – at least on the bench. But a certain national team coach might hope his comeback doesn't take off.

Leverkusen's Michael Ballack reacts after scoring a penalty

Ballack could be back in action again on Friday

The tabloids can hardly wait: the prickly, talismanic, confrontational former national team captain - and still the biggest name among Germany's active players - will be back in the Bundesliga again this Friday. Or maybe not.

Michael Ballack is expected to start on the bench for Leverkusen on Friday in a top-table clash with league leaders Dortmund. If he does appear, it will be his first competitive match since September 11, 2010, when he fractured the top of his shinbone half an hour into Leverkusen's 2:2 draw against Hanover.

Whether or not he gets a game on Friday, Ballack will be glad to see the back of 2010. The Hanover game in September was only his third following the long layoff caused by a fateful foul from Kevin-Prince Boateng in the English FA Cup final back in May. The Ghana international’s wild challenge resulted in ankle ligament damage that kept Ballack out for four months.

Ballack with a black eye

One man had a rough 2010

Those football-free months weren't much fun. Ballack missed out on the World Cup in South Africa, lost the captaincy of the national side, and failed to secure an extension on his Chelsea contract. Then he turned 34.

Summer of discontent

That difficult summer, bookended by two nasty injuries, could easily have meant the end of his career. Instead it seems to have galvanized him to squeeze yet more football out of his battered body.

In a typically bullish interview with the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper in December, Ballack said, "I’d planned to play one more World Cup at the age of 33, and then see if I had an idea of what I should do. But then the injury got in the way and I said to myself: 'Don't make a decision now you might regret later.' "

Apparently, missing out on the World Cup made him determined not to let an injury end his career. But then, you wouldn't expect anything less from the battle-hardened midfielder, whose struggle with his own body began with a cartilage injury to his knee at the age of 16. Eighteen years later, he's back in full training for Leverkusen, having forced his creaking limbs through yet another arduous rehabilitation to overcome his fourth career-threatening injury.

Michael Ballack billboard

It wasn't so long ago that Ballack was the totemic leader of the German national side

'Gay conspiracy'

But Ballack needs more than one kind of rehabilitation. One of the defining images of Germany's South African adventure appeared after the team's rip-roaring 4-0 quarter-final victory over Argentina. While the team completed a lap of honor, Ballack was spotted on the sidelines, behind the wildly celebrating coaching staff, looking on pensively with his hands in his pockets. The ostensible leader of the team, the authority the players were all meant to look up to, cut a lonely figure.

The muck was subsequently raked up enthusiastically by Der Spiegel magazine, which quoted Ballack's agent Michael Becker calling the German national side a "gay combo." Der Spiegel went on to paint a portrait of a paranoid Becker worried that his client was being marginalized by a "gay conspiracy" in the national side.

Becker's homophobic outburst seems not to have been confined to sexual orientation, but to extend to footballing attitude. According to the incendiary article, Becker's term 'gay' also meant "something light, un-ideological, dance-like, beautiful, joyous, in which you could get lost if you were stuck in pecking-orders and hierarchies."

Germany's team captain Philipp Lahm

Ballack is not best pleased with cheeky Lahm, the stand-in German captain

This care-free style was what defined Germany on the pitch, according to some football pundits. Many suggested that Germany's successful, entertaining World Cup was achieved because of, rather than despite, Ballack's absence. Coach Joachim Loew had built his side's tactics on fast-moving counter-attacks. Ballack, the lumbering thirty-something center of gravity in midfield, would only have slowed things down, they said.

That Ballack's place in Germany's pecking order had been undermined in his absence became clear a few days after the Argentina match, when his stand-in as captain Philipp Lahm declared that he would not give up the position willingly.

Ballack is still smarting from what he regards as bare-faced cheek from the Bayern Munich defender. He told the Frankfurter Rundschau in December, "If your boss was sick for a few weeks, you wouldn't claim you're the boss. When he came back, you wouldn't just say, 'No, you're not in this office anymore.' "

Hope he's not too good

Leverkusen have also been doing rather well without Ballack. They are now third in the Bundesliga, having suffered only two league defeats all season (one with Ballack on the pitch), and their present holding midfield duo - Arturo Vidal and Simon Rolfes - is among the league’s strongest.

Leverkusen's Arturo Vidal and Bayern Munich's Bastian Schweinstieger

Ballack will have a tough time getting past Vidal (l.) on the depth chart

The raw numbers are not in his favor either: of the eight midfielders that Leverkusen have fielded so far this season, Ballack is the only one with less than ten appearances, and the only one not to have scored. Moreover, he’s the oldest of the bunch - by five years.

His coach Jupp Heynckes seems also to be coldly realistic about Ballack's return. He chose to leave the star veteran at home for a solo training session, instead of bringing him along to Leverkusen's preparatory friendly against Osnabrueck on Sunday. "Michael knows himself that he has some catching up to do," the coach commented after Leverkusen's comfortable 3-0 win.

Without a regular first team place at Leverkusen, at least Jogi Loew's job becomes a little easier. The national team coach has been conspicuously silent on the Lahm/Ballack conflict - much to Ballack's consternation. While Loew has wished Ballack well publicly, if the old heart and soul of the German team suddenly summoned his authority and power again, the coach would have a considerable headache to deal with.

A Michael Ballack playing out of his skin in Leverkusen would be impossible to ignore, but Germany's tactics would have to be altered to accommodate his slower, more physical style. On top of that, Loew will not want to nurse yet more wounded egos in the dressing room if Ballack demands the captaincy back. It's not a stretch to imagine that Loew has been quietly hoping that Ballack’s comeback remains off the boil.

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Matt Hermann

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