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'Liberated' veteran Arne Friedrich is Germany's secret star

Defender Arne Friedrich was the captain of the worst team in the Bundesliga last season. So why is he suddenly having such a terrific World Cup? Ironically, being out of the spotlight has helped him shine.

Germany's Arne Friedrich celebrates

Friedrich has been one of the World Cup's best defenders

It may have taken 77 games, but he finally got one. Thirty-one-year-old central defender Arne Friedrich finally grabbed his first ever goal in German national dress in his side's surprise 4-0 thrashing of Argentina on Saturday.

More importantly, though, he anchored a back-four that kept Messi, Tevez and Higuain thoroughly at bay, not allowing the Gauchos a single quality look at Manuel Neuer's goal.

What's more, he's helped Germany's other interior defender, Per Mertesacker, get through some noticeable wobbles at the start of the tournament.

Germany's Arne Friedrich celebrates with Germany's Per Mertesacker

Friedrich has picked up the slack for Mertesacker

"I spoke to him briefly after he came in for criticism," Friedrich said in an interview with the online edition of the German weekly Die Zeit. "I told him that I could write a novel about criticism and that I would always be standing beside him on the pitch."

If anyone had said two weeks ago that Friedrich would have been Joachim Loew's rock at the back, that person would probably have been put on prescription medications. As Germany headed to South Africa, the defender's place in Germany's starting eleven was anything but sure, and Friedrich himself had just been relegated with his former club Hertha Berlin.

But as Friedrich himself has said, not playing for Hertha is one key to his renaissance.

Friedrich holds his head after Hertha loss

A dream World Cup has followed Hertha's nightmare season

The defender, whose manner is usually guarded, has had a lot to say to the German press in the past week. And the leitmotif has been liberation.

Friedrich, the not-so-great

"The pressure that I had on me the whole year completely fell away, and I became very relaxed," Friedrich told the Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper when asked what it was like coming from relegated Hertha to the national team.

After challenging for the Bundesliga title in 2008-2009, Hertha plummeted to the bottom of the table early on last season and stayed there. The inevitable squabbling commenced, and Friedrich as captain was able neither to bring the team together nor perform up to speed on the pitch.

Friedrich has since transferred to 2008-9 champions Wolfsburg. But the sight of the highly-paid veteran getting nutmegged in front of his own goal became all-too-familiar for Hertha devotees.

"I had a very difficult year and played badly in the first half of the season," Friedrich acknowledged in the Stadt-Anzeiger. "Then I performed better, and we still went down. As the captain, I was under extreme pressure, and I, too, made mistakes."

Rumors also persist that Friedrich was part of a cabal that led to ex-Hertha-coach Lucien Favre getting fired - something Friedrich angrily denies.

And that isn't the only bad press that gets Friedrich's gander up.

Argentina's Carlos Tevez, left, competes for the ball with Germany's Arne Friedrich

Germany's number 3 was more than a match for stars like Tevez

Although he's been a fixture in the German national side since 2002, Friedrich has never gotten much love from either fans or the press.

"In 2006, I also had to take a lot of criticism," Friedrich told Die Zeit. "People wrote that I had never been a positive player. I was never considered a savior, and people said I was just along for the ride … It really ticked me off when people wrote things that weren't true."

But there was - and is - an element of truth in what was written. While Friedrich is certainly not just along for the ride, he is anything but a natural-born leader.

Ahead of the Argentina game, while most of the team joked around on the balcony of their hotel in Cape Town, Friedrich was filmed walking alone on the beach staring at the waves. He himself says he's not a buddy-buddy sort of player.

"True friendships are very rare in football," he told Die Zeit.

That's about as personal a statement as any journalist is likely to get from the articulate, but wary defender.

And it may explain why, although Friedrich is one of only two long-time veterans in the squad, coach Joachim Loew chose ever-cheerful Philipp Lahm as his captain and extroverted Bastian Schweinsteiger as his "on-field leader."

Conversely, Friedrich seems to have benefited from being out of the focus - and able to breathe a bit easier.

"Unfortunately, I can't do anything to change the facts and keep Hertha in the first division," Friedrich told Die Zeit. "When I joined up again with the national team, it was like a liberation."

Freed from any responsibilities larger than keeping a tight ship at the back, Friedrich has turned in five fine performances - more than most defenders in South Africa can say. He's even finally gotten that elusive first goal for the national team.

And he may even get a first World Cup title to cap off his unlikely comeback.

Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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