His absence through injury looked set to cripple Germany before the World Cup, but now Michael Ballack has left the squad in South Africa, amid rumors that he's at odds with his replacement, Philip Lahm.
Ballack's grip on the captain's armband could be slipping
Although the German squad is playing as a unit on the pitch, things don't seem quite so harmonious behind the scenes.
Injured captain Michael Ballack has left South Africa, apparently in a battle of wills with his replacement, Philip Lahm. Lahm has made it clear that he would like to continue to wear the armband after the World Cup but Ballack, 33, also intends to work his way back into Joachim Loew's team, presumably as captain.
"This whole discussion is unnecessary," Oliver Bierhoff, the primarily administrative 'manager' of the German national team told reporters in South Africa. "At the end of the day, this topic is of zero importance this week. The issue can be addressed later, and then it will be for the coach (Joachim Loew) to decide."
Whether the discussion is necessary or not, it is certainly prevalent in the German press, and with Germany playing such good soccer without Ballack, few pundits seem to be taking his side.
"Philip Lahm is now in a good position, because he is a very smooth captain, he has everything under control, and he's very popular with his teammates," the deputy editor of Sportbild magazine, Armin Grassmuck, told Deutsche Welle.
"Michael Ballack was at no point a very good or accepted captain, because he was the big star in the team, and he had an attitude to go with this status," Grassmuck said.
Grassmuck says he doubts that many of Ballack's teammates will have shed a tear after his departure from South Africa.
End of an era?
An ankle ligament injury sidelined Ballack in May
Ballack has played an impressive 98 games for Germany, and before the tournament, his injury was widely considered a major setback for the team. The veteran midfielder has made it clear that he wants to keep his place in the national side until Euro 2012.
"If he comes back, he'd have a new role in the team," Grassmuck said. "If he accepts the new role he could play until 2012, but if he wants to keep his position as captain and as the main player in the team it could be very, very difficult for him."
Even international football writers suggested before the World Cup that the absence of the veteran captain could be a blessing in disguise, allowing Germany's younger stars to shine, and forcing them to take on greater responsibility.
"Certainly, Bastian Schweinsteiger has stepped up to the mark spectacularly well and obviously Lahm is a great captain too," British football journalist from FourFourTwo magazine, Gary Parkinson told Deutsche Welle.
"Ballack has had his spats with other members of the team in the past, and there was the feeling that it would become a more balanced, harmonious squad without him. So, in a way it's no surprise to hear that there are rumors of squad discontent surrounding Ballack."
Meanwhile, there's a growing chorus of Germans calling for Ballack to settle the dispute himself.
"Michael would prove what a classy guy he is," said former German captain Lothar Matthaeus, "if he were to say: 'The team is strong enough without me. I'm going to step down and concentrate on Leverkusen.'"
Ballack's coming home
Ballack's no stranger to Leverkusen, but it's been a while since he wore the shirt
Putting the national team aside, Michael Ballack's next challenge is to establish himself at his new club Bayer Leverkusen next season. Ballack spent three years at Leverkusen earlier in his career, and is returning to the club on a free transfer from a four-year stint with Chelsea, one of the giants of England's Premiership.
Chelsea, a team that is fighting to reign in its runaway budget after years of check-book management, decided not to extend his four-year tenure, even though Ballack was still a mainstay in the midfield.
Gary Parkinson says he thinks Chelsea disposed of Ballack's services for financial reasons, with the player rumoured to have been earning roughly 150,000 euros ($188,000) per week at the London club.
"If he were to have signed another contract it would amost certainly have been at the same rate or even higher, and he probably wouldn't have wanted a one year contract. I can't even do the math, but that's a lot of money! That's several million pounds for somebody who could start to have injury problems," Parkinson said.
However, while the move to Leverkusen is a step down, it by no means signals the end of Ballack's club career. He's joining a dynamic, talented young team, which for much of this past season looked like serious title challengers. However, they fell to pieces late in the campaign - not for the first time, either - with many pundits pointing to a lack of experienced leadership as the side's ultimate downfall.
"At Leverkusen Ballack's in a really good position," Sportbild's Armin Grassmuck said. "Leverkusen is a very young and talented team, and Michael Ballack - with his experience, his professionalism and his quality - is the perfect man to lead the young players in Leverkusen."
What seems far less certain, however, is whether Ballack really remains the perfect man to lead the German national team, even though Oliver Bierhoff inists that the current situation is really very simple:
"Philip Lahm is World Cup captain, and Michael Ballack is captain."
For now, at least.
Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Chuck Penfold