Michael Ballack has a lot to think about over the next few months. While his countrymen are contesting the World Cup without him and his former employers seek his replacement, Ballack will be searching the classifieds.
Ballack has much to think about now he's a free agent
It's turning out to be a summer to forget for Michael Ballack. Not only did he manage to get crocked in the FA Cup Final at the end of the season - with the subsequent ankle injury ruling him out of the World Cup in South Africa - but the former Germany captain has now been released by his club, English Premier League champions Chelsea.
After the English club decided against renewing his contract, Ballack now finds himself technically unemployed. While this probably won't mean that he will have to go on some kind of government benefits scheme or re-train to become a plumber, the 33-year-old midfielder will have to consider his future.
With the likes of Hamburg, Schalke 04, Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen already showing signs of interest, it can be ruled out that a dejected Ballack may be investing in a copy of Central Heating for Dummies before too long.
Germany 's one true world star
Ballack has undoubtedly been the only true German superstar of the past few years. After rising to prominence with Leverkusen, then enjoying tremendous domestic success with Bayern Munich, Ballack found himself being courted by Europe's biggest clubs, and decided to make a bid for the big leagues after the 2006 World Cup.
Ballack hoped joining Chelsea would fulfill all his dreams
Leading Germany to the semi-finals of that tournament only enhanced his reputation and the likes of AC Milan, Real Madrid, Manchester United and, of course, Chelsea soon commenced battle for his signature.
The London aristocrats at Chelsea finally secured the all-action midfield general with the rugged, brooding looks and winning mentality on a free transfer.
It looked to be the perfect marriage. Ballack was at the top of his game, his boss Jose Mourinho could do no wrong and Chelsea at the time were back-to-back title winners looking to consolidate their dominance of the English league. The best club with the best coach again signed one of the best players.
Chelsea career not as glittering as it could have been
Looking back though, while Chelsea and Ballack seemed well suited at the time, it turned out to be an often rocky union, and one which didn't really ignite after the fireworks of the honeymoon. Chelsea's Premiership dominance came to an end in 2007, and owner Roman Abramovich fell out with Mourinho, installing a series of coaches who couldn't quite match the Portuguese's magic.
While Ballack collected three FA Cup winners' medals in his four years in London, he had to wait until his final season to add a championship gong, becoming the first German to win the English double in the process.
Ballack's commitment and passion made him popular
Nothing, however, could not take away the pain of missing out again on his main career goal – to hoist the Champions League trophy – which also eluded him at Chelsea in 2008 as it did with Leverkusen back in 2002.
Despite this, Ballack's profile was kept high at Chelsea even if his form sometimes suffered, affected in part by the off-field power struggles. Coaches like Avram Grant and Luis Felipe Scolari came and went without really knowing what to do with him when faced with picking a midfield from some of the best central players in the world. But Ballack flourished again under caretaker boss Guus Hiddink and regained his marauding menace under the incumbent Carlo Ancelotti, returning to the barnstorming form which also helped Germany reach the final of Euro 2008.
One last shot at the top or a leisurely stroll to retirement?
Now, despite being one of the most popular players at Stamford Bridge, Ballack has to wave bye-bye to Chelsea after 168 appearances and 25 goals. With his pace starting to fade and his age creeping towards that premature crest of the hill, it looks like Ballack's days at world football's top table may have come and gone.
Will Ballack's ex-boss give him one more shot at the top?
However, his powers are such that he may still be capable of commanding a team, battling his way through many an opposing midfield, and conjuring some goal-scoring magic for another couple of seasons at the summit of the game. Jose Mourinho seems to think so, if you believe the rumors which say the new Real Madrid coach wants to give his former charge the chance to play out his days in the sun of the Bernabeu.
What is more likely is that Steve McClaren at Wolfsburg, Felix Magath at Schalke, Armin Veh at Hamburg or Jupp Heynckes at Leverkusen will sign Ballack up and put him out to pasture on the green, green grass of home. These are teams in which he could use his experience to inspire young squads dreaming of greatness while winding down his own career in the comfort of his native land. (At Schalke, he could even go on playing in the Champions League - something he has done for a stunning 12 seasons on the trot, with four different clubs.)
Should the Germany captaincy stay on the arm of Philipp Lahm and the new brood of young midfielders charged with fighting for the World Cup prove inspirational, Ballack may also have to consider his international future. His domestic longevity would certainly benefit from not being involved in the national team set-up, something he may also be thinking about as he watches his countrymen in action in South Africa.
While being released by the English champions may mean that Ballack spends the rest of his playing days taking steps down the career ladder, he will at least be leaving the unfortunate nickname of "Bally" behind him in London. Hopefully this was coined because of the famously lazy English trait of just sticking a Y on the end of someone's name and not because the German is blessed in a particular anatomical area. And anyway, "Ballacky" would have just been silly.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Matt Hermann