It was a historic win of sorts -- Bayer Leverkusen had not won any of its last seven games against Spanish teams in Europe -- and remarkable in the most enigmatic of ways. After the 2-1 win over Valencia on Wednesday night, players and officials weren't quite sure whether they should revel in a rather sensational second-half comeback or be shocked about the opening 40 minutes, when the whole team had "disappeared into an abyss of horror," as Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote. Michael Ballack, a 35-year-old veteran who has been around the block a few times, declared that non-performance before the break "probably the worst I've been involved in as a footballer."
This Sunday marks the anniversary of an English game that changed German soccer forever. It wasn't just Kevin Prince Boateng's boot and Michael Ballack's ankle that collided on the Wembley pitch on May 15, 2010 but two worlds. On the one hand, you had the self-styled "Ghetto kid" Boateng (then playing for Portsmouth FC), a tattooed loudmouth who'd flopped at Spurs and Dortmund and controversially switched allegiance to the national team of Ghana, the country of his father. Chelsea midfielder Ballack, 33, was the man to guide Jogi Löw's young, inexperienced team to glory at the World Cup in South Africa, the talisman and undisputed leadership figure that German soccer so often loves to obsess about. He wasn't just the captain of the team: he was an icon. The one player of international stature that could be relied upon to deliver when it mattered.
Soccer can be a cruel game sometimes. You can be the undisputed main man for your country's team and do exceptionally well over two years in the World Cup qualification games. But if you then miss the tournament through no fault of your own, chances are someone else will usurp your place during your injury layoff. And they might keep it, too.