Through Gritted Teeth #11: Michael Ballack

by Mohamed Moallim

There’s no bigger international rivalry than Holland–Germany, that’s my opinion anyway and I like to think it’s true. Countless classics have been served up by these two neighbours throughout the years, and according to (the excellent) Simon Kuper it is “the greatest grudge match in European football”.

It’s a rivalry that originated from geographical proximity and a shared history, but one that became emotive due to the Second World War. That moment in time and the hardship the Dutch people went through saw strong feelings arise whenever both teams faced each other after the conflict. So much so that Willem van Hanegem took the game to a more personal level whenever he played.

He infamously said before the 1974 World Cup final “I don’t like Germans. Every time I played against German players; I had a problem because of the war,” and how much he wanted to “stuff them.” His personal anxiety derived from the death of his father and brother as they sought shelter during an air raid; the shelter they found was hit. “I didn’t give a damn as long as we humiliated them. They murdered my father, sister and two brothers. I am full of angst. I hate them”. After the final he left the field in tears, however in recent years he’s taken a more conciliatory outlook, and the aggression he had as a player has subdued.

But that aside, there was no real hatred expressed towards the Germans when they met Holland in the 1974 final, although Johan Cruyff longed to humiliate them for allegations in the German tabloid Bild that he had partied with call-girls before the final in Munich. Players from either side were on good terms – even friends – and none more so than Cruyff and German skipper Franz Beckenbauer. (Only one player from both sides didn’t attend the after match banquet; guess who …)

That final took the rivalry into the first steps of a post-war period. Whereas the games before had focused on the generation that went through the war, from 1974 onwards, such sentiments started to drift away. But there were still volatile flare-ups, and it was always in the background, a shadow over clashes between the two sides. It still is today.

But that final loss led to a nationwide trauma all of its own, poetically referred to as De moeder aller nederlagen: The mother of all defeats.

It became a source of great bitterness among the Dutch and it would not be until 1988 (when the Dutch beat the Germans and went on to become the new European Champions) that the public pressure on the Dutch team to be successful relaxed somewhat. Both sides met in the semi-finals in Hamburg where the Dutch led by Marco van Basten came back from a goal down to book a place in the final. That victory sent the nation into euphoria that was unparalleled. After the game Dutch captain Ruud Gullit summed it up “We gave joy to the older generation. I saw their emotions, their tears.”

Kuper (in Football Against The Enemy) writes how that victory was an event of national significance, transcending sport and bringing more than 60 per cent of the population of Holland on to the streets in celebration. “German fans were less interested,” he writes of the build-up to the match. “After all, Holland was not the only country Hitler had invaded.” Dutch television interviewed former resistance fighters about their reaction. A special book of poetry was published to commemorate the victory, combining the efforts of footballers and professional poets. As Kuper notes, “almost all the poems made reference to the war.” And Rinus Michels, the beaten coach in Munich 14 years earlier, said the talk of that heartbreak must end as revenge had now been gained.

Prior to 1988 both sides meet in World Cup 1978 where both sides played out a 2-2 draw, Germany would then get the better of the Dutch two years later in Euro 1980 – in a heated affair – winning 3-2 on their way to their second European Championship. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge complained afterwards the rough play adopted by the Dutch went beyond what was permissible, and laid the blame on his opponents geeing themselves up into a frenzy. “I think it’s a true shame and pity that they regard football as an outlet for their hatred from the Second World War.”

After the Dutch victory in 1988 there were still traces of that tit-for-tat and needless stoking of the fire. Ronald Koeman was seen to wipe his backside with Olaf Thon’s jersey, creating outrage in Germany; David Winner noted (in Brilliant Orange): “Over the following years, the intricate crossover between football-and-war-related feelings shaded into something much darker.”

And who could forget Frank Rijkaard and Rudi Völler’s dismissals at the 1990 World Cup? In the words of Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger: “Games between Germany and Holland had clearly degenerated into something that only marginally concerned football,” something that invited hooligans from both sides to hijack the spectacle. Fortunately this is no longer the case.

If 1974 was a watershed the aftermath of 1988 became one as well. German football fans began to acknowledge the rivalry, where in the past there hadn’t been much recognition from their side. No longer was the war a central issue as both nations moved into a more less aggressive rivalry; there is still that aura, but these are two nations that love the game and play it how it should.

And in recent years, meetings have been rare: the last was in August 2005, a fruity 2-2 draw. That game saw Holland squander a two goal lead, Arjen Robben with both goals. The German equaliser came in the final minutes through Gerald Asamoah, but the ball really started to roll when Michael Ballack pulled the deficit back five minutes after the halftime interval.

For me, Ballack epitomises the midfielder extraordinaire, he just had about everything – vision, control, box-to-box engine, aerial dominance. He had that knack during his pomp to lift his side if needs be: a leader that could mix it up, whether by example or demonstration by grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck. And that’s why I’ve always admired him (through gritted teeth). He was always going to be the one to keep an eye out for, and against Holland, well, passions did spill as he nearly came to blows with Khalid Boulahrouz and had to be pulled away by Philip Cocu before some serious drama unfolded. That game of course was preparation for the World Cup in the following summer hosted in Germany, where Ballack reached the semi-finals but Germany failed to go one further.

They did make the final in 2002, though he missed the game through suspension (justice for his controversial goal against the USA, some might say). That year was an annus horribilis for the German #13. The unwanted treble with Bayer Leverkusen – losing the German cup final, the league on the final day and the Champions League final to a Zidane-inspired Real Madrid side. And then to miss the World Cup final …

For many people there was plenty of schadenfreude to go around, but I wasn’t one of them, however much I wanted Brazil to win the final. To his credit he bounced back, a move to Bayern Munich only enhanced his growing reputation as one of the finest midfielders playing the game (again through gritted teeth – yes I can say that more than once in this piece!).

Euro 2004 saw Germany and Holland once more paired in an international tournament, the first since Euro 1992 (where Holland had won very convincingly – Rob Witschge will never score a better freekick). This time, neither side took the spoils as it ended 1-1, and again there was drama in the shape of a late Ruud van Nistelrooy equaliser. Germany faltered, failing to continue from their high of 2002. Ballack was pardoned of any blame, but he did come in for some stick in later years with the national team.

But leaving Bayern on a Bosman – after the 2006 world cup – was a low blow. He even came in for criticism from Franz Beckenbauer, who accused him of saving his strength for prospective employers. He wasn’t the only one. Both Uli Hoeneß and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge – before his departure – questioned his performance level in key Champions League games.

Yes, he may have wanted a new challenge elsewhere, but it didn’t feel right, even under that barrage of criticism there still was a degree of loyalty not shown to the fans. Then again, the relationship may have been untenable to the point it couldn’t be fixed. If three legends are on your back then it’s hard to find sympathy.

But of all the teams to go to! He had a pick of many clubs, but chose Chelsea. Alright, at the time they were going places, and with Andriy Shevchenko joining at the same time there was real talk of the club establishing a dynasty. As we all know, that didn’t come to pass, and for while it felt as though he’d brought the Leverkusen curse with him: 2008 saw him lose another Cup final, the Premier League on the final day, a Champions League final and a European Championship against Spain.

How much bad luck could one man endure? At least he left Chelsea with a FA Cup winner’s medal and a Premier League title. But one feels he’s never really been sated, as he looks back on his career.

Mohamed may or may not have a tattoo of Paul Scholes over his heart. He definitely does, however, write about Dutch and Spanish football over at his own La Croqueta, as well as for FourFourTwo,, World Football Columns and others. Follow him on Twitter: @jouracule.

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