Michael Ballack is seen as a talisman, but he isn’t the only influential player making the headlines at Euro 2008. In many respects, Andrei Arshavin’s impact on Russia has been more marked, more eye-catching, writes S. Ram Mahesh.
For all his accomplishments, Michael Ballack, over the last few years, has been football’s nearly man — a player of pedigree, no doubt, but as yet removed from greatness. That one defining performance hasn’t crystallised. Worse, he has built an unenviable record of near misses: he was part of the ‘Treble Horror’ with Bayer Leverkusen in 2002, with the team surrendering the Bundesliga, the Champions League final and the German Cup final; the ho rror was reprised in 2007-08 when Chelsea, Ballack’s current club, lost the League Cup final, the Premier League and the Champions League final.
Criticism of Ballack has centred on his performances in big moments, and the position of affairs ahead of the recent Euro 2008 Group B match against Austria might have seemed depressingly familiar to the German captain. After the heart-breaking defeat in the 2002 Champions League, Ballack had driven Germany to the World Cup final only to be suspended from the title clash against eventual champion Brazil. With Germany entering Euro 2008 as one of the pre-tournament favourites, an early, ignominious exit would, for Ballack, have heightened the despair of losing the Champions League final in May.
Worryingly for the 31-year-old, the seeds of discord appeared scattered in the German camp. The defeat to Croatia had loosened tongues. Ballack had said after the match that perhaps some of his team-mates thought they had “already achieved something” by beating Poland 2-0 in their opening game. Miroslav Klose added that some players were “thinking only of themselves”. German coach Joachim Low’s decision to invite the players’ wives and girlfriends to the team hotel a day after the Croatia game had reportedly left the senior players irate. Austrian newspapers had a field day, with one going so far as to label Ballack a “loser”, and another depicting the German holding a return ticket in hand.
But Ballack isn’t nicknamed ‘Little Kaiser’ for nothing. Talent scouts had realised early that the youngster from Chemnitz was a richly gifted all-round footballer — equally adept off either foot, formidable in the air and possessed of remarkable imagination. When former German coach Juergen Klinsmann unveiled his model of a ‘New Germany’, of a side he said “would play fast and very creative football”, Ballack was a natural fit as midfield general. The comparison with ‘The Kaiser’ Franz Beckenbauer, however, was made by judges of character, who discerned in Ballack a steely resolve and an ability to inspire by example. (Qualities the midfielder has expressed in trying circumstances, which is why the nearly-man record is so baffling.)
Ballack’s response to the crucial fixture against Austria was to hold a private pre-match meeting with his players at their camp on the shores of Lake Maggiore, in Switzerland. “The words spoken were like at a lower division team,” Ballack said later. “It was not a crisis meeting. It was a football meeting, to clear the air. We discussed our performance and our attitude. The details will remain between us. What is important is that it is positive and aimed at the success of the side and, most important of all, that a reaction comes from it.”
A reaction did come from it. Ballack lit up a grim match with a supremely struck free kick, securing Germany’s spot in the quarterfinals and soothing frayed nerves. In the quarterfinal against Portugal, Ballack stepped his game up, imposing his will on proceedings. Bastian Schweinsteiger’s imprint might have been more apparent, his curled dead-ball deliveries setting up Germany’s second and third goals, after he himself had slid in the first, but it was Ballack who pulled the strings through the match.
Much of the work, however, was done before the match. Ballack and Low redrew the shape of Germany’s formation, altering the 4-4-2 arrangement to advance Ballack behind Klose, the lone forward, and bolster the defence with two holding midfielders. Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski provided speedy service on the flanks. “We wanted to shut down the space in Portugal’s midfield and to go from defence to attack really quickly, which we managed to do,” said Low, explaining the strategic switch.
Ballack controlled the match from his advanced position, tying up with his wing-men, feeding the forward, and making runs of his own. He also doubled back in defence, nipping Portugal’s counter-attacks early, destroying their rhythm, with quick, crisp passes after de-possessing his adversaries. He was involved in the move that brought the first goal, being part of a one-two exchange with Podolski, who set Schweinsteiger up, and headed in the third. His role in the second goal was subtle. He had created space for himself during the third goal by nudging Paulo Ferreira out of the way, but in the second he created space for Klose. He played the decoy, his reputed prowess in the air drawing defenders to him, as the forward was left unmarked.
Ballack is seen as a talisman, but he isn’t the only influential player making the headlines at Euro 2008. In many respects, Andrei Arshavin’s impact on Russia has been more marked, more eye-catching.
Forced to miss the first two group games after he was sent off against Andorra in the last qualifying match, the 27-year-old transformed his side in the vital game against Sweden. Suddenly, Russia was playing a fast, fluid style, and not just in counter-attack. Like Ballack, Arshavin was the master orchestrator, his searing pace and scarcely believable ball control harassing an ageing Swedish team, his vision creating opportunities for others.
Guus Hiddink, Russia’s coach, who has made a name from taking less-fancied sides further than they’d have dreamt in big tournaments, had called his side’s performance in the first two group games “naïve”. After Arshavin’s introduction, Hiddink reckoned they were “street-wise”. Said Hiddink: “Arshavin is a player who can decide very, very fast where he can create danger. He can turn left, right, he knows where the opponent is, he is a very strong player. He knows how to dribble at defenders so that they can run with him but can’t attack him. Nature gave him that gift.”
The Zenit Saint Petersburg playmaker proceeded to prove that the performance against Sweden wasn’t a one-off. Ruud van Nistelrooy’s equaliser in the quarterfinal, four minutes from time, might have broken other sides, but Russia didn’t wilt. Arshavin exhorted his team-mates to lift, even as he set up Dmitri Torbinksi. Then he ensured his exceptional display on the big stage wouldn’t be forgotten. He broke away from Andre Ooijer and Wilfred Bouma before threading the ball past Edwin Van der Sar for a compelling final act. Ballack has a reputation to shrug off, Arshavin one to enhance. They could conceivably clash in the final, and that would make some spectacle.