Is signing Michael Ballack a gamble?
Michael Ballack inside the Hub, Chelsea's new education centre. Darren Walsh/Chelsea via AP Images
I was in Germany for one of the pivotal moments in the career of Michael Ballack, when his outstretched leg cost Bayer Leverkusen their first ever Bundesliga title.
Living as I was in Cologne at the time, I was one of tens of thousands in the city glued to a television screen as 1.FC Köln’s local rivals from across the Rhine did battle with Bavarian minnows Unterhaching on the outskirts of Munich.
Needing simply to avoid defeat to win the title, in the 20th minute Ballack stretched to cut out a harmless Danny Schwarz cross and instead deflected it past his own goalkeeper Adam Matysek to open the scoring in a 2-0 defeat.
Lest anyone assume schadenfreude doesn’t actually exist in Germany, those watching in the room with me rose as one to roar the ubiquitous “super!” you often hear bellowed by happy Germans.
Ballack, it seems, has never been especially popular in Germany.
His has been a strange career, starting as it did in East Germany, moving to upwardly mobile Kaiserslautern, blossoming at the largely unloved Leverkusen, featuring big-money moves to Bayern and Chelsea and bookended by a second unsuccessful stint in Leverkusen.
He may be remembered as one of Leverkusen’s best ever players but will always be singled out as the man whose catastrophic own-goal sent the Werkself down the path of collecting that unwanted ‘Neverkusen’ tag.
Yet it takes a special kind of mental strength to pick oneself up from such disappointment and star with clubs the calibre of Bayern and Chelsea, not to mention captain an international side as strong as Germany.
Paradoxically, for all his undoubted inner strength, Ballack has always been regarded as a divisive figure.
His stubborn refusal to retire from the national team when he was clearly past his best led to ugly fall-out with Germany coach Jogi Löw.
Meanwhile his poor form and subsequent benching by Leverkusen – which prompted chief executive Wolfgang Holzhäuser to label “Project Ballack” a dismal failure – led to the kind of wonderfully melodramatic soap opera only the Bundesliga can produce.
It’s against this backdrop Ballack will supposedly move to the A-League
But is he the right choice for Western Sydney Wanderers?
He ticks a few key boxes at least.
He may be as German as Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte but crucially Ballack has spent a fair chunk of his time in the English Premier League.
He is therefore likely to entice some of the stay-away fans obsessed with English football to A-League games, and boosting crowd figures is surely one of the key reasons to sign a marquee player.
He’s also a world-class talent, and it’s not every day a player of his calibre makes his way Down Under.
And if Ballack does happen to sign, as a natural leader and fluent English speaker he would surely take on the captain’s armband.
So there are some compelling reasons to sign one of German football’s biggest names, so much so it’s hard to believe Football Federation Australia officials felt that fans in western Sydney weren’t interested in a marquee signing.
But there is something about Ballack – and not to try and pander to national stereotypes – which invokes a sense of unease.
He’s like a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a battle-hardened Teutonic shell and it seems you never know what you’re going to get with this enigmatic talent.
At Leverkusen he cost his team the title before sulking his way through a second spell, at Bayern he was accused of choking in big matches, Chelsea let his contract expire and he called Germany’s attempt to offer him a farewell friendly “a farce.”
Yet it’s clear that, on his day, Ballack is a genuine match winner.
I hope the Wanderers roll the dice and sign him.
His presence would, if nothing else, add another layer of intrigue to what is shaping up as the most exciting A-League season yet.
Mike Tuckerman is a Sydney-born journalist and lifelong football fan. After lengthy stints watching the beautiful game in Germany and Japan, he has settled in Brisbane and has been a Roar columnist since December 2008. Follow Mike on twitter @Mike_Tuckerman
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