AUF WIEDERSEHEN BALLACK
‘The Champions League is my objective,’ Michael Ballack had said with customary Teutonic arrogance after joining Chelsea courtesy of a Bosman transfer from Bayern Munich last summer. An eventful year later and the Germany national team captain finds himself marginalised by Jose Mourinho, his name notable by its absence from the 25 man Blues squad submitted to UEFA by the Special One from which he must make his selections for the group stages of this seasons European campaign.
Still suffering the after effects of the ankle injury sustained against Newcastle United towards the end of last season which infamously saw him eschew the advice of Chelsea’s club doctor in favour of having immediate surgery in his homeland, Ballack, despite assurances from his camp that he will be fit enough to resume playing in a timeframe which would make him available for the majority of the Blues Champions League group fixtures, finds himself a peripheral figure at Stamford Bridge.
Now the question we all really have to ask ourselves is, do we really care? Well do we? Franz Beckenbauer, Bayern Munich’s president and all round German legend, has consistently criticised his countryman’s decision to join Chelsea, suggesting that he should have joined another of his suitors, Manchester United, instead. “I can’t see a place for him at Chelsea. He’d have been better off at United, roared der Kaiser, as long ago as last January. “The game passes him by. Frank Lampard is stronger and takes his position.”
Beckenbauer also commented negatively on the speculation linking Herr Ballack with a possible move to Real Madrid which had intensified following claims by the new Los Blancos coach, Bernd Schuster, that a slight disagreement over an agent’s fee was all that had prevented his fellow national joining him at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu during the summer. “Where can he move to now?” he said. “His first transfer opportunity is during the winter, and I hardly suppose Madrid are interested after bringing in Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder.” As for a dream return to the glorious Fatherland and Bayern Munich, forget it. “No, that won’t happen,” concluded Beckenbauer. “Firstly it isn’t what he wants and in all honesty we can no longer afford to pay his wages.”
Ah Wages! That’s what it all boils down to. The unmatchable £130,000 a week salary tabled by Chelsea blinkered Ballack, a luxury player approaching the veteran stage of his career. It transformed him into an avaricious footballing mercenary who happily sold his soul to the highest bidder without fully evaluating the ramifications of becoming one of Jose Mourinho’s so-called ‘Untouchables’.
Ballack arrived at Stamford Bridge with a lofty reputation and an even loftier ego. A world-class player of proven ability of that there can be no doubt, but a Chelsea player? Mmm. What images spring to your mind when you think of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole? For me it’s the ‘kiss the badge’ patriotic-style fervour that is so much a part of their game. Playing for the Blues actually means something to these lads, something which is tangible to the supporters. Once or twice in a blue moon patchy performances are forgiven and forgotten because you know their hearts and their minds are in the right place. Like most Blues fans though I was prepared to give Ballack a fair crack of the whip, to give him time to settle in to the English style of play, relishing the prospect of the Special One melding him into his star-congested midfield, hoping that his inclusion would result in Chelsea cementing their dominance of the domestic game and help them achieve much desired European glory … what a disappointment.
In the 26 Premiership games Ballack contested last season, more often than not he flattered to deceive. My one abiding memory was applauding him from the Stamford Bridge pitch after he’d received the first straight red-card of his career following his attempt to cripple Mohamed Sissoko of Liverpool. He fared better in the domestic cups, playing well in the Carling Cup final against ‘the’ Arsenal’s youth team and of course scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup semifinal against Blackburn Rovers, but then came the famous ankle injury which prevented him from participating in the final victory over Manchester United. In the Champions League, his late 2nd Leg winner against FC Porto in the Round of Sixteen put Chelsea through to the quarterfinals and for that we were all extremely grateful … cheers Michael.
Sadly though, it’s not enough. For 130 grand a week we expect more.
This weeks hysterical posturing by Joachim Löw, Germany’s current national coach and Jarvis Cocker look-a-like, brought tears of mirth to my eyes. “For us, Chelsea’s decision is unfounded,” he said. “After the internationals, I will call Chelsea because it would certainly be interesting to find out why Jose Mourinho has made such a decision. At the moment, nobody can quite understand it.” Coming from a man who masterminded Germany’s victory over England at Wembley a fortnight or so ago this all sounds a bit myopic. “Michael cannot quite explain for himself why Chelsea have not nominated him for the Champions League,” he concluded after some careful deliberation which left me feeling exasperated.
Fortunately, the ever eloquent Jose Mourinho had already subtly explained the situation regarding Ballack. “You asked me about Ballack? What I can say is that he’s a player I like,” he quipped at a recent press conference. “I like him very much. But his life is not easy. Like for the other people, life is not easy. We have a lot of good players. I’m not the kind of coach that gives places to people just because they are faces or names. “Everybody with me has to fight for his place. But I think they have a difficult task because the squad is really good. But Ballack is injured so when he comes back he will start from zero and will face some of the other boys already in top condition and playing football, so I don’t think it will be easy for him.”
It won’t be easy for him for the simple reason, I don’t think Michael Ballack really cares about playing for Chelsea Football Club, however committed he may have claimed his cause to be on the official Blues website … and for that reason, and that reason alone, I have absolutely no sympathy for him. Saying is one thing, doing is another. Towards the end of last season, when Ballack got injured, the inference was that he could have got through the last few crucial games on pain killing injections and then gone under the surgeon’s knife. But he chose not to. Compare and contrast this attitude with that of Chelsea and England’s captain courageous, John Terry, who has been carrying a nagging toe injury for some time.
“I have had a broken toe and I have been playing since day one of the season with an injection,” he said at the England training camp in Hertfordshire as he prepared to lead his country in the crucial Euro 2008 qualifier against Israel. “It is not going to get any better or any worse from having an injection – it might just take a little longer to heal. Look, it is a short career and I don’t want to miss one game for Chelsea or England, or even miss a single training session. If that means having an injection, then I will do it. It is a broken toe. It swells up a little bit, you ice it afterwards. Me and Frank Lampard do the same thing at Chelsea – we try to get the swelling back down and be ready for the next game. Whether I’d do it at 36, I don’t know, but you must remember it’s a short career.”
It’s unlikely that Joachim Löw will get to read this article, but you never know. If you are reading Herr Löw, then you might just save yourself the cost of that phone call you’re planning to make to Chelsea by mulling over John Terry’s short and sweet philosophy of the life of a footballer. An English footballer, who will never say die. “A touch of the Dunkirk spirit, know what I mean?” to quote Harold Shand in the legendary ‘Long Good Friday’ gangster flick. Now do you get it Joachim?
For many of us it’s easy to imagine the likes of JT, Lamps, Coley and SWP walking briskly to the newsagents on a Sunday morning and whistling any one of a handful of Chelsea anthems, but Ballack? … Nah. Can you honestly see him walking through Wimbledon Village singing, ‘Vee are ze Chelsea and vee are ze best vee are se Chelsea so f*ck all ze rest.’?
I didn’t think so.
Up the Chels!
Mark Worrall is the author of cult terrace classic Over Land and Sea. His new book, Blue Murder, Chelsea till I die, is out now. Signed copies of both books are available to buy with free postage within the UK at www.overlandandsea.net