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Posted on January 31, 2012
Leverkusen’s Michael Ballack sits on the bench during the Bundesliga match between Werder Bremen and Bayer Leverkusen. Photograph: Joerg Sarbach/AP
Demontage. It’s a word that’s so good Germans had to nick it from the French. It refers to the taking apart of something (or someone) but there are extra layers of meaning. A Demontage is conspicuous, a very public destruction of an important person’s image and status, and it implies an element of glee, lust even. Roping in a fremdwort (foreign word) to name an activity can sometimes betray a sense of unease, and Demontage is probably a good example of that: taking pleasure in someone’s (symbolic) dismemberment sounds a little less problematic in exotic syllables.
“Ballacks Demontage hat begonnen,” (Ballack’s demontage has begun), wrote Stuttgarter Zeitung in July 2010, when the captain’s future in the brave new Germany of Jogi Löw looked less than assured. The national coach played a waiting game, no doubt in the hope that the midfielder would jump before he was pushed. But the stubborn Ballack refused to give up, despite a raft of injuries that kept him out for most of 2010-11.
In view of Ballack’s services to the national team, Löw and the German FA wanted to organise an unofficial testimonial against Brazil (August 2011) but the pride of the “Capitano” was too hurt for him to agree. Six months later, the demontage of the outstanding German footballer of his generation is complete. His status has undergone a process of demounting that seemed inconceivable a few years. The legend has become a pariah, hounded out by his own club, Bayer Leverkusen.
On Saturday, the 35-year-old spent 90 minutes on the bench at the 1-1 away draw to Werder Bremen. Robin Dutt, the manager, later explained that he’d been happy with his players and unwilling to make too many changes during the match but that was only part of the truth. The (non-) outing at the Weserstadion was very much political. Kölner Express reported that Dutt had offered Ballack the chance to stay at home, as there was no way he’d feature on the pitch.
The day before, Leverkusen’s CEO, Wolfgang Holzhäuser, had declared “project Ballack” to have failed, explaining that the club had expected more from the player and that they were disappointed with his behaviour. Bayer’s disillusion was so strong that Holzhäuser even offered up the player for a quick-fire sale four months before the end of his contract. “If there’s a club that is interested, we would talk,” the 52-year-old said.
Football has very little to do with all of this. Ballack, substituted on the hour mark after a poor performance the previous week, has played reasonably well throughout the campaign and provided an element of stability in an incoherent side. His agent, Michael Becker, feels that Ballack has been “made the scapegoat” to deflect from the team’s lack of direction and Dutt’s lack of authority inside the dressing room. Becker is not wrong. But again, this goes much deeper. The insecure, erratic Dutt would have never dared to venture this far without the backing of his superiors. Even Holzhäuser made clear that his view was shared by the sporting director, Rudi Völler, an avid and loyal Ballack supporter since his time as the Germany national coach.
Unlike the situation with Germany, where Ballack missed out on the World Cup not through his own fault and then became seen as an obstacle to the team’s continued progress, the falling-out with Leverkusen is very much of his own making. His first, unforgivable mistake was to dismiss haughtily Völler’s and Holzhäuser’s renewed attempts to secure a more conciliatory end to his international career as “a private initiative” during the winter break when it was anything but. That gross error of judgment was apparently compounded last week: Ballack refused to authorise an interview with a few warm words for Dutt when he found out he would not be playing at Werder. At that precise moment, the club’s patience ran out.
Inside the dressing room, there’s little love for him, too. In Hanno Balitsch, Dutt already purged Ballack’s closest ally during the winter break, and the rest of the squad seem either indifferent or annoyed. Asked if they felt for Ballack, the defender Manuel Friedrich laid on the sarcasm. “Oh yes, it hurt so badly in my heart that I couldn’t sleep for three days,” the 32-year-old said. “I’m happy that I somehow managed to last the 90 minutes.”
“All that remains is regret about Ballack’s inability to climb down from his lonely height as a global star to the humans,” wrote Süddeutsche Zeitung in a hard-hitting commentary piece. “One would have thought he was smarter than that.” He’s demounted himself, as consequence. This is very much a self-afflicted Demontage, in other words, borne out of inappropriate pride and pig-headedness. An auto-demise.
Ballack has always polarised opinion and he can’t expect too much sympathy. And yet, there are those who feel deeply uncomfortable with the way this story is heading, even if Ballack is mostly to blame. “What is happening to him is a disgrace,” his former Bayern team-mate Mehmet Scholl told Bild on Tuesday. “He should be treated as a great player.” Carsten Ramelow agrees. “No player deserves this kind of treatment,” the ex-Leverkusen and Germany midfielder said to www.spox.com.
As much as rival clubs’ supporters, or ones without vested interests, may take a delight in this very public downfall, the overriding sensation is surely one of sadness. For all Ballack’s faults and his unfilled dreams about international titles, it would be a tragedy if the career of a modern great found such an unedifying end. A tragedy not just for him, but for German football.
? League leaders Bayern Munich won 2-0 against Felix Magath’s ragtag army in green shirts. The game did little to warm the hearts of the crowd in the icy Allianz Arena; it took a trademark Mario Gomez goal (read: ugly as hell) from a Toni Kroos free-kick to break the deadlock. Wolfsburg did little to deserve anything but a defeat but the second, last-minute goal – Arjen Robben getting hit by goal-line clearance – still flattered Jupp Heynckes’s team.
? Dortmund were, once again, much more impressive. Shinji Kagawa and Kevin Grosskreutz ran riot against the Bundesliga’s first ever franchise Hoffenheim, an outfit that looks increasingly set to share the fate of other mid-Noughties start-ups like Bebo and Myspace. TSG coach Holger Stanislawski was left admiring the champions’ “merciless resolve” after a 3-1 win that will have frightened the competition. Jürgen Klopp’s men are back to their very best, running and pressing like men possessed, and there’s no reason why their rise to the very top of the German tree should not continue. On Monday, the club announced that the contracts of Klopp and the sporting director Michael Zorc will be extended to 2016.
? Local rivals Schalke were no slouches either, though. The Royal Blues came back from Lukas Podolski’s belter to put four past Köln in the RheinEnergieStadion on Saturday night and pull level with Bayern and Borussia. Even with Raúl, who missed his first ever Bundesliga game since his move from Madrid, Schalke looked clever in attack, composed in the middle and solid at the back. The stylish performance was rounded off with unfeasibly cool statements after the 4-1 win, with Huub Stevens (“others are better”), Julian Draxler (“we stay modest”) and the sporting director Horst Heldt (“we won’t get relegated with 40 points”) refusing the mantle of title contenders. Gladbach stuck to that line, too, naturally, in the wake of a classy 3-0 win away to Stuttgart that kept them only a point adrift of the No1 spot. “We are realistic, we are not a top team yet,” insisted Mike Hanke, somewhat unrealistically.
? While Heldt explained that he felt “very happy at the top”, Köln are right back in the sticky stuff. Podolski will be out with a ligament injury for a month and perhaps off for good in the summer: SkySportNews are reporting that a move to Russia is on the cards. In the meantime, Tese Chong, the man dubbed “the Asian Wayne Rooney” has been brought in as cover, after the sporting director Volker Finke had scouted him for “20 times” and provided DVDs for the manager Stale Solbakken who was said to have been “in agreement” with the surprise addition according to Kölner Stadtanzeiger. The North Korean international Tese, 27, famous for his tears at the 2010 World Cup, will be pleased to join one of Germany’s most fun cities from the horribly grim, soul-destroying place that’s locally known as Bochum.
Results: Mainz 3-1 Freiburg, VfB Stuttgart 0-3 Borussia Mönchengladbach, Augsburg 2-2 Kaiserslautern, Bayern Munich 2-0 Wolfsburg, Borussia Dortmund 3-1 Hoffenheim, Köln 1-4 Schalke, Hertha Berlin 1-2 Hamburg, Werder Bremen 1-1 Bayer Leverkusen, Hannover 96 1-0 Nürnberg.
? Latest Bundesliga standings