On Bastian Schweinsteiger's 34th birthday, here is a re-run of an article I wrote back in 2014 after Germany's World Cup victory in Brazil. It still holds true today. Happy birthday, Basti!
The Terminator. The Legend. Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Battered, bloodied and bruised but far from broken, Bastian Schweinsteiger had gone through the entire gamut of emotions in Rio de Janiero on 13th July, 2014. As he emerged from the final battle with the Nationalmannschaft securing the coveted golden World Cup trophy, we would see the twenty-nine year old Bavarian first in tears and then with a beaming smile across his face.
Already richly decorated for his club side FC Bayern München, Schweinsteiger had more than played his part in Germany’s victory – the fourth time they had claimed football’s biggest prize.
Schweinsteiger’s road to success had not been easy, a journey that had taken a number of twisting turns. From his international debut as a precocious teenager in the spring of 2004 through to that glorious moment of triumph in the Maracanã as a grizzled veteran with over a hundred caps to his name over a decade later, he had woven and worked his way through a number of phases.
The promising youngster had given way to the impetuous and at times hotheaded youth, who was in turn followed by the seasoned and hard-bitten professional. Schweinsteiger’s road to success had been long and rocky, pockmarked by injury, uncertainty and disappointment.
Unlike many high-profile players who would retain the same essential character throughout their careers, Schweinsteiger had always learned from his mistakes – continually improving, developing and maturing like a fine wine. In Brazil, we would see the finest vintage on the biggest stage.
The boy from the small Bavarian town of Kolbermoor near Rosenheim – also the birthplace another FC Bayern and Germany legend, Paul Breitner – Schweinsteiger would make his debut for the Nationalmannschaft at the age of nineteen, but it was far from an auspicious outing. Coming on as a second half substitute for Andreas Hinkel with his side already two goals down, the young blonde-haired winger was unable to prevent Rudi Völler’s side from crashing to a dismal home defeat against an ordinary Hungarian team – a match that turned out to be a fitting prelude to what would be a dismal European Championship tournament in Portugal.
Schweinsteiger had managed to get onto the pitch in all three group fixtures at the 2004 Euros, coming on as a second-half substitute for Bernd Schneider in the first two games against the Netherlands and Latvia before making his first start in what would turn out to be Germany’s final match of the tournament against the Czech Republic. The youngster played a part in the setting up Michael Ballack’s memorable strike that had given Germany an early lead against the Czechs, but it was a fierce international baptism in what was yet another disappointing first-phase exit for the Mannschaft.
Schweinsteiger was among of number of youngsters blooded by Nationaltrainer Völler at the 2004 Euros – others included Arne Friedrich, Philipp Lahm and Lukas Podolski – but it would take some time for him to find his real role in the developing team. This came with the arrival of Völler’s replacement Jürgen Klinsmann, who would take the first stream of young players and add more to the mix in formulating a plan going into the 2006 World Cup – held in Germany.
Unlike in previous World Cups, nobody in Germany had given the home side much hope, and a 4-1 friendly defeat in Italy had put the coach at the very brink of disaster. A win by the same score against the United States in Dortmund offered Klinsmann a stay of execution, and the young Schweinsteiger more than did his bit by scoring the opening goal. It was hardly earth-shattering stuff, but finally the team had gathered some crucial momentum going into the tournament.
The rest, of course, has become footballing folklore in Germany as the side earmarked for an early exit would thrill the entire German nation. Among the key protagonists was the twenty-one year old Schweinsteiger and his young comrade Podolski, who became the youthful heroes of a German side that had truly broken with the past.
“Schweini” and “Poldi” quickly became popular figures off the pitch – the comedy duo featured heavily in Sönke Wortmann’s wonderful film Deutschland: ein Sommermärchen – but had also done the job on it. Podolski would win the best young player award and score three goals on the way to the semi-finals, and after that painful defeat against Italy – yes, them again – Schweinsteiger was one of those who quickly bounced back, driving the team to a third place finish with two memorable goals against Portugal.
By now a first team fixture with club FC Bayern, Schweinsteiger was at the top of his game and one of the lauded German “new breed”.
Schweinsteiger’s rise had seemed unstoppable, but in the early part of 2008 he would experience his first hiccup. In order to accommodate the striking duo of Miroslav Klose and Mario Gómez, Podolski was moved out to the left wing – with Schweinsteiger being benched. This was a major blow to the now twenty-three year old, who had been looking at securing a starting spot ahead of the Euro 2008 tournament in Austria and Switzerland.
Schweinsteiger had given up a promising youth career as a downhill skier to play football, and in 2008 he sported a hairstyle that looked more at home on the slopes of Klosters or Kitzbühel than the Wörthersee-Stadion in Klagenfurt. Unfortunately, Schweinsteiger’s attitude matched the wild-looking peroxide-blonde hairdo and cocky demeanour. Coming off the bench against Croatia, a brainless reaction to Croatia’s Jerko Leko resulted in a completely avoidable red card.
For some, it was a case of yet another promising young player letting things go to his head and stray off the beaten path. The talented and somewhat innocent class clown had been replaced by the archetypal modern footballer, complete with the fame, reputation, and obligatory supermodel girlfriend.
Sitting on the sidelines for the team’s third group game against Austria, Schweinsteiger had ended up talking to Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel in the stands, and came back stating that he had been given some stern words of advice. The silly hair remained for the remainder of the tournament, but the attitude had suddenly changed. For all his impetuousness, Schweinsteiger was a player who had always been willing to listen to those around him, and whether it had been Frau Merkel or his coach, he came back like a man possessed – but in a good way.
The Mannschaft had made it through the group stages of the Euros for the first time since winning the tournament twelve years earlier, and in the quarter-final against Portugal Schweinsteiger was back in the starting lineup. The Portuguese must have been sick of the sight of him: with twenty-two minutes gone he slid in at the far post to give Germany the lead, and then set up two further goals for Miroslav Klose and Michael Ballack as the Germans strode into the last four with a 3-2 win.
The now rejuvenated Bavarian was on the scoresheet again in the semi-final as his team clinched a dramatic 3-2 win against Turkey, and four days later he was playing in his first tournament final against Spain. Unfortunately that day would see the Spaniards suffocate and strangle a surprisingly insipid German team, and for all his energy Schweinsteiger couldn’t turn the tide. Perhaps the most horrible moment had not taken place on the pitch, but during a post-match interview as the Spanish team rudely celebrated behind him. Tellingly, his response was not much more than a raised eyebrow and a gentle smile.
If the red card against Croatia had adjusted Schweinsteiger’s attitude, the arrival of Louis van Gaal at FC Bayern would help to reinvent completely him as a player. The canny Dutch coach had a well-known knack of spotting ability and getting the best out of young players, and his work with Schweinsteiger would see the impetuous young winger transformed into a midfield engine of the highest quality.
The extra responsibility saw Schweinsteiger knuckle down and fine-tune his game further, and audiences around the football-watching world were soon seeing a completely different player. He was still known as “Schweini” to his fans, but that persona was long gone.
Football can of course be a game of lucky breaks, and in 2010 the injury to skipper Michael Ballack ahead of the World Cup in South Africa would result in a completely new approach from Jogi Löw. With his star man and the defensive midfield rock ruled out of the tournament, the Nationaltrainer created a whole new midfield defensive backbone.
Newcomer and Under-21 team captain Sami Khedira was drafted into the squad to replace the injured Ballack, and Schweinsteiger was suddenly seen as one of the more experienced players in the young squad. The absence of Ballack had meant that the German team needed a new midfield leader and motivator, and the twenty-five year old Schweinsteiger was quick to step into the breach.
The combination worked like a dream. As had been the case in 2006, many in Germany had not given this young and inexperienced team much hope, but Jogi’s Jungs defied all expectations with a string of excellent performances that had the world finally start paying attention.
A 4-1 thrashing of England in the second phase was followed by an even more impressive 4-0 demolition of Argentina in the quarter-finals, and even though they would finally succumb to their new nemesis Spain for the second tournament in succession, the squad was given a massive welcome on their return home.
As one of the more established members of the squad, Schweinsteiger had become one of the indispensables, and started every game in a campaign that saw the Nationalelf claim another podium finish.
Two years later at the 2012 Euros in Poland and Ukraine, things could not have been any different. While the ability and promise of the German team was beyond question, they failed to deliver in a tournament where they had been one of the clear favourites to win a fourth European title. Once again they had made it to the last four, only to fall short in Warsaw against an ordinary Italian side with a performance that was clueless as it was abject. Unlike the previous defeats against Spain, no excuses could be found.
The spirit seemed to have been sucked out of the team, and Schweinsteiger was among those subjected to criticism from the unrelenting media.
2012 had been a tough season for the twenty-seven year old, but it could have been so different. Schweinsteiger had scored the winning penalty in a semi-final shootout against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu to take FC Bayern to a final on home soil against Chelsea, but the Finale Dahoam had turned into a nightmare.
In a game that they dominated from the start, Bayern took the lead eight minutes from time – only to see their opponents grab an equaliser two minutes from time to take the match into extra time. A missed Arjen Robben penalty would lead to the inevitable horror of the Elfmeterschießen, where Schweinsteiger missed his spot-kick to hand the trophy to their undeserving opponents.
To lose the final on his own home ground had been bad enough, but to miss that final kick would surely have been eating away at Schweinsteiger as he and the rest of the team gathered for Euro 2012. The media had started to question his fitness and his spirit, while some commentators even suggested that he was burnt out and no longer up to the task.
Not for the first time however, everybody had underestimated Bastian Schweinsteiger. As had been the case many times before in his relatively short career, those bitter moments of adversity only served to make him stronger. Determined more than ever to throw the Chelsea monkey off his back, he was a major factor in taking Bayern to a famous treble the following season.
Schweinsteiger had scored the winning goal in Frankfurt that clinched the Bundesliga title – a cute backheel against Eintracht Frankfurt that made us think of the old days before his reinvention as the craggy defensive midfield engine – and had played his part as Bayern overcame domestic rivals Borussia Dortmund to finally claim the famous Henkelpott in an historic all-German final at Wembley.
Even then things had not run smoothly for Schweinsteiger. An injury-riddled 2013/14 season and the changes being made by new Bayern coach Pep Guardiola had put his established place under threat, though by this time the man described as the Fussballgott would have the entire fan base behind him.
It has always been said that no one man is bigger than any club, but nobody had ever doubted that Schweinsteiger was more than just another player. Cut from the cloth as Gerd Müller, Paul Breitner and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, he was seen by many as part of the fabric at FC Bayern.
Schweinsteiger might have featured less frequently in Guardiola’s plans, but for Nationaltrainer Jogi Löw his presence in the German team was crucial ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Injuries meant that he would only play three matches in all of 2013 – the last one of which against Sweden had marked his 100th international cap – and he would make just two further appearances ahead of the start of the tournament in South America. Left on the bench for the opening game against Portugal, many were left wondering if there was anything still left in Schweinsteiger’s tank.
A first appearance off the bench against Ghana in the stifling heat of Fortaleza – where his arrival had been crucial in turning around a sticky situation with the team 2-1 down – was followed by a first start in the final group game against the United States. He was back.
Schweinsteiger’s fitness was again called into question following an attack of cramp in the second phase against Algeria, but even if he was running on a mix of adrenaline and fumes alone nobody would have known it. There was no way he was going to miss out on this one.
Solid performances against France and the historic semi-final against Brazil followed, but Schweinsteiger’s crowning moment would come in the final against Argentina. The comedian Schweini from 2006 and the peroxide blonde hothead from 2008 were now distant memories, and here was a man who was throwing everything into the fight while maintaining control of himself and encouraging those around him.
Here he was, the master of his domain, the distributor, the commander, the indestructible midfield machine. The Terminator.
If one needed any further proof of Schweinsteiger’s spirit and commitment, it would come right at the latter stages of the final. Time and again he was hacked, shoved, kicked and even punched, only to just haul himself up off the ground and get on with it. No moaning, no complaining, no retaliating. The complete professional.
In 2008, Schweinsteiger had been defined by his impetuosity. In 2012, his fragility. In 2014, only one word would come to mind: stability.
The couple have preferred to keep something of a low profile amid the media madness, and while Schweinsteiger will do the occasional fashion shoot there’s no chance of him becoming a semi-professional clothes horse like David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo. In fact, he’d rather be seen goofing around with old mate Poldi or the madcap Thomas Müller.
When the final whistle blew at the Maracanã, the relief was etched all over Schweinsteiger’s bloodied face. Nevertheless, he was still able to spare the time to console his defeated opponents. The picture of the German midfield tyro with his arm around Lionel Messi was one of the many unforgettable scenes on that emotionally draining evening in Rio, but it wasn’t just a one-off. With every action, Schweinsteiger enhanced his reputation with his humility – a far cry from the braying Spaniards who had done the conga behind him in Vienna six years before.
Bastian Schweinsteiger is – and will always be – a much-loved figure at FC Bayern München. On that glorious evening in Rio, he became a legend in the Nationaltrikot. For all his achievements in reaching the absolute pinnacle as a footballer, he has maintained his sense of humour, his modesty and his humility.
This is what makes him a true legend.
Originally published on my blog Schwarz und Weiß, in 2014.