Germany Camp Focus – Ballack blow rocks Low’s World Cup preparations

Germany will go into next month’s World Cup without their captain, as Michael Ballack has been ruled out of the tournament with an ankle injury suffered during the F.A Cup Final. After a challenge by Portsmouth midfielder Kevin Prince-Boateng left the 33-year-old in a heap on the Wembley turf, fears were immediately raised over Ballack’s participation in the national team’s quest for a fourth World Cup trophy – fears that have indeed been realised.

Coach Joachim Low now has to replace Ballack not only on the field but also within the dressing room, as one of his most experienced lieutenants will now be missing in action. Low could go the route of England Coach Fabio Capello, who has responded to David Beckham’s absence by inviting the former England captain to join his backroom staff for the duration of the competition and given Ballack’s studious and intelligent nature, an advisory role could be the next step for the Chelsea No 13, although that could depend on the status of his ankle and how able he is to travel. Replacing Ballack as captain is also a decision that has to be made by June 1 – the date the final World Cup squads have to be revealed – with a number of names in contention for the honour leaping off the pages of Germany’s preliminary 27-man squad. The armband would usually go to the most experienced player available – which, with 98 caps was Ballack – and the next in line is striker Miroslav Klose. Next is Klose’s Bayern Munich teammate Bastian Schweinsteiger (74), former Bayern forward Lukas Podolski (71), Hertha BSC defender Arne Friedrich (70) and a third representative of the newly-crowned German champions, full-back Philipp Lahm (64). Of these five contenders, Lahm, 26, may be the only player guaranteed his place in Low’s starting line-up that commands the unquestioned respect of his colleagues and the wider footballing stage.

Adjusting for the loss of Ballack on the field will be far less straightforward. With an abundance of attacking options in midfield, including Schweinsteiger and the gifted Mesut Ozil, Ballack was likely to begin Germany’s first game against Australia in a deeper, more defensive role such are the alternatives available to Low. With the talismanic Ballack ruled out, the door to a starting place could be opened to Stuttgart’s Sami Khedira, a 23-year-old who has made 98 appearances for his club and just three for Die Mannschaft – the first in September 2009. Khedira is something of a young veteran, however, with a Bundesliga title already to his name from 2006/07 and a former captain of Germany’s U-21 side, who he led to victory in the 2009 UEFA European U-21 Championship. Another 23-year-old former member of the victorious U-21 squad of 2009 is Dennis Aogo, and the versatile defender/midfielder could get the nod, although a squad place for the Hamburg player is more likely given his senior international career extends to just one cap. A more experienced choice from outside the preliminary 27 could be Simon Rolfes, the 28-year-old Bayer Leverkusen captain, but even he, with 21 caps to his name and a second place in Euro 2008 to his credit cannot come close to matching what Ballack would have brought to the team on and off the field.

Had Ballack made it to South Africa, he would have been one of the most experienced names present. Having featured in every World Cup or European Championship since 2000, captained his country since 2004, won four Bundesliga titles, three FA Cups and a Premier League, as well as reaching two Champions League finals without success and being a three-time German Footballer of the Year, Ballack brought a level of familiarity to the high-pressure tournament environment that no other active German player could match, and few from any other country could equal either. But Germany are often noted for their team spirit in recent years, since the gigantic egos of the past have long retired, and the loss of their leader is only likely to galvanise the remaining players further. Ballack may have been the star name in Germany’s team but he was a team player on the field, willing to ignore his superstar status for the benefit of the group. Sadly, it appears Ballack, 34 in September, has played his last World Cup game and his compatriots now have to show they can cope without their standard bearer.

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