I love Bastian Schweinsteiger unabashedly and without limit.
The football game I have watched more than any other is Germany’s 2010 World Cup quarterfinal against Argentina. Schweinsteiger earned Man of the Match honours for his performance, turning in a tactical display that demonstrated all the best parts of his transformation from a winger into a complete midfielder,carefully pulling the strings of every player around him. Germany beat Argentina 4-0 and while the country’s goal-scoring prowess would once again make post-match headlines around the world, it was Schweinsteiger’s quiet – dare I say efficient – control of the game that was the real story hidden in the box score. Schweinsteiger was twenty-five and close to the top of his game; “You’ll never see him play that well again,” I was told afterwards, not because quality performances were unheard of for the player but because it was such a singular performance that it would be hard to top.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the 2014 World Cup final, once again pitting Germany against Argentina. A not-entirely-fit Schweinsteiger arrived in Brazil fresh from a minor knee injury and was one of a handful of “old guard” players in a team of exciting young up-and-comers. Where Schweinsteiger was cool, calm, and collected four years earlier against Argentina, here he was playing in a state of nearly pure emotion that the uninitiated rarely expect from Germans. By manager Joachim Löw’s own admission, Schweini was the team’s pure and unadulterated beating heart.
Argentina did their best to take Schweinsteiger down time and time again, fouling him continuously throughout the match, but this fighter was undeterred. In a career that had seen him finish third in the World Cup not once but twice previously, the drive to win the match was etched on Schweinsteiger’s strained and bloodied face. Upon the final whistle, Schweinsteiger’s reaction was one of cathartic weeping and palpable relief: Germany were world champions for the first time in over two decades
Schweinsteiger is, of course, much more than just two performances against Argentina. There’s the uncommon loyalty that caused him to ignore the pursuits of Europe’s top clubs in order to extend his stay and finally win the Champions League with Bayern Munich, the club he was at for seventeen years. There’s the leadership and discipline both on the pitch and off of it. The thirty-yard screamers scored from outside the box. The improvement in his acting ability after several years of inexplicably representing German potato chip company Funny-Frisch in their moderately amusing commercials. The winner’s mentality without the ego that all too often comes with it. The unparalleled reading and strategizing of the game. The unyielding love for Oktoberfest. The good-natured exuberance. The drinking game he inspired. Perhaps most importantly, the ability to embody both what everyone wants in a German footballer while simultaneously bridging the gap towards a new definition of what German football can be.
When Your Favourite Player Plays for An Arch Rival
During any international break, you can bet the infamous Club vs Country debate rages on, sometimes in the press, even more often on the internet. Football fans often feel far more connection to the clubs they devote ten months of each year to than they do to various national teams that interrupt the club football schedule for tournament qualifying matches or – in the absolute worst scenario imaginable – what are perceived as meaningless friendlies between nations. For some, the concerns lie in ensuring that those who have been called up to represent their countries return uninjured and unscathed. For others, it’s simply a case of not having any kind of affinity for their national team. Liverpool FC fans are famous for declaring “WE’RE NOT ENGLISH, WE ARE SCOUSE” – a sentiment rooted deeply in both local culture and history – and more often than not come down on the side of their club when forced to choose one over the other.
As a fan of both Liverpool and Germany, the club vs country debate is one that hasn’t, until recently, made much of an impact on me beyond ever-present injury concerns. The number of German players plying their trade in the Premier League has always been fairly small as compared to, say, the number of players from Scotland, Spain, or France. Of the seven Germans currently signed with English teams, four have been in the league for two or fewer seasons. Arsenal’s signing of Per Mertesacker in 2011 was followed by Lukas Podolski in 2012. After Mesut Özil’s expensive arrival in in 2013, it looked like the floodgates might have finally opened for German players to make high profile, financially lucrative moves to top Premier League clubs. But the wave of German players never came, and it seemed as though I would continue to be able to keep my love of Germany and Bastian Schweinsteiger deeply isolated from my love of Liverpool. It was, perhaps, the only middle ground to be found in the debate.
With German players profoundly unenthusiastic about moving to England, the idea that Bastian Schweinsteiger would see out the remainder of his career at Bayern Munich was not unreasonable. He had won everything worth winning with his boyhood club, retained considerable influence on the pitch and off it, and had often spoken about a post-playing career in the Bayern front offices. One-club men are few and far between in modern football, and Schweinsteiger was the last operating in Germany. There was a certain romance to the story for those longing for intangible parts of the game that are harder to find nowadays, and a certain practicality to it for those who might prefer that he remain a Bundesliga star.
But the reasons to stay at Bayern were also far fewer than the reasons to pursue new challenges elsewhere. Liverpool’s own one-club man, Steven Gerrard, had left the club in the spring of 2015 to try something new – new team, new league, new continent, new weather – having won many major trophies with Liverpool over the course of his storied career. Four years older than Schweinsteiger and with perhaps barely a season or two to go before retiring, Gerrard chose sunny California and LA Galaxy for his MLS adventure. A few weeks shy of his thirty-first birthday last summer, Schweinsteiger signed on the dotted line for Manchester United, ending his Bayern Munich career and signing for Liverpool’s arch rivals in one motion that proved yet again that the pen can be far mightier than the sword.
Condolences from football friends across the globe quickly rolled in, as if either myself or Schweinsteiger (or both) had somehow acquired some sort of transfer-related degenerative disease and didn’t have much longer to live. “Are you okay?” they asked. “Will you get through this?” Transfer business is emotional business, and with any feeling of loss there are stages of grief to process. Bargaining is always an exercise in creativity; I rationalized to myself that Schweinsteiger wasn’t the player United needed to get back on track, and if they wanted to pay him handsomely for his efforts that was money they wouldn’t be able to spend on other, more critical players. Given his history, at some point in the season he’d likely sustain an injury or two, and so all I really had to endure was the tiny handful of times Liverpool would face off against Schweinsteiger’s new team. It would be tough, but if he saved his good games for matches that didn’t involve Liverpool, it would be bearable. I would be okay.
Schweinsteiger’s debut season with Manchester United did not exactly live up to the hype surrounding his move, but he ended the season with his first piece of English silverware when United won the FA Cup, a feat made all the more bitter by Liverpool reaching and then failing to win two of their own cup finals. The low points of Schweinsteiger’s season came from a pair of knee injuries that kept him on the sidelines for most of January through May, with the second injury still yet to fully heal as he resumed training with Germany ahead of their first group stage match of the European Championships. It was club vs country come back to haunt me from an angle not often considered – one where a player’s injury at club level for a team you don’t even support could dramatically alter the complexion of his country’s results in a major tournament.
Bastian Schweinsteiger has been to the Euros twice previously, finishing as runner-up in 2008 and in third place in 2012. As Germany’s captain, he has a chance to finally bring home the one trophy missing from his personal list of honours, and as reigning World Cup champions Germany are amongst the favourites to win the tournament. At nearly thirty-two, it could very well be the last competition he contests with the national team. Players often retire from their national teams before hanging up their boots for good at club level, and I brace myself for a time when my only opportunity to see Schweinsteiger play will be to tune in to a Manchester United game. It’s unfortunate when your favourite player plays for an arch rival, and even worse when he no longer plays for the team that meant so much in how you came to love him in the first place.
Because, for better or worse, I love Bastian Schweinsteiger unabashedly and without limit.