With Bayern Munich legend Bastian Schweinsteiger having agreed a deal to join Manchester United after more than a decade of sterling service to Die Roten, it only is fitting to reflect on a career that has seen incredible success born out of a will to win and recovery from crushing disappointments.
On 13 July 2014, the dream became reality for Bastian Schweinsteiger. Germany had finally pulled through to win an international tournament with one of the most talented generations of the nation’s footballers, who had come so close on previous occasions only to fall at the final hurdle. Many of those players, including Schweinsteiger, were in the last-chance saloon due to the inevitable prying fingers of age.
At the Maracana, which many consider to be the heart of football, an iconic stadium with incredible history and drama locked eternally within those hallowed grounds, Schweinsteiger firmly cemented his status as not just one of the finest players Germany had ever produced, but a modern legend of the game. A savage cut under the eye after taking an elbow to the face was not going to stop him from almost single-handedly hauling an injury ravaged and visibly exhausted Nationalmannschaft to World Cup triumph. He bled for his teammates, he bled for Germany, he bled for immortality.
It is hard to believe that things could have easily been so different – but his love for football and a gut-feeling led to his decision of choosing the beautiful game over a career in skiing. As one of the brightest young talents in the sport, Schweinsteiger grew up travelling and training with renowned German skier Felix Neureuther, even being tipped as a future Olympic hopeful. However, when Bayern Munich came calling in 1998 with an offer to join them as a youth player, he decided to give up on the snow for a full-time career in football in 2001.
I enjoyed both sports, but then a full time offer came from Bayern Munich and I just had a gut-feeling it was right. Football was so popular, and skiing was never like that. Carrying those skis around was annoying too
– Bastian Schweinsteiger when discussing his decision to take up a career in football in 2006
After having won the German youth championship in July 2002, Schweinsteiger was fast-tracked to Bayern Munich II, where he proceeded to put in a number of eye-catching displays in the third division. There were questions about his temperament in those early days, though, and the prodigiously talented youngster started gaining the reputation as something of a rebel off the pitch, raising doubts not about his undoubted talent, but whether he would be disciplined enough to actually realise his immense potential.
However, as his impressive rise continued, then-Bayern manager Ottmar Hitzfeld handed him his debut after only two training sessions with the first team in the UEFA Champions League game against RC Lens in November 2002. He was picked Alongside a young full-back named Philipp Lahm, with whom ‘Schweini’ would eventually reach unimagined heights with both Die Roten and Germany.
The young German made an immediate impact in his first season, making 14 first-team appearances en route to helping the Bavarians secure a domestic double.
Yet he was surprisingly dropped to the reserve team when new manager Felix Magath arrived at Säbener Straße, despite already having become a full German international and representing his country at Euro 2004. The notoriously stubborn and dictatorial Magath did realise his mistake though, and quickly recalled Schweinsteiger to first-team responsibilities, with another domestic double his reward in 2005-2006.
Over the next few seasons, the popular and peroxide-haired star would go on to make 135 appearances in all competitions, scoring 10 goals, but meaning so much more to his team than the statistics alone could ever suggest.
The young protege had become something of a cult-figure at Bayern, and earned the nickname of Fußballgott (‘football god’), thanks to sustained excellence as he grew into one of the best players in the world. After having started his career primarily as a wide midfielder, the arrival of Dutch manager Louis van Gaal brought along a move into central-midfield, where Schweini immediately took to the positional shift and noticeably stepped his game up a notch into the stratosphere of greatness.
Quickly cementing his status as one of the best central-midfielders across the globe, the German was a key component to the Bayern side that made it all the way to the 2010 Champions League final, only to be defeated by Inter Milan in the showpiece event at the Santiago Bernabeu. That particular loss was an immense disappointment, but it only served to usher in the most trying period in the career of the Fußballgott, and a torrid time for Bayern Munich in general.
Domestically, the emergence of Borussia Dortmund started to wrestle away the superiority of the Bavarians in the Bundesliga, while Europe was set to deal the cruellest blow imaginable. After having seen off Real Madrid in the semi-finals thanks to a Schweinsteiger penalty in the shootout, the one man thought to have nerves of steel missed a key spot-kick against Chelsea in the 2012 Champions League final shootout, allowing the underdogs to grab a emotionally scarring win at the home of Die Roten, the Allianz-Arena, of all places.
Add to that a devastating 5-2 DFB-Pokal final loss to their domestic foes BVB, and it was definitely a year to forget, with the icing on the cake being another failure to win a trophy in an international tournament during the summer at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Questions were starting to be asked about two men looked to in reverence over the past few seasons by Bayern Munich and Germany fans alike, the intrinsically linked Schweinsteiger and Lahm. Were they really the spearhead in a dawn to a new era of German football, or great players who were set to follow in the footsteps of former national icon Michael Ballack as archetypical nearly-men?
The answer, quite simply, was an emphatic no.
If 2012 was a year of crushing defeat and unimaginable lows, 2013 brought about unequaled successes and incredible highs as Bayern stormed to a treble under Jupp Heynckes, memorably sweeping aside the mighty Barcelona by an absurd seven goals en route to a fifth Champions League title, meaning that the trophy now permanently resides proudly in Säbener Straße. At the heart of midfield, at the heart of Die Roten, was Schweinsteiger – but his greatest moment was yet to come.
In 2014, Bayern won the double yet again, but all eyes were set on Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. It had been a frustrating season for the Fußballgott, with injuries having hampered his campaign. Heading into the showpiece event in world football, Schweinsteiger, along with a host of other key players, was carrying an injury, and was used sparingly in the early stages of the tournament. However, as the knockout stages came about, the midfielder started truly dominating the opposition alongside Sami Khedira, memorably mauling the hosts by 7-1 in a final four showdown. Argentina beckoned in the final, but Die Nationalmannschaft were dealt a cruel blow in the warm-up to the game as Khedira was ruled out of the final through injury – the inexperienced Christoph Kramer asked to start in probably the biggest game of world football.
What a player
What a career
Won it all
8x League Champion
— |DAVE SAVES| (@TonyStark_Has91) July 11, 2015
— Michel Ziadé (@MichZT) July 11, 2015
The young midfielder did not last long, though, being cruelly forced to exit the fray after a heavy knock to the head – Tipping the odds against the Germans even more. However, Schweinsteiger proceeded to play the match of his life, driving a fatigued and wounded Germany through half-time, full-time and extra-time almost single-handedly through sheer willpower more than skill, at times. The Albiceleste tried in vain to beat the rock in their path, as a spectacular late Mario Götze strike ensured victory – but it was the bloodied, bruised and limping midfield maestro who, deservedly, earned the plaudits. As they say, the rest is now history, forever etched into footballing folklore – the image of a bloodied Fußballgott with the most coveted trophy in world football, the trophy he craved more than any other, is now iconic – proof that where there is a will, there is, in fact, a way. After the retirement of Lahm, Schweinsteiger was handed the German captaincy by Joachim Löw, the ultimate symbolic reward for all he has done for Die Nationalmannschaft
It is an unfortunate truth, though, that time waits for no man, and as Pep Guardiola set about forming Bayern Munich in his image, the increasingly injury-prone Schweinsteiger became something of a square peg in a round hole tactically. Of course, there were still flashes of brilliance which helped Die Roten to the Bundesliga title in 2014-15, but in what was a disappointing season overall the writing was on the wall. As his status as automatic starter disappeared, the promise of a new challenge at another one of Europe’s elite clubs, Manchester United, presented itself, and the possibility of reuniting with van Gaal was irresistible.
What lies ahead in the future for the Fußballgott? Will triumph in England be the next chapter in an already glittering career? You would be silly to bet against it.