Does Michael Ballack deserve criticism for not winning major titles?

Former Major League Baseball pitcher Anthony Young once lost a record 27 straight decisions before finally recording a win. The Buffalo Bills went to four straight Super Bowls – and lost each one. In 1986, Greg Norman led each of the four majors after the third round only to end up losing each one, a feat that was dubbed “The Norman Slam.” In 2004, tennis star Lleyton Hewitt pulled off a similar feat when he lost to the eventual champion in each of the four Grand Slam events.

When pitcher Brian Kingman lost 20 games in one season for the Oakland A’s, he said that you have to be pretty good to lose 20 games. Similarly, for those aforementioned athletes, you have to be pretty good to even be in a position to lose like that in the first place.

I’m sure that’s not much consolation to Michael Ballack.

Michael Ballack has been in great form ever since the start of 2008. After health problems and personality clashes that made it seem as if his Chelsea career was in doubt, Ballack bounced back and was arguably the best player in the Premiership after the New Year.

Still, 2008 will rank as a year of incredible disappointment for Michael Ballack. After losing in the finals of the Carling Cup, the Champions League, and Euro 2008, as well as finishing second in the Premiership, Ballack’s 2008 could hardly have been worse, though it may not be appropriate to dub his “accomplishment” as “the Ballack Slam” since the Carling Cup is not the top domestic cup in England.

Plus, you could argue that he’s already accomplished the Ballack Slam. In 2002, his Bayer Leverkusen squad came in second in the Bundesliga, and lost in the finals of both the German Cup and the Champions League. On top of that Ballack’s Germany squad lost in the World Cup finals to Brazil (although he was suspended for that game – not sure whether that helps or hurts his cause).

There’s no question that Ballack is a world-class player. Plus, soccer is a team sport, meaning that it’s exceedingly possible for someone like Ballack to play well despite his team coming up short.

Still, Ballack’s tendency to finish second raises an important question. Is he merely unlucky? Or is he a choke artist?

Let’s look at his 2001-2002 season. Ballack wasn’t the captain of that Leverkusen team, but he was a rising star. In the Champions League Final, Leverkusen lost 2-1 to a loaded Real Madrid team that consisted of the two most expensive players in the world in Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo, along with several other noteworthy players like Raul and Roberto Carlos. Meanwhile, Leverkusen put out a team that included the likes of Oliver Neuville, Carsten Ramelow, Marko Babic, Bernd Schneider, and a young Dimitar Berbatov. Leverkusen had a quality side in their own right, but Real were undoubtedly superior.

As for the other competitions in 2002, a lot can happen during a course of a season, so it’s not fair to put the blame on any one player as far as the league title goes. As for the German Cup, Leverkusen were beaten 4-2 by Schalke. Again, it’s not like you can put it all on Ballack. Anytime a team gives up 4 goals, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

In the 2002 World Cup final against Brazil, he may have made a difference had he been allowed to play, or he could have disappeared the way he did in the Euro 2008 Finals (more on that below). Still, he was one of the guys who helped that underdog German team get to the Finals, and there’s no shame in losing to a team that consisted of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho (back when they were fit and gave a crap). So it’s not like Ballack was the reason why his teams lost in 2002. Nor was it the case that he played brilliantly and his teammates let him down.

Now let’s look at the 2008 “Slam.” He was unjustly dropped from the starting lineup in the Carling Cup final against Tottenham for Frank Lampard, who was coming off a lengthy injury-related layoff. He did what he could to help Chelsea win the Premiership (including a Man of the Match performance in a must-win match against Manchester United near the end of the season) and came up short in the Champions League in a shootout.

Then, in the Euro 2008 final against Spain, he was injured and rendered a non-factor, so you can probably use that against him. Still, you could argue that it really didn’t make a difference since Spain was simply the better team and that Germany wasn’t as good as we thought they were. Plus, he would have been vilified and criticized even more had he sat out the match, so it’s not like he had much of a choice.

Michael Ballack - ChelseaWow. That’s a lot of excuses for a world-class player like Ballack. It certainly seems as if he has been extremely unlucky when it comes to winning the biggest trophies. Who knows? Maybe Germany would have won the World Cup in 2002 if Ballack hadn’t picked up that yellow card against South Korea. Maybe Bayer Leverkusen would have won the Champions League if their last-minute free kick in injury time had gone in. Maybe Chelsea would have won the Champions League if John Terry hadn’t slipped on the pitch during the shootout.

But it’s not like his trophy cabinet is completely bare. He won the domestic double with Bayern Munich three times. Then again, winning German league competitions with Bayern Munich hardly qualifies as anything special. Not when it’s bigger news in Germany if Bayern doesn’t win than if they do.

Still, all the excuses and justifications in the world don’t make up for Ballack’s lack of results. The lone-star-in-an-empty-sky bit only goes so far, and at some point, you have to hold the player accountable. Is it Alex Rodriguez’s fault why the Yankees haven’t won a title in recent years? No, but as the highest-paid player on the team, and someone who has underperformed in the playoffs, he has to shoulder the bulk of the blame. The same with Ronaldo during the 1998 World Cup Finals. If you want to be seen as one of the best players in the world, then you have to be responsible if you come up short.

Plus, Ballack has had a reputation for being a choker for many years. During his Bayern Munich tenure, Ballack was routinely lambasted by the German media for underwhelming displays in the Champions League.

But to label him a choke artist because of these high-profile losses is a disservice to him and to the game itself. After all, winning takes more than talent. It takes health, hard work, good teammates, and it even takes luck.

For instance, Cristiano Ronaldo had a great season and deservedly cleaned up the various Player of the Year awards (and should win the FIFA Player of the Year Award when it’s announced later in the year). What would we think of him had John Terry converted that penalty kick and given Chelsea the Champions League title? If that had happened, then Ronaldo would have been the goat, since his miss would have been the difference. That, in conjunction with Portugal’s disappointing Euro 2008 campaign, and maybe there would be whispers about Ronaldo’s inability to win the big one right now. Instead, because of an event completely out of his control, Ronaldo is considered to be the best player in the world and a proven winner.

As such, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Ballack as a failure. The bottom line is that he’s a great footballer who’s come up short a few times and gotten unlucky other times. Plus, all it takes is one big-time victory to put that “choker” label to rest once and for all.

As Tom Petty once said, “even the losers get lucky some time.” Will that be the case for Ballack? With Roman Abramovich’s money and Germany’s international pedigree, I wouldn’t bet against Ballack getting off the sooner rather than later.

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