- Ballack took one for the team – and missed the Final as a result
- He earned widespread praise in Germany for his booking
- Even the referee felt sorry for Ballack
“He placed himself at the service of the team and the whole of Germany. The entire country will stand and applaud him.”
Rudi Voller’s tribute to Michael Ballack was warm and well deserved, and his prediction proved accurate. Germany did indeed unite in acclaiming the match-winning hero of their 2002 FIFA World Cup™ semi-final against co-hosts Korea Republic.
Yet the act to which Voller referred, and which put Ballack in the spotlight, was not the solitary and decisive goal captured in this image. Instead, the midfielder was lauded by his coach, team-mates and throughout his home nation for picking up the costliest of cautions four minutes earlier.
“Even though he knew that with another yellow card he would miss the Final, he still committed a tactical foul that was absolutely necessary,” explained Voller, reflecting on Ballack’s decision to bring down Lee Chunsoo and halt a promising Korean break. “Not too many players would have done what he did, so hats off to Michael.
“He is the tragic figure tonight. He was the first guy I saw [after the match] and he was so sad – he was crying in the dressing room. I had to lift his spirits. It’s a great pity he will miss the Final as he was one of the best players on show today.”
Voller was not alone in expressing such sentiments. Even Urs Meier, the Swiss referee who flashed the yellow card – while adamant that “I couldn’t have decided any other way” – admitted to feeling sorry for Ballack.
The suspension of Germany’s star midfielder did help lead to a change in World Cup rules, with existing cautions wiped out after the quarter-final stage from 2010 onwards. This, though, was of little consolation to Ballack himself, who described as “very bitter” the feeling of missing out on football’s biggest game.
“It was a stupid situation, they were outnumbering us in their attack and I had to do it,” he said after the match. “It was my first foul, I knew what would happen but I had to do it.
“Now my dream of the World Cup Final is destroyed. It’s just about the most bitter thing that can happen to a footballer. Four years ago the same thing happened to Laurent Blanc and I felt for him when I watched him on TV.
“Obviously I now wish my team-mates every success in the Final and I’ll be with the team on the pitch in my heart, even if I won’t be out there with them. Very few people would have placed much money on us getting to the Final, so it’s satisfying for us to prove them wrong. Despite the criticisms that were levelled at us for a lack of style, a lack of flair, I think today’s game really proved to the world that we are in the World Cup for something.”
Ballack was right. But while Voller’s team’s run to the Final was laudable in itself, this was not as star-studded or talented a generation as German teams that had gone before and have shone since. It had been the brilliance of Ballack and goalkeeper Oliver Kahn that had underpinned their progress, and there was a realisation – even before the Final – of what the former’s loss was likely to mean.
“It’s almost impossible to replace Michael adequately,” Voller said at the time. “If the team gets into a bad situation, he can turn the match around by scoring a goal or providing an assist. It’s going to be nigh on impossible to replace him.”
So it proved, as Kahn’s standards dropped for the first time in the Final and a Ronaldo-inspired Brazil ran out comfortable 2-0 winners. But while Ballack was a frustrated spectator and never would get his shot at a World Cup Final, Germans still remember the skill and sacrifice that helped their team get there without him.
Did you know?
Kahn’s gloves from the 2002 World Cup, in which he conceded just once in six games leading up to the Final, number among the unique exhibits at the FIFA Football Museum in Zurich.