Every time Bastian Schweinsteiger offers consolation to an opposing team member, I am reminded of one moment; Schweinsteiger lying on the turf, his head buried away from the world in shame, a stadium filled with tears in collective yet individualistic pain, none greater than that of the Bayern man. He had just missed a penalty, a historic penalty which, at that point, brought proud Bayern to its knees.
That penalty altered Bayern's course the following season; they came back hungrier and, as the story goes, they clinched everything in a fairy-tale-ish manner, or as Bayern fans might like to call it, in "2001" style. A year after Oliver Kahn's heroics in the 2001 shootout against Valencia, Germany found themselves in the World Cup final. Despite more heroics, he could not stand in the way of Brazil and glory, especially in the absence of Germany's most important man, Michael Ballack.
Ballack would come back again in 2006. This time, he would not miss the action. He found himself next to Torsten Frings in defensive midfield in a 4-4-2 formation. The team looked creative and intelligent. Eventually they met Argentina in the quarterfinals. This is where something significant happened.
Yes, Germany went behind only to see Miroslav Klose, coming off his best ever season at club level with Werder Bremen, equalize. Yes, they won in penalties. But hot-tempered Frings got into an argument. He was suspended against Italy. Germany only lost to Italy at the end of extra time. In the absence of Frings though, the team lost some much needed bite.
Two years later, Frings took his spot next to Ballack again in the Euro 2008 Final, except it was not really next to Ballack (more on that coming up). But this time, he stepped in for Bayer Leverkusen's captain Simon Rolfes. Without Rolfes, Germany went on to lose to Spain. They would have perhaps lost with Rolfes in the side.
Ballack was actually pushed forward into the playmaker role, allowing the hammer, Thomas Hitzlsperger to sit back. Hitzlsperger came into the team because Löw, realizing Mario Gomez and Miroslav Klose were just not made for each other, switched from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 for the latter stages.
As for Rolfes, he had actually been stepping in for Frings, who had a broken rib, but he may be should have kept his spot, at least for the sake of continuity. Miroslav Klose scored two more goals by the way, one in the quarters and one in the semi, despite not really having a very good tournament overall.
Two years down, Joachim Löw received some bad news. It was from Ballack. He was not going to South Africa. He was staying home. Kevin-Prince Boateng had managed to kick him out of the World Cup. Löw was lost. He had not completely bought into the idea of Bastian Schweinsteiger as a defensive midfielder yet. Plenty of German players dropped like flies including first choice keeper Rene Adler. He had to go with the young and not-so-tested.
Ballack and Rolfes were gone; Schweinsteiger and Khedira were the new partnership. In fact, the formation changed for good. There was going to be only one man up top. Nobody doubted who the man up front would be though. The technically brilliant Mesut Özil became the face of the 4-2-3-1, the man filling a hole which Germany did not have before 2006, the man who permanently got rid of the idea of the Klose-Lukas Podolski dependent 4-4-2 ever returning.
Thus, we had 4-2-3-1 again. Schweinsteiger-Khedira-Özil held the key. And this was especially evident against Diego Maradona's somewhat clueless Argentina in the quarters. The Germans sat back and waited. Schweinsteiger lay the deepest, with Khedira moving forward to overload the attack and act as a supplier to Özil. Of course things would not have worked so well without Thomas Müller; but the midfield three were the key. Argentina could not cope; they went down 4-0 as Miroslav Klose, at 32, scored World Cup goal number 13 (equaling Just Fontaine) and goal number 14 (equaling Gerd Müller).
The party came to an end in the semi. Yes, the absence of Müller hurt Germany. But in that match, the midfield trio failed. They were pressed back; they became much too defensive. Schweinsteiger, Khedira and Özil no longer complemented each other as they had done earlier. Özil seemed worn out. I am not sure Müller would have been able to change the result (he would definitely have done more damage than Piotr Trochowski did all night). But Löw also did not field the better option that night: Toni Kroos.
These days, Özil finds himself shifted to the wing in favor of a certain Kroos. But, we will come back to that.
In October 2011, another knock changed the events afterwards. Gokhan Inler collided with Schweinsteiger, breaking his collar bone. When Basti returned, he was not the same. Löw knew this; but he refused to drop Schweinsteiger in Euro 2012. Kroos looked on from the sidelines in anguish. Eventually, when he was allowed to play in the semis, he had to guard Andrea Pirlo. This made very little sense. Kroos was definitely not ready for this. A half fit Schweinsteiger could not do the damage a fully fit Basti could do. Germany lost, and once again, it had something to do with the balance in midfield.
Two years later, Joachim Löw was once again lost. He wanted to start Philipp Lahm in midfield and keep either Bastian Schweinsteiger or Sami Khedira on the sidelines. Then, suddenly, he decided he was going to go with the best option ahead of the quarters.
The combination was very effective against France and utterly ruthless against Brazil. They hold the key to the cabinet locking the FIFA World Cup Trophy. They are the three which will have to break down Argentina. Kroos might yet be the decisive man. He has been so good that he could walk away with the Golden Ball if Germany goes on to win. Argentina have a defensive stability not seen for a long time. They have become pragmatic, relying on Lionel Messi but also on a strong defensive structure.
If Germany do not win this time, the key will become rusty faster than expected. This might be the last chance for one of Germany's golden generations to win. Bastian Schweinsteiger's injury record shows he might not be back in 2018. Philipp Lahm might not come back. The "class of 2006" including Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski will go down as nearly men in international football.
For one man, there will surely be no return. More than 12 years after playing in his first World Cup final, 36 year old Miroslav Klose will be taking part in his last. He can no longer pull off the perfect somersault; he has lost some pace too. But he has become the World Cup's highest scorer. He has aged no doubt. He comes into every World Cup as part of a different club side (2002- Kaiserslautern, 2006- Bremen, 2010- Bayern, 2014- Lazio); he comes back with more experience. He wants the World Cup. Germany owes it to his service to win as well.
Against familiar foe, Germany will go with a different duo/trio in midfield for a third time. The ultimate goal will be the same: to win at all costs. For like failure, glory is individualistic and collective. Kroos, Schweinsteiger and Khedira will each have to be brilliant to work in tandem; only then will the collective finally win out.