On Monday, the 33-year-old old captain of the German national team announced he could not travel to the tournament in South Africa next month due to torn ligaments in his ankle.
Brutally fouled by Portsmouth's Kevin-Prince Boateng while playing for his club Chelsea in the FA Cup last weekend, Ballack will likely recover, but not in time for the most important football competition in the world.
With 98 caps and 42 goals to his name, Ballack was a crucial part of Germany's bid to win the World Cup for a fourth time. Many commentators on Tuesday paid tribute to the impressive yet still tragic arc of his career. He was suspended from 2002 World Cup final and failed to win in 2006, when Germany hosted the tournament. He also only came in second during the 2008 European championship.
As German football fans mourned the loss of their most important player, the nation's newspapers sifted through the wreckage of a team built around Ballack to see what could be salvaged.
Painting a brave face on dreadful circumstances, Der Speigel said the injury was a personal tragedy for Ballack, but the sporting impact for Germany could be less worse than feared.
“Ballack will not become world champion in this life. South Africa would have been his last chance to win the most important title of the footballing world,” the magazine wrote. “But one can expect that the German team has enough time to react to this new situation.”
Saying national coach Joachim Löw had plenty of talent in the midfield to plug the gap, Der Speigel singled out Bastian Schweinsteiger as the man to take on more responsibility. “He'll have to replace Ballack as a leader on the pitch, as a holding defender, as a creative playmaking force.”
The Süddeutsche Zeitung concurred that other players could step into the vacuum left by the injured captain. “Ballack is almost 34-years-old. The team would have had to soon learn to play without him anyway,” the paper pointed out. “And so the future of the national side will suddenly start sooner than planned.”
However, without Ballack's leadership, the Munich daily said Löw would need to make team more “democratic” and inclusive.
“Yes, it's a sporting disadvantage that Ballack is missing, but it's also the chance to create a flatter hierarchy and stronger sense of belonging in a team freed from its most dominating figure,” Süddeutsche Zeitung opined. “If Löw cleverly uses psychology, he'll use the departure of the captain as motivation.”
The daily Die Welt lamented the fact that Germany's “only world-class player will not be at the World Cup” after Boateng's nasty foul on Ballack.
“The public outcry wouldn't have been anywhere near as big had it been any other national team player,” the paper wrote. “But it hit the irreplaceable one!”
The paper also pointed out that Boateng, born and raised in Germany, was already unloved by the country's fans before he opted to play for his father's homeland Ghana at this summer's World Cup.
“The culprit, Kevin-Prince Boateng, grew up in Berlin's problem neighbourhood Wedding, became known for nasty fouls and rowdy night-time behaviour, as well as his enormous footballing talent,” Die Welt wrote, explaining he was turfed out of the U21 German national team for lack of discipline. “And now he's playing in the first World Cup round against Germany. As if that wasn't suspicious enough.”
But Berlin's Der Tagesspeigel tried to dispel any conspiracy theories by pointing out that Ballack had served up his share of rough play over the years.
“This selfless and tragic hero who fights for his Fatherland but still misses out on the biggest victories is also occasionally an arrogant provocateur,” wrote the paper. “He made clear on the pitch four years ago that he considered Boateng a little turd. And shortly before the brutal foul, Ballack gave him a mean little swat to the face to let him know it.”
Die Tageszeitung tried to look forward amid the misery.
“Captain, alpha wolf, leader. Michael Ballack was for years Germany's only footballing superstar,” the paper said. “But a functioning football pack can do just fine without an alpha wolf.”
The daily said being robbed of its leader could even end up changing German football for the better.
“Much has been said of the modernisation of German football in recent years,” Die Tageszeitung said. And spreading responsibility onto the shoulders of all the team's players could be another step in this direction. The leader is dead, long live the team!”