Philipp Lahm’s Fatal Flaw

Germany’s duel with the Netherlands in the first round of the 2004 Euros proved to be yet another glorious contribution to a rivalry rich in history. A free kick from Thorsten Frings put Germany ahead, but Ruud van Nistelrooy’s late effort ensured a dramatic share of the spoils. Oranje rejoiced, and a triumphant Andy van der Meyde spitefully pointed his finger at a demoralized twenty-year-old German left back who managed to shut him down for an extended period, but was nowhere to be seen when the Dutchman set up the equalizer.

It was a gesture bred out of pure frustration, nonetheless a symbolic one that chillingly alludes to the lone endurance required in a marginalizing sport.

It would also resonate Philipp Lahm’s first and last error in professional football.

That is, until a few days ago…

***

From local boy at FT Gern to crown jewel of Bavaria, Philipp Lahm’s hunger for success was embedded into his ideology since the tender age of eleven. Raised in a legion of Stefan Effenberg and Oliver Kahn, Lahm observed the art of leadership and public relation in the globalizing sport of football. He understood how to thrive in constricted areas and impose physicality through modest means from France’s finest in Willy Sagnol and Bixente Lizarazu, respectively. Always in the midst of egocentricity at FC Hollywood, Lahm would remain an altruistic figure. Conversely, his humbled demeanor when his club and country need him to be strong may prove to be his fatal flaw as Germany seeks its first international title since 1996.

These sudden manifestations became clear once Philipp Lahm conceded his second error in a decade.

Last week, he immediately found himself in hot water once Germany faced Ghana. Sami Khedira’s volition to be Germany’s number ten would turn out to be an impetuous decision, as his technical deficiency in the final third left Philipp Lahm and Toni Kroos completely winded of support, resulting in their failure to provide answers to an imperious Ghanaian inquisition. Lahm struggled against the opposition’s physicality, most notably when he gifted possession to Sulley Muntari, who in turn assisted for Ghana’s second goal. He also lacked the prerogative to instruct Khedira to play deeper and break down the opposition’s inspired flow. It was only when Joachim Löw decided to replace Khedira with Bastian Schweinsteiger that Germany was able to formulate a character-driven comeback against the Black Stars. For someone who “simply cannot play badly” according to Bayern’s assistant manager Hermann Gerland, Lahm had a shocker by his standards.

He’s put on virtuoso displays week in week out, but after the nation’s perpetual disappointment in the penultimate stages of major tournaments, media diatribes have always surrounded Germany’s national coach, while Philipp Lahm has remained a peripheral figure during scapegoating criticism. The role of a captain has become more demanding: Lahm must bear the burden of his team’s recent failures if he is to accept responsibility for leading Germany to ultimate grandeur. He must transform himself from Mr. Reliable to Mr. Accountable.

Because leading by example is admirable, but it isn’t enough.

When Mark van Bommel departed Bayern in 2012 leaving Lahm as captain, manager Louis van Gaal recognized a division in team spirit. Thomas Müller and Arjen Robben had a public bust up, while the latter wasn’t even on speaking terms with Franck Ribéry. Ivica Olić and Danijel Pranjić became recluses, and Toni Kroos didn’t seem to adapt to the club’s methodology. Van Gaal, who was leaving at the end of the season, realized that he had already lost his locker room midway through it. He was sacked shortly after, and Philipp Lahm remained silent yet again.

It’s not to say that Lahm is to blame for Bayern’s internal bedlam. Still, his failure to unite his colleagues in circumstances that demanded it is equally deafening. Even recently, when Bayern played Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, it was usually Robben who’d give rousing speeches near the dugout to inspire his teammates.

If a spotlight is there for the taking, silence is no sign to do so. For years Germany has experienced personalities whose outspoken behaviors would surpass their reputation in Lothar Matthäus, and Matthias Sammer. Not everyone appreciates narcissism, but nobody can deny the success it brings. A leader’s vanity establishes an implicit discipline within a squad. A united front is stronger than none at all.

In his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, Alfred Lord Tennyson admires the tenacity of six hundred British soldiers who unconditionally trust their commander and await their eventual doom:

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death

 (Lord Tennyson, 13-16)

In a group of talented young individuals, der Kapitän must come up with a consensus that provides a foundation for discipline. Even if it points to the valley of Death, a captain’s belief is worth fighting for. From blundering against a clinical Netherlands in 2004, to scoring a last minute wonder to put Germany into the Euro 2008 final, and triumphing in Europe’s most prestigious club competition five years later despite tragically losing it at home previously: Lahm’s invaluable experience surpasses much of football’s current elite.

Such experience should be utilized to curb the overconfidence of Mario Götze, whose internal celebration after scoring against Ghana seems to indicate a potential disintegration within the national team. Granted, I may be obsessing over Mario’s lax attitude and unnecessarily extrapolating it to Germany’s demise, but I don’t think anyone will disagree that he needs a serious kick up the backside if Die Nationalmannschaft aspires to maintain a collective belief, and a unanimous goal. The question is, does Lahm possess the authority to do so? He’ll need to, because for the next few weeks, there’s no such thing as Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, or Schalke 04. There’s only Germany; and Philipp Lahm from the top of the food chain must embrace his role as the godfather, and push his nation beyond the limits to relinquish the yoke of being perennial losers.

It’s unfair to blame him for not being bigger than he already is. Lahm gives more than 100% in ways we can’t even imagine, and I for one desperately hope he reaches the heights of Paolo Maldini. It’s painful to write an article criticizing the German skipper, but paying homage to who he is and what he’s achieved isn’t going to win Germany the World Cup. Unless he finds a way to motivate his teammates in their pursuit for international glory, Philipp Lahm may never achieve his much anticipated accolade of becoming as good as the Milan legend.

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