The 2012 Champion’s League Final couldn’t be decided in 120 minutes. The game, between Bayern Munich and Chelsea, was 80 minutes of nothing, 10 minutes of mayhem — Bayern scored, Chelsea scored. In extra time, Arjen Robben -- the Dutch Rabbit -- was denied from the penalty spot by 6’5” Peter Cech’s dangling arms. Extra time was a stalemate. The game was on to penalty kicks.
The Bayern players had all seen Robben get denied, and Cech, Chelsea’s goalkeeper, is one of the world’s best. He wears a padded helmet, and the pose he strikes before a penalty kick is odd, though effective *. He is eerily still. While most goalkeepers shuffle across the line, wave their arms, roll the neck, something, Cech does the opposite — he doesn’t move at all.
The first three shooters scored. But Bayern’s Olic missed, canceling out Juan Mata’s shot against the Bayern goalie’s chest. Ashley Cole scored for Chelsea, making things square. The teams were down to their last shooters.
The players chosen for this godforsaken spot must have extra iron in their blood. When they stand ready to shoot, it will feel like the stadium’s oxygen has all been sucked out of the air.
For Chelsea it would be Didier Drogba, the big Ivory Coast man.
For Bayern it was Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Schweinsteiger is the perfect German specimen. He’s six feet. Blonde, blue eyes. Skilled and hard working. Smart as anybody on the field. He is imposing not because he’s big, but because he’s good.
His national team coach, Joachim Low, calls him “the brain” of the team, but he’s the heart of it too. The camera will cut to him and he’ll be barking something, directing, sparking his team like a flint lighter. He’s the guy other players see in the 89th minute running like a dog through two sliding defenders to pounce on a ball. Schweinsteiger is still motoring, still fighting, why aren’t you?
He wears two straps of white tape on his wrists. He plays the game like a working class man. What he brings to a team is loved by coaches, appreciated by teammates, but he is the type of player you never want to play against — not because he’s scoring goals, but because he beats you in the other 99% of the game. He is an engine, not a fancy paint job.
This night in 2012, Schweinsteiger would shoot before Drogba, and he had to score. True, Drogba could miss, but that was beside the point, Schweinsteiger had to score. That’s what players of his ilk do. They step up to the line, up to the spot, they take the ball, set it on the ground, jam it into the goal.
Schweinsteiger waited with his hands on his hips for the referee to blow the whistle. He looked relaxed. The whistle came. Schweinsteiger took a few breaths then hit the ball. It was going at the right corner. He hit it hard, he hit it low. He got it past Cech — it hit off the post. He'd missed.
The Chelsea fans on the far end of the stadium ignited. The cameras zoomed in, and Schweinsteiger pulled his shirt up. He bit it for a while, then used it to hide his snarling face. What emotions does a person feel at that point? What words can console him? It’s just a sport, but that’s the thing, it’s not just a sport. All he could do was cover his face and bite.
Drogba buried his PK.
Chelsea won the game.
A player needs moments like that. It's good to feel, every once in a while, like you've lost everything. It keeps you hungry.
Schweinsteiger's role on the team makes him a part of everything. He will be in the midfield, he'll be defending, he'll be on an attack. He will console you, he will encourage you, he'll get at you if he has to.
Watch Schweinsteiger play. When his team wins the ball, he immediately runs straight to the player who has it. Depending on how the game is going, he either is there to offer his support, or he’s there to demand the ball. He wants to take it to open space, where another teammate is. Often this is the opposite side of the field. He’s a runner who goes sideline to sideline. He works the alleys that run parallel to the goals. He is just as concerned with the horizontal as he is the vertical. He won’t dribble much — dribbling is dangerous and slow. He passes. Then he runs to where he just kicked it.
When Germany possess the ball around their opponent’s penalty box, Schweinsteiger is usually not a member of the initial attack. He hangs back. He’s organizing, communicating. He's waiting for the ball to pop out, so he can kick it back in. He's like a cap on a Coke bottle you just shook up. He’s keeping the pressure on.
When his team doesn’t have the ball, Schweinsteiger is often the second defender. He’s providing defensive support, while the other midfielders or the forwards are pressuring the ball. This support allows the first defender to turn aggressive, to run at the attacker and press the ball, forcing the attacker to either play backwards or cough it up. If the attacker does get by, he'll be hobbled and likely out of control. Schweinsteiger will run through him, taking the ball, leaving him just bones.
To see what type of player he is, look no further than three plays that occurred in the last five minutes of regulation in the 2014 World Cup Final.
Schweinsteiger’s Germany faced an Argentina team that had its own hard man, Javier Mascherano, a center-back who is small but can sting. And, of course, they had Messi — the three-time winner of the FIFA Ballon d’Or, an award given to the planet’s best player. Shutting him down, was rule number one.
Play one, the 87th minute, 0-0: Schweinsteiger follows Messi to the halfway line. It’s too far upfield, but this late in the game, he’s man-marking Messi, he’s his shadow, he goes where he goes. However, following Messi makes a hole in the back of the German midfield. Messi receives a pass, Schweinsteiger on his back, he lays the ball off, and the next pass is played in behind Schweinsteiger. Somehow Messi rolls out of there and gets it. That’s the type of player he is. He moves in flashes. Just like that, he’s leading an Argentine attack.
Argentina's first blow is stopped by the Germans, but the ball falls to Lucas Biglia, an Argentinian midfielder. He’s ready to fire when Schweinsteiger, who has sprinted nearly all the way back, slides in from behind and takes the ball away.
Most players can’t get in at such an angle and still get the ball first, especially not after a sprint and 87 minutes of running. Most players crash into the attacker’s legs, give up a foul and his team endures a dangerous free kick. Schweinsteiger slices in, right at the top of the penalty box, and cuts the ball from Biglia’s foot. An act of absolute precision, a top surgeon’s work, an act of controlled desperation. It is a slide across the thin line between recklessness and greatness. In the end, he was fooled, not beaten.
Play two and three, the 90th minute, 0-0: Argentina’s Mascherano receives a ball around midfield, his back to the German goal, fifteen yards of space between him and the next German defender. Both times, Schweinsteiger spots the gap and shoots it while the ball is on its way to the Argentine. Both times, he sprints the distance, forcing Mascherano to play backwards.
The skill and brilliance of instance number one is self-evident, but instance number two and three are what make Schweinsteiger, and players like him, the guys you want.
Those fifteen yard sprints, while never in the dreams of a little boy, are what win tournaments. There’s a simple principle at work here. The chances of being scored against dramatically increase the closer the ball is to your goal. The opposite of that is the further you keep the ball away from your goal, the lesser the chance of being scored against. In other words, keep the ball away from your goal, keep the ball out of your goal. This principle is so fundamental that it’s shocking how few players actually follow it. Most players don’t make that fifteen yard sprint. They make the conservative play. They keep their spot in the team’s defensive shell, allow Mascherano to turn, and advance the ball. This is inactive defending.
Schweinsteiger, even after playing nearly 90 minutes, makes that sprint. He is the protector of his teams. What he’s asked to do, because he has benefitted from great coaching, or what he just does, is make the thoughtful play. Make the play that is a good risk. It’s a play that average players at the top-level do not think to do or cannot do. It doesn't necessarily win games, it keeps you from losing them.
Mario Gotze’s 113th minute wonder-goal was the type of moment that Schweinsteiger keeps his team alive for.
With the score 1-0, the Germans had seven minutes left to defend what Gotze had stolen them. It seemed like that would be difficult, that a player like Messi would hit his next gear, one only he has, and he'd get his team what they need. But the Germans, a team that had come in third place the last two World Cups, never took their foot off the Argentines’ throat.
During those seven minutes, one sight was Schweinsteiger getting off the ground after Argentina’s Sergio Aguero hit him just under the eye with an errant fist. He was bloody, stalking off the field, covered in streaks where he had slid across the grass, barking a few choice words, getting to the sideline so he could be stapled, bandaged, and get back on the field. That sounds too pure to be real. Too Hollywood and mythic. It sounds like hockey, not soccer.
Move to the very last play of the game. It was Schweinsteiger’s. His cut stapled shut, there was a fifty-fifty ball in the air that he won, that he had to give up another blow to his body to get. This time it was a knee knifing into his hip. He won the header then went down, laid on his back, and didn’t move. He’d already been to the ground five times in 120 minutes. He’d run 15 kilometers. Cramps kept his legs at a shake. There on the ground, he probably had a mouthful of his jersey, and maybe he’d used all his mettle, taken his last blow for the team. He wasn’t getting up.
That’s how you knew the game was over. His body had done the last thing it could do. It had sensed the end and made sure it used every last bit it had.
When Schweinsteiger is done, the game is done.
* He has since 2006, when an on-field collision nearly killed him.