After the battle, Bastian Schweinsteiger needed a moment to himself.
Having run further, tackled harder and touched the ball more times than anyone else in the 2014 World Cup final, the 29-year-old midfielder took a much-deserved breather. He was empty. And he remarked, “My legs are gone.”
So there he sat, alone, on the Maracana grass, a winner’s medal around his neck, a gash under his right eye, dried blood on his cheek. And a smile on his face.
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“There were some matches, especially against France, when it was not so easy,” he later admitted. “But we believed in ourselves. Against Argentina it was the same. We believed in ourselves.”
He added: “Now we are number one in the world, and we want to enjoy this moment.”
It was a long time in coming, along a sometimes rocky road.
Six of the Germany players who lined up to face Argentina on Sunday had started the 2010 semifinal against Spain in South Africa. A seventh, Sami Khedira, had been withdrawn prior to kickoff with a calf injury.
For many of them, a World Cup title will have seemed the natural result of a team-building scheme that saw Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos and Khedira win the 2009 European Under-21 championship together. But they could not have done it without a pair of players whose international careers began in rather more difficult times.
At Euro 2004, with a generational change quite clearly afoot, Germany failed to get out of the group stage. But despite the failure, then-manager Rudi Voller couldn’t help but foresee better times ahead, what with Philipp Lahm and, in particular, Schweinsteiger about to come into the national setup on a permanent basis.
“I was delighted with the performance of my younger players, and I’m sure they will continue to prove their worth,” stated Voller following a 1-1 draw with the Netherlands in Porto.
The 19-year-old Schweinsteiger, having come into the match as a second-half substitute, was also upbeat about the future, relaying to reporters the “fantastic feeling” of wearing his country’s colours.
“I don’t really think about the pressure,” he said. “All I try to do is go out there and do my best for the team. Sometimes it works better than other times.”
It’s easy to forget that in 2004 Schweinsteiger was being used as a winger, having previously been converted from a full-back role. He might also have opted for a promising career in ski racing but in 1998 chose football and the Bayern Munich underage team of Udo Bassemir.
By 2002 he had made his full debut for Bayern’s senior squad, and the first of his seven Bundesliga titles was clinched the following spring. But it wasn’t until the 2009 arrival of manager Louis van Gaal that he would find his niche in the centre of midfield.
Of all the accomplishments the Dutchman likes to boast about, that transition should rank high among them.
“For me,” reflected Jupp Heynckes in 2012, “Bastian Schweinsteiger plays in a league with Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets.”
A year later the former Bayern manager admitted the midfielder was “priceless” to Bayern’s pursuit of an historic treble, adding, “He thinks about attack and defense at the same time.”
The plaudits should be, and mostly have been, of a similar nature in the hours since Germany’s World Cup triumph, as few players, if any, so encapsulated Die Mannschaft over the previous weeks in Brazil.
Initially a fitness concern, Schweinsteiger was an unused substitute in Germany’s 4-0 thrashing of Portugal to kick off their campaign and only played the final 20 minutes of the 2-2 draw with Ghana five days later.
His first start came in the 1-0 win over the United States in Recife, but again he was unable to last the full 90 minutes and came off after a mostly unspectacular display.
It was against Algeria in the round of 16 that Schweinsteiger, who played 109 minutes of the extra time victory, started to hit his stride, and after coming off in favour of Christoph Kramer he would not miss another minute of the competition.
Against Brazil he was imperious—pushing Germany’s pattern of possession well beyond the halfway line—and in Sunday’s final there was no better player. He had saved the best for last.
Khedira’s injury had always meant that Schweinsteiger’s importance would be amplified in Rio de Janeiro, and when Kramer succumbed to a first-half knock he simply took over the midfield by himself.
Even Sergio Aguero’s knuckles couldn’t keep him away. After having his head-wound stapled up on the sideline, he returned for the final 11 minutes of extra time—a bloody mess of a midfield general, leading by example in the biggest match of his life.
When it was over, he could only sit and take it all in.
And there he was, alone on the Maracana grass, a winner’s medal around his neck, a gash under his right eye, dried blood on his cheek. And a smile on his face.
Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter