German captain Lahm leaves on high note

Philipp Lahm. Antonio Calanni/AP

That’s how you retire from a national team. Captain your country to the biggest title in your sport—in the world, if possible—after an agonizing, decades-long trophy drought. Then, just as the bright lights of celebrations begin to fade, step back. Congratulations, Philipp Lahm, your last act with the German national team was as pitch-perfect as all your previous contributions.

Die Mannschaft won’t be the same without Lahm. He’s been a fixture with the side for a decade, earning 113 senior caps as Germany’s most reliable fullback—except for the recent, flirtation with deploying Lahm as defensive midfielder. That experiment, Lahm’s shift into the midfield both for Bayern Munich and at the World Cup in Brazil, speaks volumes about the man. He was already arguably the best fullback on Earth, and captain for both club and country—he had the right to refuse, the right to reject the disruption (and perceived slight, as one could choose to see it) of being forced to play out of position. But that’s not Philipp Lahm.

“He has a natural authority, takes on responsibility, is communicative and is an absolute leader,” said German head coach Joachim Low. Lahm is the type of player to do what’s needed of him.

Almost inevitably, he excelled for Bayern in his new role, leading them to a runaway Bundesliga title. Credit it to Lahm’s natural gift for adaptation, for seeing the game better than anyone else, no matter his vantage point.

“Philipp Lahm is perhaps the most intelligent player I have ever trained in my career,” said Bayern manager Pep Guardiola. “He is at another level.”

No team would willingly go without a player of his level, not even the world champions. Organized, astute and blessed with impeccable positional sense, Lahm always seemed so German in all the best ways. Never a flashy player, he could attack with the best forward-thinking wingbacks; a small man—just five-foot-seven—he relied on his defensive efficiency  to snuff out attacks, rather than raw power and pace to force himself on the game.

That’s not to say Lahm isn’t forceful. Far from it. On the pitch, Lahm is as single-minded and determined a player as you’ll ever see. Off the pitch, he’s just as unyielding. After taking over the German captaincy from Michael Ballack, who sat out the 2010 World Cup injured, Lahm held onto it when Ballack returned, and Die Mannschaft was the better for it. Lahm made the tournament’s all-star team as he led Germany to third place in South Africa, with many arguing the team played freer and better without the domineering “Little Kaiser” Ballack wearing the armband.

Lahm has shown similar unwillingness to yield off the pitch, criticizing several coaches—including German national team managers Jurgen Klinsmann and Rudi Voller—for technical or motivational deficiencies. But even that teapot tempest only underlined Lahm’s dedication and high standards.

Perhaps it is those high standards that pushed Lahm to step aside. “This is the right time,” Lahm told the German press Friday. “I decided that the World Cup in Brazil would be my last tournament.” At just 30 years old, there are plenty of years left in Lahm’s legs, but retiring now lets the world remember Lahm at his finest, as the dominant force in on the right flank against Argentina in the World Cup final. Lahm remains captain of Bayern Munich, the hometown club he joined at 12, and he’s sure to add to the 18 trophies he’s won with his club.

But it’s the one he’s claimed for his country, as the first captain of a unified Germany to win a World Cup, that will matter most. There’s no topping it. There’s no better way to retire.

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