Michael Ballack, known as the "Little Kaiser" who sported a No. 13 jersey, defined an epoch in soccer history as the captain of the German national team after the 1990 reunification of East and West Germany.
Ballack was raised in Chemnitz, the city formerly known as Karl-Marx-Stadt in East Germany. He played on powerful European teams, including Bayern Munich and Chelsea, as an offensive midfielder. As a member of the national team, he played in 98 games, scoring 42 goals. Ballack participated in two World Cup games, in 2002 and 2006, that resulted in second and third places. He finished his playing career in October 2012.
In Chemnitz, while wandering between the gray buildings in the city center, I came across a large bust of Karl Marx, along with a mural that showed the phrase "Workers of the world, unite!" across his back. Below the bust of Marx's stern face, a boy was eating a hamburger.
Ballack's father was a construction engineer. In the spring of 1977, when Michael was 6 months old, the family moved from a town near the Polish border to this third-largest industrial city in East Germany. The family lived in a prefabricated housing complex of 300 buildings that housed 80,000 residents. Most of the buildings have been torn down, and scattered apartments stand in their place.
Ballack's childhood was full of hardship. He earned pocket money by selling used newspapers and empty bottles he collected. He became obsessed with soccer, which requires nothing but one ball to play. He said he was repeatedly scolded by neighbors for using a laundry drying area as a soccer goal.
Due to the number of young people who flocked to cities in the former West Germany to look for jobs after the reunification, the population of Chemnitz dropped to about 240,000 from 300,000 at its peak.
Despite the economic gap between the former East and West, Ballack's mind seemed to be forever attached to his hometown.
His potential to become a world-class player became apparent when he was a child. When he was playing on a boys' team, for instance, he made 12 goals in one game. While others joined professional teams at the age of 16, Ballack made his pro debut relatively late, signing his first contract when he was 19 with Chemnitz FC, a local team that never made it to the top-division national league, even after the reunification. "We had a good time going out after games," he recalled.
After he was recruited by a well-established former West German team in 1997, he sometimes called his parents in tears, begging to go back home.
When he was selected as a member of the German national team, some critics said he "lacked leadership ability due to his adherence to the groupism of the former East Germany." But Ballack insisted, "I was raised by my parents, not by the political system."
His key role was indisputable in the semifinal against South Korea in the 2002 World Cup, jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea. Thanks to his dedicated play and the goal he scored, Germany made it to the final.
In the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Ballack skippered the national team, which mainly consisted of young players.
It is not hard to imagine that Ballack, who was once the world's best-paid soccer player, with an estimated annual salary of about 1.5 billion
Katja Uhlemann, 35, a Chemnitz city official, said, "He was an inspiration to the whole former East Germany."
Ballack chose Leipzig, a city in the free state of Saxony, to which Chemnitz also belongs, as the site of his retirement game in June. His former teammate Alexander Tetzner, 39, was invited to play in the game. "He hasn't changed even after becoming a great player," Tetzner said. "He's a man who cares about his hometown and friends."
Ballack donated about 60 million yen — the proceeds from his retirement match — to aid victims of massive floods that hit the eastern part of the nation in June and to support young players. "I wanted to give something back to all the people who took care of me," Ballack said in the local dialect that he maintained throughout his career.
Like many young people who left their towns in the East during the transition period after the reunification, the Little Kaiser was an impressionable young man who must have undergone some minor struggles, even as a soccer star.