Philipp Lahm, the Bavarian soccer talent who won it all – eight Bundesliga titles, six German cups, the Champions League and the World Cup – stepped on the pitch Saturday for the last time, leaving as a champion at the top of his game. Soccer fans in Munich, in Germany and around the world already miss him.
What a career: 385 games in the Bundesliga, 113 with the German national team, 112 in the Champions League and 60 in German cups. In all that time, Mr. Lahm never once was sent off the pitch with a red card, was given only a handful of yellow cards, escaped serious injuries and delivered top performances match for match in an elite club that has no tolerance for mediocrity.
And what charisma: Mr. Lahm may look like every mother-in-law’s dream – no tattoos or warrior haircut, articulate and smart – but the 33-year-old can rock the boat if necessary, as he has done more than once.
“No one single player should lead the team but all players, each in their own way.”
In 2009, in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Mr. Lahm criticized the Bayern board for buying players “erratically” and lacking a “philosophy” to fit them into a tactical system. All but amused, club manager Uli Hoeness and chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge handed their defensive midfielder a record fine of €50,000 ($56,000).
At the time, Bayern was lingering dismally in eighth place in the Bundesliga and faced being knocked out early in the lucrative Champions League. Dutch coach Louis van Gaal was struggling to communicate his style of play to the star-studded squad. Mr. Lahm’s honest opinions may have bruised some alpha-male egos but ultimately helped put Bayern back on track. The club went on to win both the Bundesliga and the Champions League that season, and has dominated the German league ever since. On Saturday, Mr. Lahm lifted the Bundesliga trophy for the fifth season in a row.
There was another moment, at the World Cup in 2010, when the native Bavarian was asked if he would voluntarily return the captain’s armband to injured Michael Balack upon his return to the team. Mr. Lahm said “nein,” unseating the “Capitano” and ending the days of one-man shows in the national team.
Mr. Lahm ushered in a new kind of leadership for his country’s team and later for Bayern Munich, where he took over as captain in 2011. His leadership philosophy was inspirational and motivating: “No one single player should lead the team but all players, each in their own way; they should share the responsibility.” With that philosophy and with the help of deputy captain Bastian Schweinsteiger and strong-minded leader-types like Manual Neuer, Sami Khedira and Mats Hummels, Germany won the World Cup in 2014.
Mr. Lahm was a “little” jewel waiting to be discovered. But his discovery took a while. In 2003, Hermann Gerland, at the time a Bayern youth coach, was told to lend the 18-year-old player to a team where he could get playtime in the rough and tough Bundesliga.
Arminia Bielefed, which had just come up from the second division, agreed to have him try out. While the players marveled at Mr. Lahm’s defensive skills, coach Benno Möhlmann wasn’t convinced. “He can’t hit an offensive header or a defensive header for that matter,” the coach told former player Ansgar Brinkman, who has used every opportunity ever since to repeat that quote to German media. Mr. Lahm is 1.70 meters, or 5.57 feet, or more than two heads shorter than six-foot-four tall Zlatan Ibrahimović, the Swedish national team and Premier League striker he’s successfully defended in the past.
Felix Magath, the coach of VfB Stuttgart, eventually grabbed Mr. Lahm and, after two successful seasons, tried to buy him from Bayern Munich, which gladly declined and ordered him back to Munich. From then on, Mr. Lahm and Bayern Munich were inseparable.
His list of admirers is long and the praise they’ve heaped on him in the German media is overwhelming. Pep Guardiola, his trainer from 2013 to 2016, called the versatile defensive midfielder “the most intelligent player” he has ever coached. His current coach, Carlo Ancelotti, agreed: “He is the most professional player I’ve ever experienced – always fit, always focused, always prepared. I could use 20 of him.”
Another former coach, Ottmar Hitzfeld, who isn’t known for his use of superlatives, made an exception with Mr. Lahm. “He is one of the world’s best defenders,” he told Bundesliga Magazin “He’s like a precision machine, with exceptional tactical intelligence, tremendous passing skills and a unique talent to anticipate situations and quickly find the right solution. He’s written a chapter of Bayern Munich’s history.”
Joop Heynckes, the first coach to win the “treble” (Bundesliga, German Cup and Champions League in one season) in German soccer together with Mr. Lahm, is lobbying intensively on the sidelines for his former protégé to be named Germany’s “Footballer of the Year,” one of the few distinctions the defender has yet to win and one traditionally awarded to offensive players.
Even German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble recognized Mr. Lahm’s qualities and achievements for the country: “Philipp Lahm is not only a great soccer player; he is a role model.”
On Monday, Mr. Lahm will clear his locker and later pick up his son Julian and wife Claudia who is expecting a second child to celebrate his mother’s birthday. It’s the start of a new phase of life, which he’s been planning for some time. “If I want to stay happy, even beyond my soccer career, I have to control my life,” he wrote in a guest column in Die Zeit, a sister publication, after he resigned as national team captain in 2014. “That means making decisions before they catch up to me.”
Mr. Lahm has decided against becoming a coach and, at least for now, joining the board of Bayern Munich, which is begging him to come on board. He is proving to be as far-sighted in business as he was on the pitch, having made a string of investments before he hung up his football shoes for good. He owns stakes in Danova, a health services company, Sixtus, a maker of foot and bodycare products and Fanmiles, a Berlin start-up that sells a loyalty bonus system to fans of sports stars and movie celebrities, to name a few.
It’s all coming together or as Bayern Munich President Hoeness commented ahead of Saturday’s final game for Philipp Lahm: “His life is one big masterplan.”
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org