The ceaseless reinvention of Bastian Schweinsteiger

Forget the ill-fated spell at Manchester United, Bastian Schweinsteiger was one of the most technically gifted, tactically astute and tenacious midfielders in the world for over a decade.

Schweinsteiger was a ceaseless, malevolent computer program of a footballer and on Tuesday he decided that it was time to give up for good after three seasons in the MLS (where he of course started playing as a sweeper). Neither the trophies, and there were plenty, nor the 121 caps for Germany and 500 appearances for Bayern Munich tell his story properly.

Taken through the prism of three drastic evolutions at the 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups we see a player that never stopped changing the way he played and who would, no matter the scale of defeat, always come back a hardened, more refined version of himself. That will be the legacy he leaves even if the world goes on singing the merits of his contemporaries instead.

Bastian Schweinsteiger was called up to his country's senior setup for the 2005 Confederations Cup but it was at the World Cup the following year, which Germany hosted, that he first left his impudent mark.

A wide midfielder at this point, comfortable on the left or the right and already with that devastating knack for long-range knuckleball drives, Adidas footballs fired out of a Panzer, Schweinsteiger immediately caught the eye. He was idiosyncratic from the start. Maybe it was the blonde, punkish hair. Or the fact his shirt was at least two sizes too big for him. Or the way he would wear strapping on both wrists like a tennis player. Or a boxer. Maybe it was the way both he and his club teammate, Philip Lahm, both right-footers, would dovetail down Germany's left flank, two cherubs in a painting circling God.

Maybe it was just his name. Schweinsteiger. A name you can only really say semi-furiously. A name you can only really sound pissed off about saying. A name that just begs to be cursed, to be howled out in anguish as you shake your fist at the moon in the ink-sky along to every gruesome syllable.

Schweinsteiger was just 21 at the time and this was undoubtedly Zidane's tournament. If not his then Cannavaro's. Even so, the third-place decider against Portugal - a game so often treated like the other Brontë sister, I think she's called Anne or something - was set alight but the young Bavarian. The entire world took note.

In the 56th minute he scampered inside both Paulo Ferreira and Simão, running diagonally away from Portugal's goal from the wing, before swinging his entire body round like a crane with a wrecking ball. The shot, whilst hit straight down the throat of the goalkeeper, changed direction several times in the air and made Ricardo look as though he was trying to trap a hummingbird between two oven mitts.

Five minutes later Schweinsteiger made it 2-0 from a free-kick after thumping the ball through The Corridor of Uncertainty™. Armando Petit couldn't help but launch himself at the ball because that was Armando Petit's favourite thing to do and it flew into the back of the net by way of his shin. You know, the inevitable conclusion.

Just 17 minutes after that Schweinsteiger made it three, getting an almost hat-trick with another trademark 'Partridge on comms' screamer. He danced inside once more but this time sliced right across the ball as he struck it, at first to hook it one way, then to have it fade back on itself like the fish-hook swing of a bowling ball. It kissed the inside of the far post, circled the net and all that was left was for him to rip his shirt off, shout something in German and hug Michael Ballack, thunderbastard protege to thunderbastard master.

Ein star ist geboren. Maybe it was that.

By the time of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa Bastian Schweinsteiger had completely reinvented himself as a central midfield player. Often credited as one of the many sudden moments of inspiration by Louis van Gaal, Schweinsteiger was actually first tested in the position by his international manager and notorious finger sniffer Joachim Löw in a match against Wales in 2007.

He did, however, still play on the right of midfield in Germany's 1-0 defeat to Spain in the Euro 2008 final, a game that was an ominous sign of things to come for both the player and his country. The two teams met again two years later in a gruelling semi-final encounter in Durban, settled by a Carles Puyol header in the second-half. This time Schweinsteiger did play as a deep-lying playmaker, but as was the case in the tournament prior, he failed to put the clamps on the by-now renowned Spanish illusionists Xavi and Iniesta.

He had, to that point, been imperious for Germany at the base of their midfield and was rightly named in the team of the tournament once all was said and done. He gave Die Mannschaft a drive and sense of control that had eluded them in '06 and '08, most notably during the 4-0 thrashing of Argentina. He denied Lionel Messi both the time and space he requires to truly thrive - another harbinger, but we'll get to that - and drove forward, straight through the heart of the Argentine midfield, with unerring regularity. With ease.

Germany's opener, a glancing header from Thomas Müller, was put on a plate for him by Schweinsteiger's cruiser missile set-piece delivery, now a recurrent theme whenever he stood over a dead ball. Their third came after he found himself trapped in his old habitat on the left touchline before realising that, you know, he could just surge past the four befuddled Argentina defenders and lay the ball on a plate for Arne Friedrich to tap home. So that's what he did. As the goalscorer wheeled away in celebration of his first (and only) international goal with his other teammates, Schweinsteiger stood alone behind the goal with his palms outstretched like the Virgin Mary. Only slightly less hallowed.

What more do you need from me?

He would get his answer in the semi-final as the Spanish midfield, at this point a who's who of rondo legends (Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta - oh lord, hose me down), wore the increasingly clunky-looking German machinery to dust.

It was the only game in the tournament in which Schweinsteiger couldn't get hold of the ball but more than that, he had no time when he did. Pressed into oblivion by his opponents, true regulators of the flow and rhythm of possession football, he was nevertheless defiant in the face of this obvious superiority. After the match he said: "We must be better, too often we were chasing the ball."

Get better is what he did, all he could do.

By now you know how this ends. Bastian Schweinsteiger charging around the Maracanã in 30 degree heat and high humidity for 120 minutes in the 2014 World Cup final. Bastian Schweinsteiger the best player on the pitch. The most determined. The most indomitable. Bastian Schweinsteiger shutting down Lionel Messi as much as you can shut down Lionel Messi. For the second consecutive tournament. Bastian Schweinsteiger, on an unjust booking from the 29th minute, not shirking a single challenge. Bastian Schweinsteiger fouled more times than anyone else on the pitch, Bastian Schweinsteiger with more completed passes than anyone else on the pitch. Bastian Schweinsteiger with blood pouring from his face caused by a wayward elbow. Bastian Schweinsteiger, in the 123rd minute, coiling himself and Bastian Schweinsteiger, in the 123rd minute, exploding up for a header. Bastian Schweinsteiger battering it clear, Bastian Schweinsteiger taking a full-body smash from Pablo Zabaleta for his trouble and Bastian Schweinsteiger shaken and spent on the turf, trying to sit up, dusting the sweat and the dirt and the motor oil off one last time.

Bastian Schweinsteiger hearing the final whistle sound and collapsing back onto the cool grass instead.


He was a player whose own shortcomings and hurt only made him better, who at different points during his career was unafraid to stick a hand into his abdomen and rummage around deep into own hardwired circuitry to find the most optimum version of himself: from the flash, daring winger to the omnipresent midfield controller to his final form, which was both of the above but somehow more, with added destruction, the bruising force of nature turn in Brazil the final act in his grand opera.

Bastian Schweinsteiger, the living, breathing, piston-legged embodiment of what German-ness is; the German philosophy on the pitch and the German way of life off it. Vorsprung Durch Technik in a football jersey and boots. Progress through technology, that's what that means. Or progress because what else is there other than to pick yourself up after the crushing defeats life gives you and decide that you aren't quite done yet? Even though now, sadly, you are.