The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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The Tuesday Portrait: Michael Ballack

I’m interested in the bones of Michael Ballack. I don’t know why. They’re prominent but not expressive, like the aristocrats in Proust. They demand to be noticed, like a pipe wrench, but have nothing to say, like a supermodel. They’re functional, like a supermodel, but insentient, like Tyra Banks. Anyway, I’m interested in them.

To be Michael Ballack, I’ve always felt, is to experience the world through a deep sense of structural solidity. Human passions, wild appetites, the drama of a great destiny, are insubstantial and fugitive qualities, like temperature or the mood of sunlight on water. Far beneath them, in the underlying depths where the principles of the universe begin, is a sculptural order that withstands the transient and exists in massive calm. On this order one ought to build oneself, as one builds a sentence on grammar. But even to perceive the grammar of the world one must contain within oneself—physically; literally—a densely amassed structure and compact integrity of one’s own. Otherwise the nervous surfaces will carry one away.

Michael Ballack speaks at a press conference.

I’ve always felt, skeletally, like prey for the nervous surfaces, which may be why the sense of deep form that I take from my favorite soccer midfielders fills me with an approval that’s at least a little bit envious. It’s as though they represent an order of being I suspect I’ll never quite settle down to. Great midfielders play as though they can see the hidden bones of the match: what looks to us like a chaotic rearrangement of parts looks to them like the comprehensible movement of an organism, which, because it’s comprehensible, they can predict and articulate. The pattern moves on the pitch, you dimly make it out, and then, suddenly, the pass from the midfielder reconfigures your vision and shows the order that was always there, had you only been able to see it.

Michael Ballack’s skull, with its high cheekbones, strong brow, and low Matt Damon ridges, suggests to me a life of deliberation, far-seeing action, assurance, and security. No sense of pressure or time passing. Simple, uncluttered rooms. Quiet meals whose preparation he knows nothing about. Efficient but unhurried transportation between comfortable locations, conducted in comfortable vehicles. Orders swiftly carried out. Whether this is in fact the life of Michael Ballack is largely beside the point; no one ever wanted a phrenologist to be accurate. A phrenologist is only supposed to supply theories that give the impression of a hidden order, and this is a theory of the hidden order of Michael Ballack. Why shouldn’t the sensible outfit look good? Why waste time explaining everything?

So maybe this is why I’m interested in the bones of Michael Ballack: because they offer an intimation of a life not based on mind or muscles, but on resilient passivity and an affinity for the world’s buried forms. You couldn’t live such a life, probably; you could only play midfield that way. And it isn’t easy, even for Michael Ballack. When he outraged his coach last year by having ankle surgery without consulting his club, he was forced to make his case for the urgency of the operation. And so he returned to Stamford Bridge, carrying a fragment of bone in a glass.

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The Tuesday Portrait: Michael Ballack

by Brian Phillips · June 17, 2008

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