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  Monday, 13 May, 2002, 10:55 GMT 11:55 UK
Ballack offers hope
Germany and Bayer Leverkusen star Michael Ballack
Ballack: A rising star for Germany

Grey clouds have gathered over the German national team in recent months - but the brilliant Michael Ballack is the silver lining.

An embarrassing 5-1 defeat to England in the World Cup qualifiers forced Rudi Voller's men into the ignominy of having to go through the play-offs to stamp their passport to Korea and Japan.

Outclassed and outfought by Argentina in their latest friendly, Germany lost 1-0 and all but one of their players trudged off the pitch like men well defeated.

Just one more step and Michael will be alongside Figo and Zidane
Germany coach Rudi Voller

The tall and commanding figure of Ballack, aged 25 and still considered a prodigy, stood out as a beacon of hope for the future.

This season, Ballack has finally emerged from the shadows to shine as the jewel in Germany's crown, his reputation enhanced by powerful peformances for Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen.

Bayer Leverkusen meet Real Madrid in the Champions League final on Wednesday evening at Hampden Park.

And Bayer coach Klaus Toppmoller owes the inspirational midfielder Ballack a debt of gratitude for helping his side reach the heady heights alongside Europe's elite.

Ballack produced a fine display against Liverpool in the quarter-finals, capped by two stunning goals, to continue the unfancied German side's quest to conquer Europe.

He was again the catalyst for Bayer's superb achievement in knocking out Manchester United at the semi-final stage, paving the way for Toppmoller's eclectic mix of German steel and Brazilian style to make their first-ever appearance in a European Cup final.

Bayer Leverkusen coach Klaus Toppmoeller
Toppmoeller handed Ballack a freer role

Ballack heralds from east Germany, and learned his trade playing for a Communist corporation club called Motor Karl-Marx-Stadt.

Ballack was only 13 when the Berlin Wall came down. A new horizon beckoned and he headed west to FC Kaiserslautern.

Topp transformation

He was shy on arrival, but less so on departure when he was sold to Leverkusen for 2.5m.

But his confidence - or some might say over-confidence - was shattered when, in the final game of the 1999-2000 season against Unterhaching, needing victory to win the title, Ballack put through his own goal.

Indignant at only being afforded 63 minutes of play during Germany's Euro 2000 campaign, Ballack returned home and spent the following season in the wilderness.

Then, at the start of the 2001-2002 campaign, the curly-haired Toppmoeller took over from Berti Vogts at the BayArena.

Not only did the club undergo a transformation with Toppmoller at the helm, but Ballack was set free from the shackles of his hitherto defensive role and was given the freedom of the pitch.

Franz Beckenbauer
Ballack: The new Beckenbauer?

Ballack is now a two-in-one central midfielder, equally at home surging forward and scoring as he is with his duties at the back.

Ballack attributes his rapid improvement to Toppmoller, and the goals he scored in the play-offs to propel Germany to this summer's World Cup also appear to have vanquished any lingering self-doubt.

"He's come on step by step," said Voller of the midfielder.

"Just one more step and he'll be alongside Figo and Zidane."

However, Ballack - in keeping with his appearance - has probably prompted more comparisons with the great Franz Beckenbauer.

And although the comparison has not yet been fully justified, the potential is clearly there in the Bayern Munich-bound star.

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