Philipp Lahm is nowhere more welcome as tournament director of the 2024 European Championship than in Stuttgart. The Bavarian is the most famous of all the Swabian prey: his career as a world star might never have begun without VfB – or more precisely: without this phone call in May 2003.
In May 2003, Hermann Gerland excitedly picked up the phone. Not much was missing and he would have called “911”.
In any case, it was an emergency call.
Gerland was coaching FC Bayern’s second team at the time, and the fate of one of his players was almost making him lose sleep. The young man was nineteen, Bayern didn’t yet believe he could make the big leap, but Gerland felt: “It would have been a shame if he had to continue playing in the regional league.”
To clarify: Gerland was not one to spoil a talent with the higher honours too quickly. He was generally more of a sceptical grumbler, once even saying: “None of today’s professionals dare to go out on the street in the dark.”
But this nineteen-year-old was different. This was someone like him, and the extra hunter Jupp Heynckes recalls with horror what the Bundesliga defender Gerland used to be like: “I still have the open wounds on my shin.” Gerland was known as the “Tiger”, he was snappy and hungry – and when, as a coach, he saw that this nineteen-year-old could also play proper football, he offered him all over the Bundesliga. He almost got a sore ear from the many rejections – until he came across Felix Magath, who was coaching VfB at the time.
“Listen carefully now, Felix,” said Gerland, “I’ve got one for you.”
Magath knew that Tiger wouldn’t lie to me. They were on the same wavelength, they both loved the medicine ball as a training tool, and when Gerland told him that the young man also had a strong character, Magath forgot about VfB’s destitute state and went collecting with his hat to scrape together the loan fee of around 100,000 euros. This is how Philipp Lahm’s career began in the summer of 2003.
The results are well known: Best defender in the world, world champion, club world champion, Champions League winner, eight-time German champion, six-time DFB Cup winner, footballer of the year, captain of the national team, 113 international caps, 385 Bundesliga matches. Others are great for a few weeks every year, but Lahm was great week after week, game after game. He was a calf-biter at the back and a virtuoso on the ball further forward, he was a defender and a winger, and the chalk line was dusty when he was constantly bumping into himself on the wing on his way up and down the pitch.
“He’s the most intelligent player I’ve ever coached,” claims Pep Guardiola, and the Spaniard has coached Lionel Messi after all – the fact that he then made the late Lahm a playmaker in central midfield at FC Bayern was a complete accolade.
Lahm is still pulling the strings today, now as tournament director for Euro 2024. “We want,” he says, “to organise a festival that has an aha effect.” He wants to repeat the World Cup summer fairytale of 2006, and to revitalise the sense of unity and social cohesion, he rolls up his sleeves as he did back then, spits into his hands and calls out to the national team: “It has to get back into the players’ heads that they represent their country and act as a cohesive unit.” He has missed that in recent years – “that one person sacrifices themselves for the other on the pitch.”
All German footballers remember Philipp Lahm with nostalgia – and his opponents with lamentation.
Ask Nuno Capucho. The Portuguese was in the prime of his striker’s life at Glasgow Rangers when he came up against the young VfB lahm. It was in the Champions League, early in the new millennium, and the evening turned into a nightmare for Capucho. He had spent years eating up the best defenders in the world, dribbling them dizzy, playing them sick, but he never once got round Lahm. When Capucho swung out to shoot at the VfB goal, the ball was always already gone – and little Lahm was off and running with it.
In the rich history of VfB, no right-footed player has been documented who was anywhere near as good on the left flank with the wrong leg as Lahm. His ball security and overview were astonishing, even in the most difficult situations he was able to get the ball through the hollow lane to his team-mate. And when everyone would have bet that Lahm would immediately hook inside to cross on the right, he did his farmer’s trick instead, scurrying past on the outside to the byline – and all with his left foot.
Lahm still had to play in the wrong position at first, but everything was right in his head from the outset. He was once in the ZDF sports studio and said that he was not one of those who employ a court of advisors. “Two friends help me,” he said. Other young stars have long since allowed themselves to be remote-controlled by advisors of all sorts, who also get them bad weather money and a heated jersey when they play contract poker, but Lahm was Lahm. He didn’t fit the cliché of the spoilt young yob among the wimps.
In short, he was exactly the right man for VfB, who at the time could only afford budding world champions who cost nothing. In any case, he was one of those cases in which VfB brutally capitalised on the mistakes that FC Bayern made once every decade. In 1984, these mistakes were Sigurvinsson and Niedermayer, and in 1992 it was little Kögl who, as Trickerl-Wiggerl, skied everything dizzily and at the end of the season, he circled the ball into Buchwald’s head – and, bang, VfB were German champions again.
This time it was Lahm. He was there for two years before Bayern reversed their mistake. VfB didn’t quite become champions, but it was enough for Champions League celebrations, and the highly talented player got off to a flying start, bypassing all the doubters and sceptics, or as Gerland put it: “He was too easy for some people.”
And Lahm wasn’t the longest either. It was always a funny image later on when the television camera suddenly panned two heads down from goalkeeper Neuer during the national anthem, down to the DFB captain Lahm, who sang his “Blüh im Glanze dieses Glückes, blühe, deutsches Vaterland” with abandon.
The little ones, so close to the turf, don’t have an easy life. Humphrey Bogart used to have a box of bubbles or the New York telephone directory shoved under his feet so that he could say to Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca”: “Look into my eyes, little girl”. And often enough you hear dodgy jokes. Do you know this one? The German former world champions Hässler, Littbarski and Thon, all around sixty-one, climb onto a bar stool. “Three shots,” says Litti. The landlord replies: “I can see that. And what do you want to drink?”
The short guys then get their revenge in their own way: when Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Frank Sinatra and Dustin Hoffmann stopped growing, they decided to become world stars. And footballers show that brevity is the spice of life by becoming world champions, see Maradona, Messi and Lahm. When it came to the sausage, he screwed the high studs under his boots and outgrew himself with the motto: the smaller the guy, the greater the ambition.
Philipp Lahm never let himself get down. He has outgrown the mightiest giants and can confidently have the words “He was slight, but mighty” chiselled into his gravestone one day in the distant future. His witness is Michael Ballack. For years, he was the giant “captain” of the national team, but when he was injured before the 2010 World Cup and was in a plaster corset, Lahm was immediately ready to seize power. Many people spontaneously thought of the former national left winger Dieter Eckstein, who had played for FC Nuremberg under three presidents who were around sixty-one and henceforth claimed: “The short ones with the high heels are dangerous.”
Lahm even scored headers without whining for a stool beforehand, he had that iron will. “On average, I score a goal for the national team about every two years,” he once said credibly, but at the 2006 World Cup he scored the first one in the opening game. Final score: 4:2 against Costa Rica. Lahm’s dreamlike shot, high into the corner, was the starting signal for the subsequent summer fairytale.
In Stuttgart, his birthplace as a football star, the glorious tournament came to a fitting end, first in the Hotel Graf Zeppelin and then in the stadium. “There were many incredibly wonderful experiences during the 2006 World Cup,” he recalls in quiet hours, “but the most impressive was when we came to Stuttgart for the third place match.” Actually, the air was out. The DFB team had unfortunately lost the semi-final against Italy and any attempt to motivate them again was virtually hopeless.
“And then,” Lahm later described the key moment in detail to DIE ZEIT, “we arrived in Stuttgart. I think our bus was two hours late. There was a downpour, it was pouring with rain and yet, I’m guessing, 15,000 fans were waiting outside our hotel to cheer us on. It was an incredible feeling. Down below, the streets were cordoned off. We were upstairs with the physiotherapists at ten o’clock in the evening and people were still singing outside into the night. That was amazing. That gave us the motivation to play such a good game for third place.”
3:1 against Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo had no answer either, the budding superstar was bitterly reminded of 1 October 2003, when the Portuguese played his first Champions League game that evening in a Manchester United shirt against VfB, and even then he was paralysed by Lahm’s presence. Only once did things get tight, Lahm hit the VfB post in desperate need of a save, from where the ball bounced to Ronaldo, who fell in a duel with VfB goalkeeper Timo Hildebrandt, and Ruud van Nistelrooy converted the penalty to make it 2-1. It stayed that way in one of the greatest games in VfB’s history. “Everything was perfect today,” said Felix Magath – and if what you hear isn’t a lie, the coach greeted and congratulated himself in front of the mirror that night for his wise foresight when it came to Lahm.
Philipp Lahm is always very welcome in Stuttgart, and when the need arises, the old Swabian booty man still lends a helping hand to VfB today. In 2022, VfB CEO Alexander Wehrle hired him as a consultant, and there was talk of weekly virtual meetings and Lahm contributing his “experience and expertise” (Wehrle). Lahm was rarely seen in the stands, but that was bearable as he can see more with his binoculars from Munich than others sitting in the stadium in Stuttgart. “With my advice,” promised Lahm, “I want to help VfB become a club that wins much more often than it loses.”
In any case, VfB was not relegated after that.