Bayern Munich's Philipp Lahm leaves lasting legacy
As former Bayern Munich and Germany great Philipp Lahm celebrates his 34th birthday, bundesliga.com takes a trip down memory lane to celebrate the footballing legend...
On 13 November 2002, Bayern welcomed RC Lens to an all but deserted Olympiastadion, for Matchday 6 of the UEFA Champions League group stage. It had been a disastrous campaign for the 2001 winners. Having lost twice to both RC Deportivo La Coruña and eventual champions AC Milan, they only had pride to play for against the French side – with no chance of reaching the second group stage or even the UEFA Cup.
In the 87th minute, Markus Feulner must have thought he had at least secured one victory for Ottmar Hitzfeld's side, as he made it 3-2 to Bayern. Nothing doing. Jocelyn Blanchard headed in a last-minute equaliser for Lens, and Bayern ended an inglorious campaign with just two points from six matches. Hitzfeld's final decision of the night was to bring off Feulner, and replace him with a young right-back from Bayern's academy, who had just celebrated his 19th birthday. Philipp Lahm.
Lahm played barely a minute of the game before the referee blew the final whistle. He wouldn't make another appearance for Bayern for three years. And yet it was right there, on that entirely forgettable night against Lens, that his unforgettable story with Bayern began.
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Fast forward 15 years, and the diminutive right-back, standing just 1.70 metres tall, has become a giant of German football. An inspirational leader and captain, arguably one of the most intelligent players to grace the European game, he has won it all – Bundesliga, DFB Cup, Champions League, FIFA World Cup – and is now preparing to celebrate 500 games with his boyhood club.
Admittedly, the transformation didn't happen overnight. Lahm spent the rest of the 2002/03 season playing for the Bayern reserves, before being loaned out to VfB Stuttgart to cut his teeth in the Bundesliga. He played under Felix Magath, who famously converted him into a left-back, before joining up with his former coach at Bayern in the summer of 2005.
Watch: All 14 of Lahm's Bayern goals in the Bundesliga!:
A cruciate ligament injury kept him out for several months at the start of 2005/06, but Lahm became a regular starter in the second half of the season. The 22-year-old even got his first taste of silverware as Bayern claimed a Bundesliga and DFB Cup double, and was rewarded with a place in Jürgen Klinsmann's Germany squad for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, on home soil.
Little did Lahm know that he would be soon be making headlines, after kicking off the tournament in spectacular fashion. Just six minutes into Germany's Group A opener with Costa Rica – at the all-new Allianz Arena, fittingly enough – he picked up the ball on the left, cut inside, and unleashed a magnificent right-footed strike into the far top corner. It was some way for the Bayern defender to announce himself on the world stage. "It was probably the goal of my lifetime," he grinned.
Lahm went on to play every minute of Germany's World Cup campaign – winning Man of the Match plaudits for his performance against Poland – as the hosts eventually finished in third place. Die Mannschaft had exceeded expectations – and there was no question that their young wing-back had made a serious impact.
From the 2006/07 season onwards, Lahm became Bayern's first-choice left-back, although Louis van Gaal would restore him to his favoured position on the right in 2009/10. After further league and cup doubles in 2008 and 2010, the Bavarians began to return to the forefront of the European scene. They reached the final of the Champions League in 2010, losing out to FC Internazionale Milano.
In the absence of the injured Michael Ballack, the increasingly influential Lahm was named Germany's captain at the 2010 World Cup. "Philipp has natural authority, takes on responsibility, and communicates well. He is a natural leader," declared coach Joachim Löw. Lahm was the only member of the squad to play every minute as Die Mannschaft once again finished the tournament in third place.
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Lahm also became club captain at Bayern midway through the 2010/11 season, as the Bavarians set about conquering Europe once again. The stage was perfectly set in the 2012 Champions League final, as the Bavarians took on Chelsea FC at their Allianz Arena – but victory slipped agonisingly through their grasp once again, as the Blues triumphed in a penalty shoot-out.
"After a game like that, a team can either fall apart completely or grow closer together," Lahm said. "We chose the latter."
Indeed they did. A year later, Lahm finally got his hands on the Champions League trophy as Bayern edged Borussia Dortmund in the all-Bundesliga final at Wembley, completing a remarkable treble under Jupp Heynckes. "The pressure was immense," Lahm admitted after the game. "It's an incredible feeling, a huge relief."
Having captained Bayern to that long-awaited Champions League victory, Lahm now boasted one of the most impressive medal collections in German football. But he had his eyes on a bigger prize – and the Brazilian summer of 2014 would definitively cement his reputation as one of the greatest players not just of his generation, but in the history of German football.
When Mario Götze fired in his 113th-minute winner for Germany in the World Cup final against Argentina, it was the culmination of a 10-year journey for Lahm and the national side. It began with a woeful group-stage elimination at UEFA Euro 2004, and ended with captain Lahm lifting his nation's fourth World Cup at the Maracanã Stadium.
That was his 113th and final appearance for the German national side, but hanging up his international boots did nothing to curb Lahm's appetite for success. Under Pep Guardiola, he racked up three more league titles, as Bayern became the first team to win the Bundesliga four times in a row. Lahm also displayed his tactical and positional versatility, as he was regularly deployed in midfield by Guardiola. The Spanish tactician once described him as the "most intelligent footballer" he had ever coached.
"Bayern have had legends such as Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller, Uli Hoeneß and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. For me, Philipp Lahm is at the same level as those legends," Guardiola once told Sport Bild. "He is the perfect captain for Bayern, and helped me a lot both on and off the pitch."
After making his milestone 500th appearance for Bayern, the club he joined as an 11-year-old, on Matchday 19 of last season, Lahm lifted the Meisterschale one final time after the champions' 4-1 victory over Freiburg on the final day of the campaign. But what does the future hold?
Whatever he decides to do next, there is no doubt that Philipp Lahm has had an immense impact on both Bayern Munich and German football as a whole. Back on that cheerless November night against Lens, who could have imagined that the young man waiting nervously to make his first senior appearance would go on to take both his club and country back to the summit of the game?