Philipp Lahm's Stuttgart years: the making of a Bayern Munich legend
The world was a very different place in 2003. George W. Bush was sitting in the White House, David Hasselhoff was still a sex symbol among the world's middle-aged women and Germany were without a major international trophy in 13 years. As hard as that might be to believe, it is not as mind-blowing as this: Philipp Lahm couldn't get a game for Bayern Munich.
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Aged 19, Lahm had been tagged with the "promising youngster" label like so many at Bayern have had before. Some had prospered into a fine vintage; others had withered on the vine. Lahm, whose legendary versatility had still not been discovered, looked to be heading in the latter direction with Willy Sagnol barring his way to the first team.
The France international occupied the right-back role, and had done so since before he helped Bayern claim the 2000/01 UEFA Champions League. Though Sagnol at 26 had some years ahead of him, he did not represent the long-term future of Bayern. Lahm did, just not its present.
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Like Franz Beckenbauer, Lahm's future might have been played out at 1860 Munich had he wanted to leave his boyhood club, FT Gern, when an approach was made when he was ten. He refused because his "friends were there and I absolutely wanted to stay." Twelve months later when Bayern called, he was ready to go, and after winning the A-youth championship twice with FCB, he was also willing to "really do everything for football."
And if that meant leaving Bayern, he would, albeit temporarily. "At 17, Philipp was already perfect. He was able to do everything," said Hermann Gerland, then Lahm's coach with Bayern's reserve side. "It would have been a catastrophe to leave him playing in the Regionalliga another year."
That led Gerland to make phone calls to his numerous contacts in the game, but nobody was convinced. Many found the 1.70-metre, flyweight-built full-back too small and too physically weak. "He looks like he's 15, but he plays like he's 30," argued Gerland, but no-one was listening.
It is perhaps ironic that Gerland did finally find a sympathetic ear in Felix Magath, then coach of VfB Stuttgart, and a man whose reputation as a devotee to the physical aspects of training not so much precedes him as marches proudly in front of him, chest — and a muscular, well-honed chest at that — puffed out.
This time, Magath — heeding the advice of his friend Gerland — believed the talent and intelligence of his new arrival outweighed the quite literal physical shortcomings.
"I don't see it as a bad thing that FC Bayern loaned me out, but rather as praise," Lahm said shortly after making the short journey from Bavaria to Baden-Württemberg on a two-season loan. "They didn't want to sell me, because they are counting on me."
Over the best part of the next two seasons, Lahm proved to Bayern and Magath they could have absolutely no doubt about that.
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His maiden campaign was an unqualified success. Well, it was other than a less-than-memorable debut for VfB in July 2003 in a Liga Pokal semi-final defeat to Borussia Dortmund. Lahm claimed of his underwhelming professional bow "you don't forget something like that", but he would soon have many happier memories to add to it.
His performances allied with a dearth of talent in the full-back position meant he went from being a third-tier player to a senior international in half a year, making his debut for Germany in a 2-1 win in Croatia in February 2004. "Rudi Völler spoke a lot to me during the three days. I simply felt good there, which meant I could play in the game just as I always do," said Lahm after winning the first of 113 caps with his country. "Of course I was a bit cautious over how to approach the other players, there are a lot of stars, but they were very nice to me."
He would go on to feature in 15 of Die Nationalmannschaft's 16 internationals that year, including all three group-stage games at a near-disastrous UEFA EURO 2004. It was difficult at the time to imagine that global glory in Rio de Janeiro was just a decade away…
"I had had Hermann Gerland, and I had already learned what passion and 100 per cent commitment for football meant. Of course there are days during pre-season when you train, eat something and fall into bed," said Lahm, no doubt to knowing looks and some painful winces from former Magath players everywhere. "Sometimes you just have to switch your head off and simply do the exercises. But I think you train harder in other sports."
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More importantly than showing the youngster's supposedly fragile frame could take the most bone-jarring of training schedules, was Magath's decision to replace the workmanlike Heiko Gerber, 31 at the time, with Lahm. Not an entirely bizarre choice perhaps: Promising youngster replaces aging team-mate is an oft-told tale. What was strange though — or as it turned out, a stroke of genius — was Magath saw in Lahm a left-back of quality, despite the fact he had only previously played on the right, his natural side.
That was where Lahm found himself for 53 Bundesliga games over the course of the next two campaigns, the second under Mathias Sammer, contributing to fourth and fifth-placed finishes as the groundwork was laid for VfB's 2006/07 title win as well as the foundations of Lahm's obscenely successful career.
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They would have been firmed up with still more top-flight experience had he not broken a bone in his right foot in early 2005, and then missed the last game of the season — against Bayern — after damaging knee ligaments. That injury, his second serious problem in what the German media christened Lahm's "Seuchenjahr" or "epidemic year", meant he returned to his alma mater unable to play.
With Bixente Lizarazu back at the club after a brief flirtation with Marseille, Lahm might have expected to have to battle for his place at left-back. Instead, this time the 1998 FIFA World Cup and UEFA EURO 2000 winner was merely tiding Bayern — now coached by Magath — over till Lahm was fit again. The changing of the guard came on 19 November, 2005, in Bielefeld: Lahm in, Lizarazu out shortly after the hour mark, the first of 330 Bundesliga games for a man whose name has become etched all over Bayern's history, but whose future was framed in Stuttgart.