Wherever he has played football Michael Ballack has asked to wear the "unlucky" No 13 shirt, as a symbol of his disdain for superstition and the hold it can have over some team-mates. The captain of the German national team might want to review his policy and request a change of number after his luck ran out yesterday with the news that the injury he sustained at the FA Cup final is serious enough to rule him out of this summer's World Cup finals in South Africa.
It emerged yesterday, however, that there may be more to the injury than just bad luck. Ballack, 33, was clattered in the 35th minute of Saturday's final by the Portsmouth midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, a player who has been holding a grudge against the German captain for four years over a comment Ballack allegedly made during a game when the pair both played in the German Bundesliga.
Boateng's father, Prince, 56, told the Hamburg Morning Post: "Kevin's the whipping boy once again. It's always twice as bad when anything happens with a Boateng. It upsets me a lot. But you have to look at the whole story. [In 2006] Kevin had just scored his first goal for Hertha [Berlin]. Then they played against Bayern Munich. He had an argument with Ballack.
"Ballack said to him. 'You've scored one goal, and you think you are the best'. Kevin has never forgotten that. Unfortunately, Kevin isn't very diplomatic. But I am sure, even if he did foul Ballack, he didn't mean to injure him."
Boateng's challenge on Ballack was rash, reckless and dangerous, but it did not have the appearance of a premeditated attack such as the violent assault by Roy Keane on Alf-Inge Haaland that ended the Norwegian's career in 2001. Yet the revelation of history between Ballack and Boateng adds an extra twist to a sorry story that has already stirred up strong feelings in Germany. The German newspaper Bild called yesterday called the foul a "revenge attack", in reference to Boateng's decision to swap allegiances recently and drop his German nationality in favour of playing international football for Ghana. Boateng, who was born in Berlin to a Ghanaian father and a German mother, had represented Germany at Under-21 level but the offer of potentially competing at the World Cup for Ghana proved to be too tempting.
The two countries meet in Group D of the World Cup on 23 June and should Boateng be selected, he can be sure to receive the kind of tackles he meted out at Wembley on Saturday. To further complicate the situation, his brother, Jerome, who will join Manchester City from Hamburg this summer, could feature for Germany.
The German manager, Joachim Löw, has attempted to take the heat out of the situation, saying: "I have spoken to Jerome Boateng. I have told him that we will stand by him, absolutely. Admittedly, he is a family member, but he is not involved at all. I ask everyone not to get him caught up in this thing."
Löw must now attempt to rebuild his team, as he had moulded his side around the attacking powers of Ballack, whose loss to Germany far exceeds that of David Beckham to England. Ballack, who has 98 international caps, was described as "irreplaceable" by the former Germany manager Rudi Völler, and Löw faces a huge task in trying to rebuild German confidence.
"We are shocked, no question about it, and we are all very, very sad," Löw said yesterday. "He is a very important player for us, a world-class player who played a very important role in decisive games for us. There can be no question of resignation now. We are sure we can still play a good tournament."
Ballack, 33, underwent a scan in Munich yesterday morning on his ankle ligaments, desperately hoping that even if the injury meant a few weeks on the sidelines he might at least be able to play some part in Germany's challenge. He had been due to have an MRI scan in London on Sunday but the swelling was so bad that proved impossible. So he flew to Germany, to the surgery of German team doctor Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, where he received the verdict.
"This is certainly the worst diagnosis of my career," Ballack said before flying off to join the German squad at their training camp in Sicily. "That's football, you have to live with it. I am angry, clearly. I've called the coach of the national team and he's naturally disappointed. Now I have to let it sink in."
For all his disregard for superstition and luck, Ballack is now likely to go down in football history as one of the game's most unfortunate players. He entered German folklore in 2002 when he ended the season with four runners-up medals: in the league, cup and Champions League with Bayer Leverkusen and in the World Cup with Germany.
It was no better in 2008 when he came second with Chelsea in the Premier League, the Carling Cup and the Champions League, before losing in the final of Euro 2008 with Germany.
World Cup sick list
*Some big names will miss, or are in danger of missing, next month's World Cup due to injury. The high-profile players include:
Michael Ballack (Germany)......... Ankle
David Beckham (England)......... Achilles
Jose Bosingwa (Portugal)......... Knee
Michael Essien (Ghana)......... Knee
William Gallas (France)......... Calf
Harry Kewell (Australia)......... Knee
Ruud van Nistelrooy (Neth'lds)......... Knee
Fernando Torres (Spain)......... Knee
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