By the time of the performance that will forever define his career, Bastian Schweinsteiger was a tough, smart, skilled and streetwise central midfielder. The controller, if not the captain, of the Germany side that won the World Cup in Rio in 2014.
Along with Mario Götze’s winning goal, images of Schweinsteiger — bleeding from a cut just beneath his eye — driving his team on physically and technically are those that have lingered longest in the collective memory.
Such a complete performance in the heart of midfield in the biggest game on the planet was remarkable. But it becomes even more so for those who remember his first steps into elite football as a teenage Bayern Munich winger with a reputation for questionable behavior and haircuts.
Ottmar Hitzfeld handed Schweinsteiger and Phlipp Lahm their Bayern debuts in a Champions League group-stage tie in November 2002 and the pair would go on to define both Bayern and the German national team for over a decade. Schweinsteiger made 500 Bayern appearances, winning eight Bundesliga titles, seven German Cups and the Champions League as part of the 2013 treble under coach Jupp Heynckes.
The man with the plan
“To me, Schweinsteiger is a great strategist,” Heynckes said of his player shortly before that treble. “Just as a film director has his script, he has a plan in his mind for matches.”
By that time, the boy from Bavaria had become a man. His early appearances came mostly on the right-hand side of midfield, where Schweinsteiger’s crossing and penchant for spectacular long-range passes and shots were allowed to come to the fore. His performances there were enough to win him a surprise call-up for his country’s Euro 2004 squad shortly after his international debut against Hungary.
Bastian Schweinsteiger grew up in the deep south of Bavaria, and first kicked a ball at the age of three. At 14 he was picked up by Bayern Munich’s youth program and in late 2002 the then-18-year-old signed his first professional contract with the club.
Schweinsteiger made his debut for the national team together with close friend Lukas Podolski, in a European Championship warm-up match against Hungary on June 6, 2004. Germany lost 2-0 and were later eliminated in the group stage at Euro 2004 in Portugal.
The technically adept Schweinsteiger quickly became one of the first names on the team sheet at Bayern Munich. Strong in the tackle, the midfielder also proved himself more than capable of contributing to the attack, making him a fan favorite. Schweinsteiger was part of a Bayern team that won eight Bundesliga titles.
By the time Germany hosted the World Cup in 2006, Schweinsteiger and his friend Podolski had established themselves as regulars on the national team. Here, Schweinstieger comforts teammate Per Mertesacker after Italy beat Germany in extra time in their semifinal. Schweinsteiger had come on as a substitute in the 73rd minute.
When Miroslav Klose was subbed off at halftime in a friendly against Belgium in August 2008, he handed the captain’s armband to Schweinsteiger. After pulling it on for the first time, the then-24-year-old scored from the penalty spot to make it 1-0 for Germany.
It took a few years, but in 2013, along with then-club and national team captain Philipp Lahm, Schweinsteiger finally brought the Champions League trophy back to Munich. The Bavarians beat Bundesliga rivals Borussia Dortmund 2-1 in the final played in Wembley Stadium in London.
Many believed Schweinsteiger’s best was already behind him as Germany headed to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. However, he proved the doubters wrong with a swashbuckling performance in the final against Argentina and was a key factor in Germany’s triumph.
It came as a surprise to many when Schweinsteiger decided to leave Bayern after 17 years at the club. In 2015 he moved to Manchester United. However, he was plagued by injuries and never was able to establish himself as a regular in the first 11. In the end he was frozen out by coach Jose Mourinho. Despite his lack of playing time, he did manage to collect both FA Cup and EFL Cup winners’ medals.
After Schweinsteiger’s season with Manchester United was wrecked by injury, nobody expected much from him at Euro 2016. However, after coach Joachim Löw brought him off the bench in Germany’s opening match against Ukraine, he sprinted almost the length of the pitch to score the second goal in a 2-0 victory.
Alas, that turned out to be the highlight of Schweinsteiger’s Euro 2016. Coach Joachim Löw used him sparingly, bringing him off the bench. He got his first start in the semifinal against France – when he inadvertently handled the ball inside the box, conceding the penalty that gave the hosts a 1-0 lead. France would go on to win 2-0 in Marseille – and eliminate Germany from the tournament.
However, life is not just about football – just days after Germany were eliminated from Euro 2016 in France, Bastian Schweinsteiger took the plunge, wedding his girlfriend, Serbian former world No. 1 tennis player Ana Invanovic in a ceremony in Venice.
In August 2016, Bastian Schweinsteiger made his final appearance in the national team jersey, a 2-0 German win in a friendly against Finland in Mönchengladbach. It was his 121st appearance for his country. Six months later, he is embarking on a new adventure, as he moves on to America to try to help revive the fortunes of Major League Soccer strugglers Chicago Fire.
On April 1, 2017, Bastian Schweinsteiger scored in his debut for his new club, Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer. He had a positive impact on the Fire, helping them to qualify for the playoffs after having finished bottom of the Eastern Conference the two previous seasons. In 2018, though, the Fire have won just six of their 27 games so far and are very much out of contention for the playoffs.
A day prior to the testimonial match between his Chicago Fire and his former club, Bayern Munich, at the Alliance Arena in Munich, Bastian Schweinsteiger was presented with his home state’s Order of Merit. “You are Bavaria – and you have done outstanding things for Bavaria,” state Premier Markus Söder told the 35-year-old at the presentation ceremony.
“I will be finishing my active career at the end of this season. I would like to thank both, the fans and my teams FC Bayern, Manchester United, Chicago Fire and the German National Team. You made this unbelieveable time possible for me! Saying goodbye makes me feel nostalgic, but I’m looking foward to the exciting challenges that await me soon. I will remain faithful to football.”
Though Germany exited at the group stage in Portugal, Schweinsteiger impressed and it was the last time he’d have to suffer such an exit. The 35-year-old shares the record for most appearances in World Cup and Euros finals matches (38) with Cristiano Ronaldo and played a key role as Germany restored some national sporting pride with a home World Cup in 2006 that many saw as the foundation for what happened eight years later.
As well as that third-placed finish in 2006, Schweinsteiger also helped Germany finish third in the 2010 World Cup but was denied a European Championships winners medal with a series of close calls over four tournaments. It’s the one medal missing from his collection.
Heart on sleeve
There were also moments of heartbreak with Bayern, most notably the 2012 Champions League final defeat to Chelsea on home turf. Schweinsteiger was visibly distraught after the penalty loss and his visceral reaction drew plenty of sympathy.
It wasn’t unusual. More than most footballers, and contrary to the general perception of German players, Schweinsteiger showed what he felt. It’s always been clear how much he cared and how much he valued the team and the sport.
“Bastian was the soul and the heart of the team. He did everything for the team, not for himself,” said Heynckes.
After a public admonishment from German Chancellor Angela Merkel following a sending-off against Croatia in 2008, Schweinsteiger became something of an ambassador for German football, maintaining his composure through a difficult spell at Manchester United before winding down his career with Chicago Fire, where he’ll finish up at the end of the current season.
As tributes continue to pour in from teammates, it’s clear he’ll retire as an undisputed Bayern Munich and Germany icon. As for the future, Germany coach Joachim Löw hinted ahead of a rematch of that 2014 final on Wednesday that the door was open to his former charge.
Whether Schweinsteiger is ready to take that next step is not yet clear. But he’s never shirked a challenge before.