748 days later

When teams win 7-0 they generally tone down the goal celebrations as the scoreline increases until the players are almost apologetic. However, in Bayern Munich’s recent seven-goal-trouncing of Shakhtar Donetsk the emotions triggered by the fifth goal were both palpable and appropriate. The reason behind the elation, the scorer: Holger Badstuber.

Those who do not follow the Bundesliga regularly may not be too familiar with Badstuber, and with good reason. Although the 25-year old has already won 30 caps for Germany and has made over 150 appearances for Bayern Munich, it should have been a lot more. Over the last two-and-a-half years, the promising defender’s career has suffered a number of frustrating and potentially soul-destroying setbacks. His headed goal against the Ukrainians in the Champion’s League was his first since returning from two lengthy layoffs dating back to December 2012. This goal, understandably, meant the world to him and the teammates that had shared his pain.

A product of the club’s youth set-up, Badstuber signed a professional contract with Bayern Munich in July 2009 – the same time, incidentally, as Thomas Müller. By the end of the following season it was already impossible to imagine the team without the two. At that time Bayern were under the stewardship of Louis van Gaal, the man charged with picking up the pieces left by Jürgen Klinsmann’s failed project the season previous.

During his tenure at the Allianz Arena Van Gaal was rightly praised for putting faith in the club’s youth policy, introducing the likes of Thomas Müller, Toni Kroos and David Alaba – all of which became key players during his reign and beyond. Alongside these talents, in the 2009-10 season, the then 20-year old Badstuber played 49 games for the club in all competitions, including the Champion’s League final defeat to Inter Milan.

A solid, left-footed defender, he rotated between centre-back and left-back and was ever-present as Van Gaal’s men were only denied the treble by a Diego Milito brace in Madrid. Badstuber was held in such high regard by the staff at Bayern that in February 2010, a little over six months after signing professional terms with the club, he was tied down to a new four-year deal.

Although he nearly delivered the treble in his first year, Van Gaal’s second season in the Bundesliga was to be his last. It was also to be a season of contrasting fortunes for Badstuber. On the domestic front he often seemed to be made a scapegoat by Van Gaal and came in for some public criticism for his performances, eventually losing his place in the team. At the same time however, he had established himself in the national side and played in all ten of Germany’s Euro 2012 qualifying matches, nine of those in the starting XI.

His increasingly fractious relationship with Van Gaal was ended with the latter’s dismissal. The writing was on the wall for the Dutchman following exits from both the German Cup and the Champion’s League, and as soon as retaining the league title became mathematically impossible the reigning Manager of the Year was shown the door. Jupp Heynckes left Bayer Leverkusen to take over at the end of the season and immediately reinstated Badstuber to the team.

Heynckes’ first season in Munich was a case of close, but no cigar. The Bavarian giants finished runners up in the league and cup to Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund and, despite dominating the match, lost to Chelsea on penalties in the Finale dahoam in the Champion’s League. Holger Badstuber, though, continued to be ever-present and missed only five games in all competitions – one of which being that fateful final in Munich. Since being given a chance by Van Gaal, Badstuber had never looked back and had established himself on the domestic, European, and international stage.

The following season was a historic one for Bayern Munich as they completed the treble, atoning for the setbacks of the previous campaign. However, as his teammates were devouring trophies left, right and center, Badstuber was well into a depressing stretch in the treatment room.

Earlier in the season, in the league match against reigning champions Dortmund on 1st December 2012, Badstuber ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee whilst making a tackle. Although serious, ACL injuries are relatively common and the defender was given a prognosis of around six months on the sidelines – giving him the upcoming pre-season as a realistic target for a comeback. Unfortunately though, towards the end of his rehabilitation, he suffered a re-rupture of the repaired knee and was faced with an indefinite extension to an already lengthy layoff. The news of his misfortune was met with frustration and, mostly, sympathy for Badstuber who must have felt he could see light at the end of the tunnel having suffered the torment of watching from the sidelines as his teammates made history.

Thanks to the latest injury and the subsequent trepidation about rushing through his rehabilitation, the 2013-14 season was a non-starter for Badstuber. As new boss Pep Guardiola was busy instilling his own brand of football at the club, and bringing in players to suit, Badstuber was a mere bystander. He did not make a single appearance in the whole campaign.

Finally though, after one-and-a-half seasons out of the game he was able to make his comeback in a friendly game on 18th July. There is no doubt that both player and club would have felt a sense of relief and elation at the event, but who could say how Badstuber was feeling when he watched his international teammates win the biggest prize in football just 5 days earlier. If it were not for his injury woes, Holger Badstuber would have undoubtedly been part of Löw’s squad, and may even have been on the pitch against Argentina in Rio de Janeiro.

Although his right knee remained in one piece, fate still found the time to deliver one more devastating blow. Badstuber ruptured a tendon in his thigh in only the third league game of this season – what was to be his comeback season. The latest injury put him out until well after the winter break as he missed 17 league games and the complete group stage of the Champion’s League. Alongside the existential terrors associated with yet another setback he also saw his position beside Boateng at the heart of Bayern’s defence skillfully covered by the new signing Mehdi Benatia, who arrived for around 30€ million from AS Roma.

All he could do was remain patient and concentrate on his rehabilitation until his most recent comeback – in Bayern’s 8-0 thumping of Hamburg on Valentine’s Day of this year. Since then Badstuber has played the full 90 minutes in every game, both in the league and Europe.

His situation is comparable to those of players such as Jonathan Woodgate and Ledley King, two immensely talented defenders whose careers were blighted by a succession of injuries that in particular curtailed their international careers. Although somewhat compensated by the fact that the England squads of that time had John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, it remains a case of what might have been for both players. And despite being reigning world champions and their conveyor belt of talent being the envy of world football, Germany are arguably most vulnerable in defence. Aside from the excellent Jérôme Boateng and Mats Hummels, Germany’s other central defenders have been inconsistent at best. Furthermore, the need to play Schalke’s Benedikt Höwedes as an auxillary left back in Brazil illustrated Joachim Löw’s lack of confidence in his other options for the position. Consequently, the return of Holger Badstuber this season will have been warmly welcomed by the Germany coach.

From the moment he fell to the ground clutching his right knee against Dortmund to the time he made his return against Hamburg, Badstuber had clocked up an incredible 748 days on the sidelines, at times amidst doubts that he would play again. At times he could have been forgiven for feeling like a man falsely imprisoned for crimes he did not commit. But hopefully, his return to first team action, and his goal against Shakhtar, will mean that Holger Badstuber is once again a free man.


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