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On the first day of September 2001, England travelled to Munich to face old adversaries Germany in a World Cup qualifying game. Within six minutes of kick-off, the Hertha Berlin midfielder Sebastian Deisler had carved open England’s defence with an exquisitely crafted chip that was nodded down by Oliver Neuville for Carsten Jancker to put the home team ahead. Not only did the goal suggest that Germans were on the road to victory, it also underscored the promise that Deisler, the latest German wunderkind, could deliver on the prophases of Franz Beckenbauer who had described the 21-year-old as “physically and technically the best in Germany”, and national coach Rudi Völler who asserted that Deisler would be “influential for Germany for another 10 years.” As things turned, however, Germany collapsed under the weight of a crushing 5-1 defeat, and by the age of 27, Deisler’s career was over. A promise unfulfilled.
Deisler began his professional career at the age of 18 at Borussia Mönchengladbach, after playing three years at junior level with the club. Although it was a breakthrough season for the midfielder, it was a time of great struggle for Die Fohlen as they finished rock bottom of the Bundesliga, sixteen points adrift of safety. In the same season, Hertha had finished in third place, qualifying for the Champions League and, recognising the as yet untapped talent of the young midfielder, laid out a reported 4.5 million Deutsche Marks to take his talents to the Olympiastadion.
In a sad harbinger of what was to come, Deisler’s early days in the German capital were compromised by a cruciate ligament rupture, causing him to miss much of his first term with the Die Alte Dame of German football. For a 19-year-old prodigy, it was a crushing blow, and this limited his availability to just 20 of the 34 games of the league season, as Hertha tumbled to a disappointing sixth place. Once recovered though, he would illustrate that the fee was money well spent, especially in Europe’s top club competition. With the inexperienced Hertha club placed in a group alongside Chelsea, AC Milan and Galatasaray, progress always looked difficult, but with the newly recovered Deisler encouraged to show his flair by coach Jürgen Röber, the young midfielder took centre stage, prompting, probing and pushing Hertha a highly creditable second place in the group and progress into the second group stage where the combined pedigree of Barcelona and Porto dominated. Hertha would only take two points in that second group stage, but Deisler had demonstrated his ability to shine in exalted company and a seemingly inevitably bright future beckoned.
The following season saw Deisler continue to establish himself as one of Hertha’s most creative elements, as the club climbed back up the Bundesliga table to finish in fifth place, missing out on a Champions League place by a single point. The 2000-01 season promised much, but with it, just a couple of months old, injury struck Deisler again as a torn synovial membrane caused him to miss the remainder of the season. He had only completed eleven league games at the time, and would never play for Hertha again.
As if the injury had not added enough pressure onto the German’s young shoulders, around the same time, Bild broke a story that a deal had been agreed for Deisler to move to Bayern Munich at the end of the season. Despite the injuries he had suffered, Deisler was now worshipped by the Hertha fans and a storm of criticism followed from the media for keeping the news under wraps. Deisler’s protestations that the deal had been agreed between the clubs, and that he had been advised by the Hertha manager, Dieter Hoeneß, not to break the news in order to avoid any trouble before the end of the term, was largely ignored, and somewhat savagely perhaps, Hoeneß failed to step forward to shield his player. It was a betrayal keenly felt by the player who had looked up to the manager as a mentor of sorts. Speaking to Die Zeit, years later, the disillusionment was born at that time. “I know today,” he confessed, “that’s the point at which I should have stopped.”
For what was still a young player, the criticism bit deeply into his moods and, coupled with the injuries, it’s entirely understandable that the pressure began to erode his passion for football. In the same interview, Deisler would recall the pain caused by Hoeneß as the manager, “stood by and watched as I was hounded out of Berlin.”
In July 2002, Deisler officially joined the Bavarian club, with a four-year contract. In reality, his stay there would last until 2007, but in that time, only once, would he play in more than half of the club’s Bundesliga fixtures in a season.
Deisler was still suffering from the knee injury on his arrival at Bayern, but coach Ottmar Hotzfeld saw his new signing as the natural successor to the ageing Stefan Effenberg and sought to build his team around the youngster’s talents. It was a forlorn aspiration. Already bearing the scars of physical injury, a darkening depression would descend upon Deisler as pressure to succeed at the showpiece German club was piled onto a growing dislike of the game and what it was doing to an increasingly fragile mental balance.
Struggling on so many fronts, Deisler was revealed to be suffering from depression and that he would be taking an unspecified break from football, declaring that. “There is no time plan and I won’t put myself under pressure anymore. That is a lesson I have learned in the past few weeks. The time [when I return to football] is still a long way away. First I have to get well.”
Although he would return to the Bayern folds several months later, he suffered a relapse in November of the following year, causing another period of absence, but again appeared to come through the illness and regained his position in the Bayern squad. Things were looking to be on a much-wanted upward trend, and a return to the Mannschaft was again a real possibility, and with the upcoming 2006 World Cup to be held in Germany, there was a bright light to aim for at the end of what had been a bleak and long dark tunnel.
Fate can be a cruel mistress, however, and in March 2006, it dealt another blow to Sebastien Deisler. Another rupture of the synovial membrane in his troublesome right knee not only ended his season but also destroyed any hope of appearing in the World Cup. It was the harshest of reverses for the vulnerable Deisler and killed any lingering affection for the life of a professional footballer.
The following year, at just 27 years of age, Sebastian Deisler announced his retirement from the game. His statement at the time reflects both a sense of exhaustion in the uneven fight against both physical and mental injuries and a rejection of the sport that had caused so many of the painful episodes and problems in his life. “I no longer have any real faith in my knee. It’s been an ordeal, I can no longer play with the right level of enjoyment and I don’t do anything by halves.” Some players look upon retirement as something to be avoided for as long as possible. The trials and sad tale of Sebastian Deisler, however, reveal a side to football rarely appreciated by those who watch and love it. At the end of the day, the heroes on the pitch are just people, coping with the same weaknesses and enduring the same distresses that we all are faced with. The difference is that they have to do it in the full glare of an unforgiving harsh arclight of publicity. The sad tale of a Sebastian Deisler, and a promise unfulfilled, should serve as a reminder of that.