Germany's young stars shining again
By Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Germany's Bastian Schweinsteiger grabbed a Dr. Seuss-like black, red and yellow hat and a national team flag from fans and danced around the field at St. Jakob Park in Basel, Switzerland on Wednesday.
The colorful hat covered Schweinsteiger's bleached blonde hair, which includes just a spot of black in the bangs. He draped the flag around his shoulders to double as a cape, which was fitting for the young German superman, er, star.
Schweinsteiger, who played just 58 minutes in Germany's first three Euro games, played a key role in the 3-2 semifinal win over Turkey, scoring the first goal.
It was his second huge performance of the tournament. He also scored the first goal in a 3-2 win over Portugal in the quarterfinals, and assisted on the other two.
Schweinsteiger, just 23 and easily mistakable for an X Games star (when he was younger he was a top-rated ski racer), is just one of the country's young stars who emerged in the 2006 World Cup and are shining again at Euro 2008.
Bastian Schweinsteiger played a key role in the 3-2 semifinal win over Turkey.
Philipp Lahm, the senior citizen of the bunch at 24, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski are the others who are well shy of their 25th birthdays and well on their way to 100 appearances for Germany. Only five players in the country's history have reached the magical 100 mark.
Those four made a combined 26 starts (out of a possible 28 matches) as Germany finished third in the 2006 World Cup. Two years later, the group has their team in the final of Euro 2008, which is Germany's 13th appearance in a major final.
Germany, which has won three World Cups and a record three Euro titles, plays Spain in the final Sunday. The Germans' last major crown was Euro 1996.
Arguably, Schweinsteiger has been the key to Germany's run, and he didn't even start until the quarterfinals.
Schweinsteiger was a hero in the '06 World Cup when he scored two goals and had a shot that resulted in an own goal in a 3-1 win in the third-place match against Portugal.
Leading up to Euro 2008, he had been a regular in the starting lineup. But coach Joachim Loew decided to bench him at the start of the tournament. In his second game off the bench, Schweinsteiger got a red card in the closing minutes.
After sitting out the third match due to a one-game suspension for the card, he returned like a cheetah on Red Bull. Schweinsteiger upstaged Portugal star and likely FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo in his return, scoring a goal and assisting on the other two in a magical performance.
"We talked to him and told him he couldn't let the team down," Germany assistant coach Hansi Flick told UEFA's website. "He had promised to come up with a great performance and he did just that."
Obviously, Loew had an easy decision to hand Schweinsteiger his 55th appearance as a starter in the semifinal, and the midfielder delivered again with his 15th career international goal.
Podolski, next up with 53 appearances, turned 23 earlier this month. He emerged with three goals in the '06 World Cup, and started Euro 2008 with both goals in a 2-0 win over Poland. He added his third goal in Germany's only loss, 2-1, to Croatia in the group stage.
The most impressive thing about Podolski's play, which includes assists on both of Schweinsteiger's goals, is that he's been switched from his usual role as a striker to a midfielder.
But it doesn't matter where the Polish-born Podolski, who moved to Germany when he was 2, plays. His left-footed shots would easily get speeding tickets on the autobahn. With 28 career international goals - or more than one in every two matches - he is already one of the most prolific scorers in German history.
Mertesacker, 23, follows with 48 appearances for Germany. Even at 6-foot-6 he's the most overlooked of the young stars but even German engineers would struggle to develop a better center back.
He hasn't been flawless, but very few central defenders are handed the position when they're just 21 - especially for one of the world's top countries - and it will likely be a few more years until he fulfills all his potential.
"Not everything is perfect yet, but we have gelled well and are improving with each game," Mertesacker said on UEFA's website. "That's clear."
Lastly, there's the diminutive Lahm. At 5-7, the left or right fullback would vanish if he ran behind Mertesacker. But make no mistake, Lahm is one of the best in the world at his position.
Lahm, who has 46 appearances for Germany, started every game at the 2006 World Cup and was named to the all-tournament team. A defender who is also capable of scoring, Lahm scored Germany's first goal in the last World Cup.
Only fitting, Lahm's next goal was just days ago in the 90th minute of the win over Turkey. The young star had just made a defensive mistake that allowed the Turks to tie the match, but he rebounded with an inspiring run and world-class finish to send Germany into the final.
"I appreciate that I didn't do too well with their second equalizer, and I made some mistakes during the 90 minutes," Lahm said on UEFA's website, "but the goal I scored was the most important of my career."
Schweinsteiger, Podolski, Mertesacker and Lahm may never approach German legend Lothar Matthaus' amazing 150 games played for Germany - which is 42 more than '06 World Cup coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who is second on the list.
But the fact the four are just one win away from etching their names alongside some of Germany's all-time greats, and before the age Michael Jordan was when he won the first of his six Most Valuable Player awards, is simply amazing.
Even if the group doesn't reach those Everest-like heights on Sunday, it's just a matter of time.