Bastian Schweinsteiger was three different players. The German superstar, who announced his retirement from soccer on Tuesday, is leaving behind one of the most peculiar careers in recent soccer memory. From a wide player breaking into Germany’s 2006 World Cup side, to one of the best and most idiosyncratic central midfielders in the world, and finally to his farewell run as a center back in the United States, the now-35-year-old did it all, and despite his late-career fade, he was a vital part of German soccer for a decade.
Schweinsteiger was never more important for club and country than he was from 2012 to 2014. To say that era belonged to Germany is an understatement: three Champions League finalists (Bayern Munich twice, and Borussia Dortmund once), European Championship semi-finalists in 2012, and, of course, the 2014 World Cup trophy-winners. Not surprisingly, Schweinsteiger was deeply involved in all of those successes.
Despite Bayern losing the 2012 Champions League final at home in Munich, the club came back to beat Dortmund in 2013, finally lifting the big-eared trophy for the first time since 2001. Schweinsteiger wasn’t the best player on the field in either of Bayern’s back-to-back finals (those would be Didier Drogba and Manuel Neuer, respectively), but he was there doing what he did best: cleaning up the midfield and initiating attacks from deep.
He was, however, the best player on the field at the 2014 World Cup final, though the goalscorer, Mario Götze, won the man of the match award. Sure, Argentina should have won if not for Gonzalo Higuaín being Gonzalo Higuaín, but the real reason Germany were able to keep the albiceleste out of the goal was Schweinsteiger, who transformed into a Lionel Messi deterrent for 120 minutes.
As outlined by Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox back then, Germany’s heart and soul repeatedly pushed Messi out of the middle of the park, where he would be most dangerous, forcing Argentina’s legend to create from wide or to try to break behind a sturdy German backline. Schweinsteiger also completed the most passes of anyone on the field, because he really could do it all. (As always, pardon the music; soccer highlight videos need to calm down.)
That game, and the final result, was a departure from how Schweinsteiger’s first two World Cups went. In 2006, he broke onto the German national side as a winger at the fresh age of 22. He was never the fastest wide player, but the playmaking he would show from deeper positions later in his career was already there, as Die Mannschaft made it all the way to the semis before losing to eventual champions Italy (Germany did beat Portugal to finish third, and Schweinsteiger scored a brace with two long-range golazos).
In 2010, there was Schweinsteiger again, helping a younger, faster side gel by holding down the middle. Again, Germany went out to the eventual champions—Spain, this time—before finishing third over Uruguay, though this time Schweinsteiger earned a spot in the team of the tournament, and rightfully so.
Like Bayern’s stranglehold on Europe, Schweinsteiger’s collapse would be fast and vicious; after injuries sapped him of his remaining pace, he went over to Manchester United and was pretty average before Jose Mourinho dumped him to the B team. And his late-career sojourn to the MLS and the Chicago Fire gave us very little to remember, aside from this wonderfully awkward press conference moment:
By his last season-and-a-half in Chicago, Schweinsteiger was playing center back, his legs completely gone. He was fine at it, because of course he was, but long gone were the days where he could power through an injury to shut down the best player in the world in a World Cup final.
Whatever Schweinsteiger did after leaving Bayern doesn’t diminish his contributions to the sport. The two biggest peaks in German soccer over the last 15 years can both be directly traced to Schweinsteiger. The way he adapted his play style to fit a modern, deep-lying destroyer role that didn’t really exist when he started as a pro is more impressive than any amount of wonder goals he scored on the wing.
Schweinsteiger wasn’t the best German player of the decade—that was his Bayern teammate, Philipp Lahm—but he was certainly the second, and maybe more important for the successes of his club and his country. He might have lost all of his athleticism in one sharp burst, and his lasting legacy, particularly in the English-speaking section of soccer fandom, might be as a washed-up has-been. But for a few years there, there was no one quite like Bastian Schweinsteiger, a whirlwind who did it all and, more importantly, who won it all.