In hindsight, this may actually have suited him. As the best player in the country, Ballack enjoyed starring roles at Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and for Die Mannschaft; after the success of 2006, he moved to Chelsea before concluding his career at Leverkusen. A man betraying precious little self-doubt, the spotlight rests easily on him. He was Germany: it wasn't a burden, just the way things were.
His polished – if not definitive – turn as an analyst for ESPN over the 2012 European Championships only highlighted his readiness to step away from the centre of midfield.
Michael Ballack rarely took a backwards step. And in a weird kind of way, that could be why his mooted move to Toronto FC or the fledgling Western Sydney Wanderers never really made it off the ground. Wage demands might have played a part, but had he wanted to keep playing the monetary terms could have been arranged. Some men are made to be ambassadors, but Michael Ballack just isn't one of them.
Sydney FC signee Alessandro Del Piero will be crucial to the A-League and football's growth in Australia. Without question, he is the best player to ever play in the Antipodes. Ballack is two years younger and fit a role which doesn't necessarily depend on speed. He could have owned the A-League; if Christian Tiffert makes such an impact in Seattle, how deadly would Michael Ballack be? However, doing so – even for reported millions – may have felt like a backward step. At 36, once usefulness at the very top level has been exhausted, the best players must accept a reduced role - one of venerable sage, goodwill ambassador or even figurehead.
Some athletes are engineered to keep going; Del Piero joins his English contemporary David Beckham as the most obvious examples. Ballack probably isn't wired that way, and that's fine – not many have the combination of talent, temperament and stamina to do so. The ultimate cost/benefit analysis all footballers face contrasts desire and depreciation. When that ratio dips too low, it's time to enter the tunnel for the final time.
Michael Ballack leaves the game on his own terms. It couldn't really have happened any other way. However, his luxuriant bouffant and measured analysis on ESPN suggests we will see a lot more of him in the future.