The burden of Michael Ballack

Germany's great expectations for Euro 2008 success rest squarely on the shoulders of its star midfielder.

As Germany's most dangerous player, Michael Ballack has been a target at Euro 2008.

Heading into Wednesday's semifinal against Turkey, the Chelsea midfielder has been one of the most fouled players in the tournament, with opponents regularly finding that brute force is the most effective way of curtailing his impact.

Off the field, the attention has taken a more tasteless twist with a Polish newspaper picturing an image of Ballack's decapitated head being held up by Poland coach Leo Beenhakker. An Austrian publication chimed in as well before the final game in Group B, showing a mockup picture of the German captain in a nude pose under the headline "Let's rip their pants off."

However, those unwelcome focuses will pale in comparison to the response Ballack may get if he returns to his homeland without the trophy.

Harsh as it may seem, the German public now sees anything less than ultimate victory in the European Championships as abject failure and has charged Ballack with the primary responsibility of attaining it.

Despite an impressive career at football's highest level, Ballack has a frustrating collection of near-miss tales to tell in major international tournaments and the UEFA Champions League. And at 31, he is running out of time, especially with the German national team.

Ballack admitted that early in his career he perhaps "cared too much" ahead of big games, and that intense approach negatively affected his performance. The past defeats still hurt, though, and that's why he is relishing this opportunity.

He will rarely get a better chance than the one awaiting him. Turkey has ridden a wave of emotion and showed great courage in fighting back against the Czech Republic and Croatia to reach the semifinals, but with the Turks depleted by injuries and suspensions, Germany goes into Wednesday's game as strong favorites.

"I just desperately want to win this trophy," Ballack told reporters at a news conference. "I don't want to look back on my career at some point and say, 'What a pity, I came close a few times, but it was never good enough.' "

It has been unfairly suggested that Ballack lacks heart, especially when it comes to the biggest of occasions. With past greats such as Franz Beckenbauer in its history, Germany has little time for those who strive hard but finish second.

Ballack has fallen short for club and country. He was the key figure in a Bayer Leverkusen side that reached the Champions League final in 2002 and outplayed Real Madrid only to lose 2-1. In the 2002 World Cup, he was again his team's best player but was suspended for the final as Germany lost 2-0 to Brazil.

Perhaps the most painful experience came last month in the Champions League final when Chelsea came one accurate penalty kick away from its first European Cup. But John Terry's now-infamous miss allowed English Premier League rival Manchester United to come back and prevail in the shootout.

Those setbacks have led to a mentality that can either be read as bitterness or pragmatism by Ballack.

"I really don't care about what people say about what I have done in the past," he said. "That's the way it is in football. You are rarely rewarded in this sport, and sometimes you are brutally punished."

Acknowledged as Germany's best, most famous and most talented footballer, Ballack bears the burden of hailing from a nation steeped in success. For him and his teammates, nothing less is expected when they walk off the St. Jakob Park pitch in Basel, Switzerland.

"The hour of truth is approaching," Ballack said. "We are in the Euro semifinals and we have an enormous chance to reach the final."