Bastian Schweinsteiger's complex talent is undermined only by his nickname -- "Schweini," or "Piggy." But German manager Jogi Loew has concocted a moniker that is slightly more reflective of the linchpin role he plays on the German national team: "The Brain." If the Germans win Euro 2012, it may yet catch on.
The dynamic German midfielder is a player of whom even the compliment-averse Pele was moved to admit, "If I were a coach I would definitely want to have him in my team."
Schweinsteiger is, in baseball parlance, a five-tool player: a direct, technical, intelligent, ball-winning midfielder who is able to score. After rattling off a pair of assists in the 2-1 win over the Dutch, Schweinsteiger revealed himself as Germany's natural leader who sets the team's tempo.
Michael Ballack, a man who knows a thing or two about anchoring that particular midfield, professed, "[Schweinsteiger] has presence, authority, personality, performance and goals. He has everything."
Schweinsteiger was born in 1984 in Kolbemoor, population less than 5,000 (yet also the hometown of radical 1970s German midfielder Paul Breitner) a Bavarian town in which his family ran a skiing business. As a youth Schweinsteiger demonstrated an agility on the slopes, but at 14, he committed himself to soccer and signed with Bayern Munich’s youth system.
The player broke through as a right-sided midfielder at the German powerhouse with whom he has celebrated the domestic league and cup double five times, including 2007-8 when he was switched from the flanks to a more central role, a switch that has allowed him to dominate games for both Munich and the German National Team.
Despite the domestic dominance Bayern has experienced, it is the international arena in which Schweinsteiger now yearns to make a mark. Though just 27 years of age, he has already racked up a startling 93 national team appearances since being plucked from the U-21 team on the eve of Euro 2004 alongside Lukas Podolski. Still raw, the two became the first teens to be included in a German tournament squad. He now refers to it as his "second family."
At the 2006 World Cup, Schweinsteiger played the role of national hero, capping off a remarkable tournament by thrashing home two long-range shots in a third-place playoff victory against Portugal. The Germans went one better at Euro 2008 (though Schweinsteiger started badly, earning a red card for a needless push against Croatia in the second group game).
Suspended and forced to play the role of frustrated spectator, Schweinsteiger watched from the stands beside Chancellor Merkel. The politician took the opportunity to counsel the German playmaker, urging him to understand the difference between intensity and impetuosity by cutting out the foolish aspect of his game. Schweinsteiger proceeded to gain redemption in the quarterfinal against Portugal, scoring once, and delivering two assists. The Germans were ultimately denied by the paper-cut passing of Spain in the final.
At World Cup 2010, "Schweini" laughed last and longest after a clowning Diego Maradona made the mistake of targeting the German ahead of the two teams' Cape Town clash in the quarterfinal. After the two had exchanged words through the media, the floundering Argentinian coach closed a surreal news conference by slipping into a slurred faux-German accent and asking with eyes bulging, "What's the matter, Schweinsteiger? Are you nervoushhh?"
Schweinsteiger responded by delivering one of the most dominant performances of the entire tournament as Argentina were bludgeoned 4-0. For the third goal he single-handedly lacerated the Argentinian defense, driving through Angel Di María, Javier Pastore and Gonzalo Higuaín before faking a pass to serve up a simple finish for Arne Friedrich.
The Germans ultimately came in third yet again and though Schweinsteiger had the satisfaction of being named to the all-tournament team, this personal achievement was not satisfying to a man whose competitive zeal was honed on the cut-throat, adrenaline-fueled world of downhill ski slopes. He publicly dismissed the idea of the team being feted upon its return.
"There eventually comes a time when I need to start winning international titles as well," Schweinsteiger said. "I don't want to win 20 doubles and then retire without having won a major trophy with Germany.
"I just don't want to."
Will 2012 be the year in which Schweinsteiger’s wishes are fulfilled? His team was perfect in qualifying and proceeded to become the first German squad to win all of their Euro group stage games. With Schweinsteiger as the transitional hub behind the buzzing Mesut Ozil and Mario Gomez’s ruthless touch, their performance against Portugal could be considered the class of the tournament so far.
As Germany enters the quarterfinals as a heavy favorite against the gritty charisma of Greece, Schweinsteiger will be further motivated by the experience of a challenging season in which he struggled to find his rhythm after breaking a collarbone, an injury that kept him out of the team for two months.
After recovering from the injury, the Bayern midfielder was then psychologically damaged by the experience of the Champions League shootout defeat to Chelsea in which he missed the crucial penalty. In attempting to fool Petr Cech, Schweinsteiger side-footed the ball against the post and masked the agony and tears by yanking his jersey over his face. So distressed was he by the experience, the midfielder proceeded to ignore German president Joachim Gauck, later explaining the level of personal trauma he had suffered.
"After this great disappointment, I perceived nothing around me," Schweinsteiger said. "I was desperately disappointed, paralyzed."
In happier moments, Schweinsteiger is often pictured with his longtime girlfriend, German model, actress and Sports Illustrated swimsuit star Sarah Brandner. His boots bear testament to the date they first met and German journalists have acknowledged the critical role she plays in broadening his life beyond football. Schweinsteiger has a reputation for wanting to develop himself and being open to new experiences, which is unusual for a professional footballer.
Winning Euro 2012 could prove to be the greatest new experience of all.
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.