Friday, September 21, 2012
Whatever happened to... ?
Last Friday evening, I was doing some terribly important work and not really paying attention to the television, which was showing the second-division game between Bochum and 1860 Munich. But suddenly something somehow got through to my subconscious and I looked up.
"Halfar," the commentator had said. It was probably not the first time he'd done it during this game and it was in all likelihood not the first 1860 game I had seen in which the name was uttered. But for some reason it caught my interest only at this particular moment. "Is this Daniel Halfar?" I asked, half-aloud, to myself. "The Kaiserslautern starlet?"
There are probably many Kaiserslautern, 1860 and, as you'll see, Bielefeld devotees out there who will now utter howls of derision at my utter ignorance and lack of football knowledge. But, hey, you can't keep track of every player out there, can you?
Halfar, you see, won fleeting fame some seven years ago. He made his debut for Kaiserslautern in a game against Bayern in December 2005, when he was only 17. Six days later, the young midfielder set up his team's winner against Wolfsburg. And in early February 2006, 28 days after his 18th birthday, he scored two goals in three minutes as Kaiserslautern came back to salvage a 2-2 draw in Duisburg. It made him his club's youngest-ever goalscorer in the Bundesliga and the youngest player in league history to score twice in the same match.
Three months later, in May 2006, Kaiserslautern had so much faith in their young phenomenon that he started the final game of the season, a match away at Wolfsburg that amounted to a relegation play-off and which Halfar's team had to win to stay up. Twenty minutes into this battle of the nerves, Halfar made a smart run into space, 11 yards in front of Wolfsburg's goal. His team-mate Halil Altintop played a through-ball and Halfar, instead of turning and shooting at goal, coolly used his first touch to knock the ball back into the path of the onrushing Altintop, who finished off this picture-book one-two by slotting home.
And that, more or less, was it.
Despite taking the lead, Kaiserslautern did not win that game six years ago. They went down and Halfar by and large fell off my radar. He was used only sparingly, usually as a sub, in the second division. In 2007, he briefly resurfaced in the top flight with Arminia Bielefeld, but I can't say that he left a lasting impression. When Arminia were relegated in 2008, no Bundesliga club was sufficiently interested to snatch him up.
I never really wondered what had happened to Halfar, why he went from being his club's bright young hope to a run-of-the-mill second-division player. I guess I didn't because there are many players like him. At Kaiserslautern, for instance, they still wonder about Marco Reich more than about Halfar. Reich was the wonderboy who helped the club to a stunning Bundesliga title in 1998, made his Germany debut one year later at barely 21 years of age and then plummeted off the career ladder so thoroughly that he turned out for Walsall in England's third division in 2008.
And my own club, Dortmund, has no shortage of talents who somehow fizzled out, either. Daniel Simmes was 18 years old when he scored Germany's Goal of the Year in 1984, a solo run over 70 yards during which he beat five Leverkusen players, one of them twice. Simmes received an offer from Barcelona, felt too young to move abroad and stayed in Dortmund. Seven years later, he moved to Lierse in Belgium a disillusioned man, then played in the third division for Aachen and Wuppertal.
A decade later there was Christian Timm. The Italian coach Nevio Scala called him the club's future and Scala's successor, Michael Skibbe, labelled him one of the greatest talents in all of Europe. Timm made his Bundesliga debut when he was 17, in April 1996. Three years later, he was sold to Cologne, then in the second division. Last season, he got relegated to the third with Karlsruhe and is currently listed as looking for a club.
It all brings Leo Tolstoy to mind. "Happy families are all alike," the Russian novelist famously wrote. "Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." That's not only one of the greatest opening lines in literature but also holds true in so many variations. Success stories, for instance, are also usually alike - tales of talent, dedication, hard work and being at the right place at the right time. Stories about letdowns, though, tend to be more individual, because so many - and such intangible - things can conspire to derail a career.
Well, of course these things can also be quite obvious and tangible. Think of all those famous stories about unfulfilled promise that centre around tragedies. There's Manchester United's Duncan Edwards, who could have been one of the greats of his generation but perished in the Munich air disaster. There's Eduard Streltsov, nicknamed "The Russian Pelé", who did have a fine career but spent what must have been the five best years of his career in a Gulag on what is generally believed to be a trumped-up charge. And of course there are many players, like the hard-partying Reading and Cardiff cult hero Robin Friday, who were undone by their addictive, destructive personalities.
But more often than not it's less obvious. Most hopes don't burn out but fade away in painfully mundane fashion and don't even know why. Simmes was 39 when he finally learned what had held him back all those years - a congenital heart defect that could have killed him anytime he stepped onto a pitch to play professional football.
Halfar, I have since found out, suffered from mysterious back problems in his early years at Kaiserslautern, but an operation in July 2007 at last solved them. Only a couple of days later, though, the club suspended him "for disciplinary reasons" and then sold him the following month. He'd been drinking and causing a bit of trouble at a funfair, the grapevine whispered. His agent denied this rumour and there's never been a real explanation. Perhaps Halfar just didn't get along with then-coach Kjetil Rekdal and the club decided to bag a much-needed €800,000 from Bielefeld.
In any case, that was many seasons ago. Plenty of time, you'd think, for Halfar to pick up where he left off and resurrect a promising career. But no, he never did. I guess these things just happen. After all, he's not a bad player, far from it. It's just that, for some reason or other, he's not been able to consistently return to the level he's once been at.
The same can be said of his midfield partner Daniel Bierofka. Some of you may remember him because, a decade ago, when he was in his early 20s, Bierofka was a first-team regular at Bayer Leverkusen and made Germany's provisional squad for the 2002 World Cup. But then recurring injury woes terminated what had seemed an unstoppable rise to stardom. In 2007, the Munich-born player returned to 1860 and has played second-division football since.
Halfar and Bierofka's captain at 1860 Munich is the 31-year-old Benjamin Lauth. Ten years ago, he played for Germany in a benefit game, a non-official international. He scored two goals, one of which - a stunning bicycle kick - was voted Goal of the Year in this country. (Simmes won this award, too, you may recall.)
He and Bierofka can tell their younger team-mate Halfar a thing or two about being tipped for greatness and never even getting close.