Philipp Lahm is a bit of a table-tennis whiz, playing with almost the same speed and precision that have made him one of the World Cup’s most impressive players so far.
The game with the smaller ball is so important to the German left-back that when he was asked whether his life had changed after scoring the competition’s first goal against Costa Rica and then winning the man-of-the-match award versus Poland, he replied laconically: “I still live in a hotel and play table-tennis every day.”
Team-mates at the receiving end of the 22-year-old’s table-tennis talk about a fierce smash and a fleetness of foot. Opponents on the football pitch and some of the game’s legends are starting to say the same.
The first praise came from Maradona after the opening 4-2 victory. The Argentine described Lahm’s performance as “world-class” before adding: “He has the chance to become one of the top stars of the World Cup.” Pelé was equally effusive.
In a German team full of strength and ambition but low on star quality, Lahm has stood out with his quick bursts of pace down the left and perhaps the best display of crossing on offer at the tournament. Today Sweden will be the latest to come under his aerial bombardment as Germany kick off the second round.
Lahm has even earned what is perhaps the footballer’s definitive badge of honour during the tournament – rumours that cash-rich Chelsea and Real Madrid are trying to poach him from Bayern Munich. Such a move would be clearly tempting as good left-backs – even right-footed ones such as Lahm – are in short supply.
All this is not bad for a player who is something of an accidental left-back. He only started playing there while on loan at VfB Stuttgart in 2003 because his favoured position of right-back was taken and the manager thought it might work out. It certainly did, for Lahm broke into the German side the following year.
The national manager who first called him up, Rudi Völler, mentions Brazil’s famed wing-back and captain as a point of comparison: “He reminds me of Cafu when he was young.”
Therein also lies his weaknesses. Like Cafu, Lahm is always hungry to get forward and will torment many a defence. But he looks vulnerable defending against opposing forwards playing with pace, a point demonstrated – but not exploited – by Ecuador when they lost 3-0 to Germany.
The feeling persists that if the home challenge is to fail it will be due to problems in keeping goals out rather than slotting them in, and a probable quarter-final against Argentina would provide the ultimate test.
Perhaps the most worrying thought for other countries is that Lahm is only 22, and just the most prominent of a number of young players that Klinsmann has blooded for this tournament. Come 2010 in South Africa, they could be even more on top of their game.