Ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Michael Ballack tore his medial lateral ligament in the FA Cup Final with Chelsea. He was set to be Germany’s captain and anchor in South Africa, and when he was ruled out, no one knew how Jochaim Löw could replace him. Löw himself said he was "shocked" to hear Ballack wouldn’t be able to come to South Africa.
"Experience teaches us that in such cases, young players come to the fore and grow," said Löw.
When the exit stories at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa were published, Spain were declared the champions, Holland the runners-up, and Germany the team of the future. It was a sequence of foreshadowing, as Mesut Özil mesmerized the world with his skill, and Sami Khedira glowed with his athletic ability.
Ballack’s injury had opened a slot for Khedira, who had only five caps for Germany before his first game in the World Cup, and both Özil and Khedira caught newly-appointed Real Madrid boss José Mourinho’s attention.
A product of the VfB Stuttgart youth academy, Khedira played in the central midfield and was known to fly into aerial challenges, blast the ball from range, and mark his man for a full 90. At 23, he was at an evolving stage of his career, and the world was curious about what he'd become.
Meanwhile in Madrid, Mourinho had just brought in Angel Di María. Both Ballack and Mourinho’s former club, Chelsea were interested in Khedira, but Mourinho saw something in him, and gambled 14 million euros on Khedira, a decent price given his potential. Mou replaced Guti and Raúl, two club legends, with two unknowns.
Under Mourinho, Khedira embraced a truly thankless position. Mourinho was hell-bent on immolating rival Barcelona’s possession-reliant style, and Mourinho needed gritty midfielders to clog passing lanes, win possession, and be unafraid to give a hard foul if needed. Khedira was a perfect fit.
Mourinho’s Madrid was built on opportunistic counters, and Khedira seldom ended up on the scoresheet, but he was as important as anyone to Mou’s "double pivot" style with two defensive midfielders. Next to Xabi Alonso, Khedira was a sweeper who was also capable of pushing the ball forward quickly. Together, Sami and Xabi worked as the catalyst for so many of Mourinho’s signature counterattacks.
Players who had Khedira’s abilities were at a premium, and Mourinho looked like a genius for not only snatching him up, but also developing his role so effectively. And right on schedule, he began to be linked to the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal.
Mourinho and Khedira acknowledged their mutually beneficial relationship.
"I currently do not know any other player that is better than Sami in his position," said Mourinho in 2012, and it was hard to argue against him. A year later, Khedira said of his coach, "Mourinho made me improve as a player; now I play in a calmer, more intelligent way."
In 2011, Mourinho’s Madrid set records for points collected (100) and goals scored (121) in a season. Khedira wasn’t making waves on the stat sheet, but he was the stalwart between the attack and defense that teams couldn’t seem to get past (sound familiar?).
A player once known for athleticism and flair, Khedira was comfortably excellent at doing the unglamorous work.
On November 15th, 2013, Germany played a friendly against Italy. In the 63rd minute, Khedira went in for what was supposed to be a routine tackle on Andrea Pirlo, but their knees met, and Khedira’s buckled. He writhed in pain on the pitch, and after the match teammate Jerome Boateng said, "The atmosphere in the dressing room was sad. Not because of the draw but because it seems that Sami has been injured severely."
And Boateng was exactly right. Just as Ballack’s injury launched Khedira up, tears to his ACL and MCL brought him down. Initially, it seemed only his future at the 2014 World Cup would be in doubt, but while he was getting back to strength, everything at his club went against him.
Mourinho left, and Carlo Ancelotti arrived, bringing Isco, Asier Illarramendi, and Gareth Bale with him. A year prior, Luka Modrić’s arrival sparked questions of how Khedira's role might change, and Ancelotti’s new additions made the message even clearer: Real were to play a different style, a 4-3-3 built less on the counter and more on retaining possession.
Khedira, a workhorse known for his stoic demeanor and businesslike approach to the game, was clearly rattled and feeling unwelcome. Even before his injury, Khedira was feeling unwelcome in Madrid, telling the press "I began the season on the bench and once again I've been made a scapegoat. They don't value me, even when I play well…I’m not Spanish, I didn't cost a lot and I'm a disciple of Mourinho."
It soon became clear he'd be the odd man out in Ancelotti’s new system, but 2014 wouldn't be a season without utter glory for the German international.
When Xabi Alonso saw a yellow card in Bavaria during Real Madrid’s demolition of Bayern Munich in the 2013-14 Champions League Semifinals, questions immediately began to fly regarding who would play in midfield in the final. Khedira had just began to train with the team again, and Ancelotti had to choose between him and the inexperienced Asier Illarramendi.
Khedira got the nod in Lisbon, and it was apparent he wasn’t completely recovered. He played in his comfort zone — just between the defense and midfield — and did just enough to help Modrić and Di María try to break Atléti’s midfield.
Whether Real won La Décima because of, or in spite of, Khedira is debatable, but at the end of the match, he helped lift the trophy, something he absolutely deserved to do after his years of hard work for the club.
It kicked off a glorious summer for Khedira, who would go on to win the World Cup with Germany. That too was bittersweet, as Ancelotti wasted no time in signing his fellow countryman Toni Kroos, pushing Khedira even deeper down Real’s bench.
Since the World Cup, Khedira was an afterthought in Madrid. With James, Isco, and Kroos being younger, more skilled, and tactically adaptable than Khedira, he became a relic of the past at only 28.
When he was on the field, he looked like a shell of himself. He barely broke into the first 11, and when he did he looked like his feet couldn't keep up with his brain. It was a poorly kept secret that 2014-15 would be Khedira’s final season in Madrid.
If you put yourself in Khedira’s boots, it’s easy to understand why the past two seasons have been washes. He couldn’t have been injured at a worse time, and he never had a really fair chance to earn his spot back in the starting 11. He was strung along during transfer windows, while rumors of both his departure and pending contract extension ran rampant. He was stuck in limbo, unsure of his future while unable to properly redeem himself.
He scored one of the goals which helped bring the league title back to Madrid. He watched proudly as so many counterattacks began from his effort.
Two injuries have changed everything for Sami Khedira: Ballack’s in 2010 and his own in 2013. Now he’s in Turin, trying to help replace Andrea Pirlo, the very man he was devastatingly injured against.
Sami Khedira's departure from Real Madrid was without major headlines or buzz, but that shouldn't cloud what was a mostly fantastic run for him at the Bernabéu.