JOHANNESBURG // Four years ago, in what Germany still like to refer to as their "summer fairy tale", they were Schweini and Poldi, the poster boys of German youth and vigour. They were playmates off the field, an uncomplicated and carefree pair whose skill down the wings was guiding the national team out of insecurities over their status, through a tournament that gladdened the whole country.
Back then, Schweini and Poldi became almost as well known for their boyish sobriquets as by the names Sebastian Schweinsteiger, then 22, and Lukas Podolski, who had turned 21 in the month when Germany began in their surge to third place at their own World Cup. The parallels, then and now, are several. Just as four years ago, Argentina stand between Germany and another World Cup semi-final, their third in as many attempts. Just as in 2006, the team are thrilling to the zip of youth, only this time it has ampler grounds for celebrating that asset in players such as Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira.
Podolski is no longer quite the easy-come, easy-go scorer that he was in the summer fairy tale, the local hero plucked from Cologne to the big international stages of Munich and Berlin. He has since learned how it feels to fail from time to time. Schweini has grown up, too. He is no longer "Schweini", for a start. In an interview with the magazine Kicker at the beginning of the season, Schweinsteiger all but announced as much. "'Schweini' is in the past," he said, adding that his friends call him "Basti", the diminutive of Bastian, itself a shortened Sebastian.
Schweinsteiger has changed his game as well as his name. He is no longer the winger keen on twisting runs but often marginal to the action. He is a central midfielder, an idea first mooted in the 2008/09 season by Jupp Heynckes, the coach who took over at Schweinsteiger's then-troubled Bayern Munich when Juergen Klinsmann left. This season, new coach Louis van Gaal took the redefining of Schweinsteiger further: Basti now plays in the middle all the time, partnering Mark van Bommel in his club team and galvanising Bayern from there.
No footballer in the Bundesliga played more successful passes in 2009-10 than did Schweinsteiger. He was hugely influential in propelling Bayern to the Champions League final in May. He seems even more important to the national team. When Michael Ballack, the captain, fell out of Germany's plans through injury, Schweinsteiger was obliged to play the anchor in midfield, the shepherd to the younger Khedira's adventurer.
"Bastian is the heart and the motor of our team," Joachim Loew, the Germany coach, said at a press conference here. "He works so hard in both the defensive and attacking aspects of his job." The maturing of Schweinsteiger has not always been smooth. In the evolution of Schweini to Basti, he found himself on the front pages of Germany's more gossipy newspapers: for his romantic liaisons; for breaking club rules. He found himself dropped by Bayern, under coach Felix Magath, for a period after the 2006 World Cup.
Podolski also had his struggles. In the fairy tale summer of 2006, he joined Bayern from Cologne, where since his teens he had been racking up goals at a rate of more than one every two matches. But at Bayern he would fall down the pecking order, gradually but starkly. Last summer, he reprised the role of Prince of Cologne with his old club, only without the goals. He scored just two in the Bundesliga last term. Yet for the national team, Podolski scores and scores. His angled strike in the 4-1 victory over England last Sunday was his 40th in 77 appearances with the national side. But for a saved penalty against Serbia, he would have had three so far in the 2010 World Cup.
Assuming he shakes off a muscle strain, he will seek that third goal - to match the number he netted four years ago - and more today against Argentina. And he can expect plenty of good, accurate service from a midfield run by his old friend, the man he now calls plain "Basti". email@example.com