ON A PERFECT EARLY SPRING AFTERNOON IN MUNICH, Bastian Schweinsteiger is enjoying his role as tour guide. "This is where I lived as a teenager," he says with a smile, leading a visitor to the front door of Bayern Munich's dormitory for youth players at its acclaimed development academy on Säbenerstrasse. Now 26, the man whom friends call Basti is perfectly comfortable being the global symbol of German soccer. Although this is his first major interview in English, he handles it with aplomb, one more bit of evidence that he has transformed himself from a wild child into a statesman-sportsman who's clearly a favorite of German chancellor Angela Merkel's.
Most of Schweinsteiger's appeal is due, of course, to his achievements on the playing field. After he'd competed for years on the flanks for both Bayern and the German national team, former Bayern coach Louis van Gaal moved Schweinsteiger to the central midfield, where he has become a force of nature for club and country. Schweinsteiger, who can play anything from a deep-lying position to a role supporting the forwards, has become one of the world's most complete players. He covers acres of space and affects games through his tackling, passing and scoring, often striking from well outside the box.
"My philosophy is always to be behind the ball," Schweinsteiger says. "When I attack and go ahead of it, I have to know some player is in my position. The most important thing is to have an order on the pitch, a shape. My job is to give a rhythm to the team. It's important for others to know they can give this guy the ball and he'll keep possession."
That was clearly the case during the World Cup, in which Schweinsteiger played perhaps the finest single game of any player when Germany trounced Argentina 4--0 in the quarterfinals. Taunted by Argentine coach Diego Maradona beforehand—"Are you nervooooosh, Schweinsteiger?"—the German responded with an athletic masterpiece, dominating the midfield and creating the conditions for teammates Thomas Müller and Miroslav Klose to shine up front.
Schweinsteiger had been nearly as good in the Mannschaft's 4--1 defeat of England in the round of 16. "We knew England was not so good in the tournament," he says now. "They have a lot of players who have very good experience, but we knew they were not so quick." Frank Lampard's unfairly disallowed strike when Germany was up 2--1 "was a goal," Schweinsteiger concedes, "but O.K., if it had gone 2--2, I still think we would have won."
Germany's hopes of winning a fourth World Cup ended in a 1--0 semifinal loss to Spain, but outside of that Schweinsteiger's 2010 could not have gone much better. He led Bayern Munich to the Bundesliga championship and the Champions League final, and he extended his contract with Bayern through '16. While the club's form dipped in the 2010--11 season, Schweinsteiger's performance rarely did. The German powerhouse has plenty of talent—Klose, Müller, Franck Ribéry, Arjen Robben, Philipp Lahm, Mario Gomez—but Basti is Bayern's most consistent player, not nearly as injury-prone as Ribéry or Robben.
Schweinsteiger is more mature these days, so he embraces Bayern's rigorous performance analyses, in which every player is monitored by a phalanx of video cameras during games and even practices, then critiqued in front of the group and on a team intranet site. On a walk through the club's training fields he points out all the overhead cameras arranged like the security cameras in high-end jewelry stores. He laughs. As coaches like to say, the eye in the sky doesn't lie.
Nor does it give preference to a player because he has a top reputation. You must earn your spot on the team every week, as Schweinsteiger has learned. "I think everybody gets experience and grows up," he says in describing his own journey.
Schweinsteiger was a junior skiing champion in his early days—German skiing officials tabbed him for Olympic glory—but he gave up the slopes for soccer and joined Bayern at age 14. His trajectory with the club has been ever upward, but there were bumps along the way. He earned a reputation as something of a bad boy by painting his nails and dying his hair silver, and he was caught speeding at 150 miles an hour in his sports car.
Though no such incidents have cropped up in recent years, the enterprising German tabloids have taken pleasure in documenting Schweinsteiger's life with Sarah Brandner, his model-girlfriend, who appeared in SI's 2010 Swimsuit Issue wearing his German jersey in body paint.