Growing up in southern Germany, Bastian Schweinsteiger's favorite players were Lothar Matthaus and Flemming Povlsen.
The successful Matthaus because he won a World Cup for Germany and seven Bundesliga titles for Bayern Munich. And Povlsen? Well, Schweinsteiger and his brother Tobias thought the Borussia Dortmund striker "was really cool."
Now, however, Schweinsteiger appears poised to eclipse both his idols.
Last summer, he helped Germany win its first World Cup since Matthaus' 1990 championship, while Saturday's 6-0 rout of Paderborn moved Bayern a step closer to its eighth league title in Schweinsteiger's 13 seasons there. And four days before that, Schweinsteiger captained a 10-man Bayern squad to a scoreless Champions League draw with Shakhtar Donetsk that, while disappointing, still has Schweinsteiger's Bayern club on track to reach the quarterfinals in a tournament he has already won once.
Mix in a club World Cup title, seven German Cups and a few other odd championships, and Schweinsteiger has hoisted 21 of world soccer's most prestigious trophies — or 20 more than Povlsen won. What could be cooler than that?
"Yes, I have to say you're right. That's true," Schweinsteiger joked by telephone from Munich. "We have a very good generation. We have big players. And I know that."
There's no chance they'll be able to rest on those laurels though. Not in Germany, where last year, his club clinched the league title quicker than any team in history, then won its second consecutive Bundesliga-German Cup double — only to be roundly criticized by its demanding fans when it failed to reach the Champions League final for the first time in three seasons.
"There were a lot of people who thought that [season] was not a success," said Schweinsteiger, a physically imposing yet tireless midfielder. "In Germany, you always have to look to the future and not back. You have to take it now and not in two or three years."
That's why he said Bayern's only league loss this season, a 4-1 decision against Wolfsburg last month, may have been the team's most important result because it proved to the players that they aren't invincible. After refocusing, Bayern won its last three league games by a combined score of 16-0.
"Sometimes it's not bad when you lose one game," he said. "Maybe it was a good example for us."
Ironically, last spring's lone failure for Schweinsteiger and Bayern Munich may also have had a positive impact because the loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinals gave Bayern's seven national team players an extra week's rest before the World Cup. It was a break that proved especially important for Schweinsteiger, who missed Bayern's final game with a knee injury.
Players from Champions League finalists Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid weren't as fortunate, with Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal) and Diego Costa (Spain) taking injuries into the World Cup and Angel Di Maria (Argentina) straining a thigh while in Brazil, ultimately dimming their team's hopes in a tournament that a healthy, rested Germany won.
But while the World Cup was the unquestioned high point, it was by no means the only highlight in a career that has seen Schweinsteiger play for arguably the most dominant club team and the most successful national team of the last decade.
Since he joined the first team at the age of 18, Bayern Munich has won seven league titles and reached three of the last five Champions League finals. No other German club has won more than five German championships in the Bundesliga era, which began in 1963. And no other team on the continent has played in more than one Champions League final since 2010.
On the international level, Germany — which Schweinsteiger also captains now — is the only country to reach the semifinals in each of the last three World Cups. And Germany is one of only two countries, alongside Spain, to reach the final four of the last two European Championships.
Schweinsteiger accomplished all that before his 30th birthday. As a result, kids all over Germany are now looking up to him just as he and his older brother looked up to Matthaus and Povlsen — and that's even more pressure.
"There's no time to relax," he said. "I know I've had a lot of luck in my career to play with these great players and these great teams."
The final chapter isn't written though. And Schweinsteiger hints that when it is, it could have a surprise ending. Although he is signed with Bayern until 2016, the club has been making overtures regarding an extension — overtures the player has so far not embraced.
Could a trip to the U.S. and Major League Soccer be in his future? Schweinsteiger, who is almost as comfortable speaking in English as in German, says he loves the country and likes the league. But he wouldn't say much more.
"The quality is going to be better and better. And I could see that," he said of MLS. "We will see what happens in the future. But to be honest, I like the States."