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Bastian Schweinsteiger guides Chicago Fire on eye-opening trip to Munich

Chicago Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger at the Allianz Arena in Munich for his Bayern Munich testimonial match. Ted Bryant, Chicago Fire.

Bastian Schweinsteiger is a World Cup winner, a Champions League winner, a legend to many — and recently he took on the role of tour guide.

The Chicago Fire’s German midfielder was the reason the Fire went to Munich, and he made sure to show his teammates a good time. The Fire took on Schweinsteiger’s first club, Bayern Munich, in a testimonial match at Allianz Arena Aug. 28. 

The team left for Munich five days earlier, the morning after playing an MLS match against the Columbus Crew. As soon as the Fire arrived in Germany, Schweinsteiger began playing the role of host.

“I think the coolest part for me, was we had a tour guide the whole time we were there and he was the most famous guy to ever come out of Munich,” midfielder Dax McCarty said. “So every time we would go to training or every time we’d go to dinner and we would be in the bus together, he would hop on the mic and he’d be like, ‘OK guys, I used to live down here, down this road downtown. Here, you have the center square where everyone comes. Here’s the road where when we win the Champions League or when we win the German league, the parade, we come down this street and they have all the streets blocked off.’

“It was funny. It was almost like him taking us on a trip down memory lane for him, but then also getting a history lesson as well.”

That set the tone for the way the Fire would be treated on the trip, as guests of honor to the star of the show.

“I’ve never seen a city support a player as much as Munich supported Basti in his match.”

On the first night, Schweinsteiger took the team to dinner at Heart, a restaurant with a Michelin star chef.

“It is one of my favorite spots in Munich,” Schweinsteiger said. “For Bayern Munich, when we won a title or a trophy, we also celebrated in that restaurant or in that company, so we were kind of connected through the years. That’s why I took the guys over there.”

There were gift bags for the players waiting for them at dinner. Many of them brought up that dinner as a highlight of the trip.

They trained at Bayern’s training facility Saturday and Sunday, but Sunday’s training session was open to the public. An estimated 2,000 fans came to see Schweinsteiger train with the Fire.

Schweinsteiger stayed so long after the session ended to sign autographs and take photos that he had the team go to dinner without him.

“I think when we first touched down, you could tell Basti was happy to be back,” midfielder Drew Conner said. “He was in a really good mood. Obviously, we got to the hotel and went straight to the training fields, and it was just cool to be there. I’ve seen Bayern’s training grounds on TV and I’ve seen their stadium on TV a bunch, but to actually be there for the first time was pretty incredible.”

After Schweinsteiger’s autograph session, he and the team went to Seehaus, a beer garden on the water.

On Monday, the team trained at Allianz Arena. Training at the stadium helped to mitigate the shock of playing at such a big stadium when it was time for the match, but the size of the stadium was something everyone other than Schweinsteiger mentioned.

“Every soccer player dreams of, or should dream of that,” midfielder Brandt Bronico said of playing at Allianz Arena.

The rest of the team had a decent amount of free time, but Schweinsteiger was booked solid. He received the Bavarian Order of Merit and joined Bayern’s Hall of Fame in the lead up to the match.

It was the first time Schweinsteiger had been back at Allianz Arena and Bayern’s training facilities since May 2015.

“I have been in Munich for one or two days in the offseason, but usually I always travel then towards my family,” Schweinsteiger said. “It’s a little bit, one hour south of Munich, close to the border of Austria. It was nice to be four days in Munich. Catching up with some friends as well.”

When the match rolled around on Tuesday, it was sold out.

“It was unbelievable just to see how many people were there supporting Basti for his match,” Bronico said. “I’ve never seen a city support a player as much as Munich supported Basti in his match. It was loud, it was exciting.”

Said Conner: “The fact that they sold that stadium out for Basti’s testimonial game, it kind of speaks to how massive he really is in his homeland and around the world. That was one thing the guys and I were talking about is that when he first arrived here it was insane, it was huge news.”

Schweinsteiger captained the Fire in the first half before switching to play with Bayern in the second half. Schweinsteiger doesn’t typically captain the Fire. Dax McCarty gets first crack at that role. However, McCarty knew not to get in the way of the moment by being the player to lead out the Fire for a match held in Schweinsteiger’s honor.

“I wasn’t really sure exactly how they were approaching that, because I hadn’t heard from the coaches, I hadn’t heard from Basti,” McCarty said. “So the night before the game, I said ‘Hey man, look, it’s your testimonial. Look, you’re wearing the armband right?’”

The ever-unassuming Schweinsteiger didn’t want to ask for anything so McCarty made sure it happened.

“He would never want to come and tell me that he was doing that, so it was always something that I think I was going to have to do or a coach was going to have to tell me,” McCarty said. “So I was like, ‘Come on, man. It would be ridiculous at your testimonial for me to walk out and lead the team out there. That’s just stupid.’ So that was something that I had told him. I was going to give him the armband.”

Schweinsteiger led the Fire out for the first half and received a huge roar from the crowd when he was announced.

Bayern took a 2-0 lead into the break. It was then time for Schweinsteiger to play with his old team and some former teammates.

So Schweinsteiger got to reciprocate McCarty’s gesture, giving McCarty the armband for the second half. When asked about it, Schweinsteiger didn’t make it out to be anything, but it’s something McCarty will never forget.

McCarty, not usually short on words, struggled to describe what it meant to him. Schweinsteiger signed a jersey for Dax, “To my captain.”

“That was an experience that you know you can’t really justify it by talking about it,” McCarty said. “You can’t really put into words how much a moment like that means to you. A guy that I have a ton of respect for reciprocating that, and he signed my Schweinsteiger jersey ‘To my captain.’ You can’t plan for moments like that. That’s just something that has to happen organically. The way that it happened on the field, it was great. It was great. The fact that he made that happen was really special, and I’ll always be really grateful to him for it.”

For Schweinsteiger, putting on the Bayern jersey again, even if an exhibition, was a big deal.

“To represent Bayern Munich one last time in that kind of environment and in that stadium, that meant for me a lot,” Schweinsteiger said. “The jersey has a special place.”

Once Schweinsteiger switched to play for Bayern, the focus became getting him a goal, and Bayern brought on the ringers.

That goal came in the form of a volley and the crowd erupted again.

“The guys wanted me to score a goal,” Schweinsteiger said. “I tried it several times, but it was not so easy because the guys defended quite well, but in the end it was great. The whole play was nice.”

“I’ve never heard that kind of noise from a crowd before in my life,” Conner said. “It was loud to the point where it would make your ears ring, and that’s not something you get a whole lot in (MLS).”

Schweinsteiger was honored with a ceremony after the match and spoke to the crowd through a microphone.

The German was brought to tears.

“I was overwhelmed by the reaction of the supporters and also the players, I have to say,” Schweinsteiger said. “I think in total it was a great evening for soccer. It was a special moment for me, of course, but I think also for the guys here. It was not a typical atmosphere in the stadium, it was a little different.

“I appreciate how the supporters supported us and also Chicago, actually. They also were behaving quite well, except against (Fire goalkeeper) Richard (Sánchez) when he saved the one ball. All together, it was a great evening.”

Some form of the term “eye-opening” kept coming up from Schweinsteiger’s teammates when they recalled the trip. The way the team was treated and how they saw Schweinsteiger treated stood out.

“To go back with him and to see how loved he is back in Germany and back in Munich,” Conner said, “it kind of opened all of our eyes again to this guy that we’re very fortunate to have played with and have on our team and to have been able to be there and celebrate his career and success with Bayern Munich.”

The Fire went to Munich on a nine-match winless streak in MLS play. The 1-1 draw against Columbus before the Fire left for Germany snapped an eight-match losing streak. The slump has taken the Fire out of the playoff race.

When the Fire return to league play Sunday in Orlando, it will have been 24 days since the Columbus match. The break and getaway provided a chance for the Fire to reset and refresh themselves.

“It was nice to kind of take a break from this tough stretch of games that we’re going through in the season now and enjoy our football a little bit,” Conner said. “I think sometimes you need to take a step back and kind of appreciate just where you are in life and the people you’re around. It kind of helps you refocus on the things that are really important in life. I think it helped us to come back here.”

Coach Veljko Paunović, who is Serbian and had been to Munich before, was more familiar with the atmosphere and the setting. He still described it as a lifetime experience.

“It’s definitely an enriching experience for everyone,” Paunović said. “Definitely, it was a great opportunity for our guys to expand their views and their experiences and get more mature.”

McCarty admitted the season “has been not good enough” from his standard. As he bluntly put it, they are fighting for their jobs.

”It was definitely refreshing to get away,” McCarty said. “To be able to take a little bit of a pause in reality, so to speak, and then be able to go on this, if you can call it, welcome getaway from everything that’s happening back here in Chicago. Then we get to go celebrate one of the greatest footballers to ever live in his home country and the place where he made his name and where he’s worshipped. That was a welcome getaway for all of us. And I think it was eye-opening for all of us.”

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