Four years ago Bastian Schweinsteiger came back with a nice memento from South Africa: Frank Lampard’s England shirt from Germany’s 4-1 win in Bloemfontein. The Bayern midfielder liked the red top so much that he wore it in a kick-about with friends in Munich’s Englischer Garten, the city park. “I have tremendous respect for him as a personality and as a player,” Schweinsteiger told the Guardian last October, noting that the now former Chelsea stalwart had made a point of congratulating him for winning the 2013 Champions League at Wembley.

The 2-1 triumph against Borussia Dortmund 14 months ago had turned “Schweini,” as everybody calls him, from an archetypal nearly man – he had played in two losing European Cup finals before, in 2010 and 2012 – into a bona fide legend at the Bavarian club. Sunday night at the Maracanã he went one better. The 29-year-old, who turns 30 on 1 August, emerged from the dressing room a full-blown national hero, with a Germany flag wrapped round his waist like a sarong and another souvenir – a shirt signed by all surviving members of the three previous World Cup-winning Germany teams that national manager Joachim Löw had hung up by way of motivation.

Was there a democratic vote as to who would keep it, he was asked. Schweinsteiger just shook his head. He was wearing that top because he had earned that privilege with a performance of raw courage and steely authority at the heart of Germany’s team, more or less by himself. His midfield partner Sami Khedira had, of course, missed out because of a calf injury just before kick-off and Toni Kroos had had a less influential game.

Schweinsteiger’s black, red and gold warrior look was topped off by a deep cut underneath his right eye that had been stapled together on the touchline in extra-time, with his legs twitching uncontrollably in the process. In total he was floored six times by the Argentinians in the final. Six times he got up again. Germany were not necessarily the better side on the night. But spurred on by the indestructible, indefatigable Schweinsteiger, – they went beyond the limit, as Löw put it – they forced the issue before penalties.

“I’m empty, my legs are gone,” admitted Schweinsteiger after he had run 15km, more than anyone else on the pitch. It was not in vain. Asked what the World Cup meant to him, the man praised as the Comandante after the 7-1 win against Brazil by O Globo, talked about “the beginning of this team”, under Jürgen Klinsmann at the World Cup in Germany, and remembered the rapturous reception the inexperienced and incomplete side had received at the fan fest at the Brandenburg Gate after finishing third in that competition. (Three more tournaments with three near misses were to come).

“They gave us so much love that day in Berlin and now they got it all back,” he said. “That’s the best things [about winning the World Cup]: that we have made all these people at home happy by making that final step.” Why did they win now, after failing in 2006 (World Cup, semi-final), 2008 (Euros, final), 2010 (World Cup, semi-final) and 2012 (Euros, semi-final)? Schweinsteiger thought for a moment and then replied that “the players on the bench” had played a special part. “It’s incredibly difficult to make sure that everybody’s happy. But [Löw] has found some incredible words to make it happen, to bring us all together. Write nice things about him. He deserves it. He got so much stick.”

Schweinsteiger, too, had come in for a lot of criticism over the last couple of years , as far as his Germany performances were concerned. An ankle injury stopped him from performing at the Euros two years ago. Löw kept faith with him, saw his team get knocked out by Italy and effectively had to coach in the shadow of that disastrous result in Warsaw until last month. Schweinsteiger was again seen as a risk before the games in Brazil. He had two operations on his ankle in 2013-14; “His time is coming to an end,” wrote Sport-Bild.

But they were wrong. After sitting out the first game against Portugal (4-0) and coming on to steady the ship against Ghana (2-2), he started all the five other matches and got better with each one. “I have to thank the coach for looking after my fitness and allowing me to feel my way into the tournament,” Schweinsteiger said on Sunday night.

At the final whistle Schweini and Löw embraced warmly. They looked at each other; no words were needed. Together they had fulfilled the promise of 2006 – at last.