During the 1980s and 1990s, there was one league in world football that you had to go to if you wanted to be considered ‘elite’. Serie A, where all the world’s best players played from Zico to Diego Maradona, was the toughest league to really excel in, largely because it was the most tactical. You had to think quickly and use your individual skill to enhance the team you were playing in.
Some players may not have been as technically gifted as others in Serie A, but they all had football brains; they all knew when the right moment was to play a pass, make a tackle or take a shot. For a large portion of that time in Serie A, Michel Platini and Diego Maradona were kings, and later on in the decade and into the 1990s, it was Marco van Basten alongside his Dutch compatriots Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard that provided Milan with enough quality to dominate.
The Dutch trio that was lauded by so many fans – and quite rightly so – is a story we all know about. Arrigo Sacchi, backed by the mega money of Silvio Berlusconi, decided to raid the Netherlands for their sublime talents and it paid dividends, winning them multiple Scudetti and the European Cup. It wasn’t just the red and black side of Milan that was having fun with their chosen trio, though; Inter had their own plan.
In 1988, Internazionale signed German duo Lothar Matthäus and Andreas Brehme from Bayern Munich, shortly followed by Jürgen Klinsmann from Stuttgart a year later, and set about on their own quest to bring as much silverware as possible to their half of the city of Milan. Was it an attempt to replicate what Milan did with the Dutchmen a year before? Possibly, but whereas Milan had bought champions on the international stage, Inter were about to make them.
The first through the door was Matthäus, someone who is inexplicably overlooked when speaking about the all-time greats of the game. The term ‘all-round player’ is something that has lost meaning in recent years, but Matthäus is the embodiment of the perfect player. He had the defensive capabilities to play a holding role in midfield, he could make late runs into the box and score his fair share of goals and, despite his small stature, he was impressive in the air. There was nothing Matthäus couldn’t do.
A two-time German Player of the Year, Matthäus started his career at Borussia Mönchengladbach in 1979 and made a reputation for himself as one of the best young midfielders not only in Germany but across Europe. His ability was there for all to see, and his natural leadership shone through, endearing him further to coaches. His performances for Gladbach earned Matthäus a move to German giants Bayern Munich, where he would take the next leap into the world class category of footballer.
Read | When Lothar Matthäus went to Inter Milan and became a legend
His four years in Bavaria were full of success, winning three Bundesliga titles, the DFB-Pokal and finishing as runner up in the 1987 European Cup final, losing out to Porto. Of course, it wouldn’t be the end of the relationship between Lothar and Bayern, but in his first spell, Matthäus really took the European stage by storm, exuding the attributes of a pure leader, a fighter and, most importantly, an incredibly skilful player.
Alongside him in a few of those Bayern Munich sides was left-back Andreas Brehme, another legend of the game whose impact is often forgotten. A Hamburg native, Brehme first made his mark on the game at Kaiserslautern, where he would play 154 games between 1981 and 1986. Much like Matthäus at Mönchengladbach, this would be where Brehme learnt about the game and developed as a player before making the big jump to Bayern. His versatility and ability as an all-round defender was unmatched, being just as good with his right foot as he was with his predominantly stronger left.
Brehme wasn’t a flashy player, nor was he blessed with blistering pace, but he was quick of thought, and he used his intelligence to gain the upper hand on his opponent. By the time he got to Inter he was already a seasoned German international, reaching the 1986 World Cup final alongside Matthäus. Inter were signing two of the best players in the world, but it almost went under the radar due to the success of the Milan Dutch contingent. That didn’t matter, though, because the transfers were timed to perfection.
At the time of Matthäus and Brehme arriving, Inter hadn’t won the title in eight years and had failed to win anything in seven of those. They were in desperate need of success, especially considering their rivals had overtaken them in almost every area, even in star players.
Napoli had Diego Maradona, Milan had Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten whilst Juve had Michael Laudrup to replace Michel Platini; Inter had no one of that standing. Matthäus, though, was a world-class midfielder who galvanized the club, on and off the pitch. Despite their clear quality, signing Brehme and Matthäus were big risks for Inter considering they used two of their non-Italian squad spaces on them.
The club kept legendary coach Giovanni Trapattoni despite the disappointing fifth-placed finish the season before, and it proved to be the right decision. Sometimes a team just needs one more player to take them to the next level. Maradona did it with Napoli, Johan Cruyff did it with Barcelona and Matthäus did it with Inter. Brehme formed an incredible defensive unit alongside the likes of Walter Zenga, Giuseppe Baresi and the legendary Giuseppe Bergomi, a back line that would only concede 19 goals across 34 Serie A games.
Read | How Giovanni Trapattoni adapted his way into legend
What Matthäus did during that season was nothing short of extraordinary. Whilst Brehme was building a defensive brick wall at the back, Lothar was doing everything else, including transforming players. With Bayern he was used more often than not as a box-to-box midfielder, a jack-of-all-trades, but with Inter he was an all action hero.
The pair brought the best out of those around them, in particular Aldo Serena. Prior to the arrival of Brehme and Matthäus, he had only managed around 40 goals in four seasons, but when placed in front of Matthäus, he earned the title of Capocannoniere with 22 goals. Serena wasn’t a bad striker, not by a long shot, but when paired with someone of the stature and ability of Matthäus, it took him to the next level.
It was indicative of the influence that Matthäus and Brehme had on this Inter squad. They both had the ability and leadership to take a bunch of players who had finished fifth the previous season into this outstanding unit with an unbreachable defence and a deadly attack. Under the stewardship of Trapattoni, Matthäus and Brehme led Inter to their first Serie A title in almost a decade, and they were about to be joined in the San Siro by another one of their compatriots.
Ramón Díaz may have formed a deadly partnership alongside Serena, but Trapattoni had his eyes firmly set on another striker – another German. In 1988, while Matthäus and Brehme were lifting the Scudetto, Jürgen Klinsmann was helping Stuttgart reach the UEFA Cup final and winning the German Footballer of the Year award.
He wasn’t the most physically imposing striker in the world, often looking like a gust of wind could cause him to hit the deck, but what he lacked in physical prowess he more than made up for with intelligence and a great sense of anticipation for a chance at goal. Klinsmann moving to Inter seemed like a logical step in his career, leaving a team that had just reached the UEFA Cup final to a side that had just won the Italian top flight and was looking to make an impression in the European Cup.
Klinsmann himself played a big role in his debut season and grabbed his first goal in only his second game, away at Bologna. He took the ball in his stride into the box, faked a shot which sent the defender on his backside, and curled it into the top corner. It was a wonderful goal to see, and it perfectly showed the ability and mind of the German.
Read | Jürgen Klinsmann: the grand talent who may now be lost to football
He would grab the first hat-trick of his Inter career away at Verona after a wonderful showing against Juventus, where he scored in a 2-1 victory. It would be his only hat-trick of the season, yet he still finished as top goalscorer, with one more than his predecessor Díaz had got the season prior.
So with three Germans in their side, all at arguably the peak of their powers, could the Nerazzurri retain their Scudetto? Well, no. A Maradona-inspired Napoli won their second title in four seasons, beating Milan by two points, with Inter finishing third, level on points with Juventus. For the trio, it was a solid season individually. Klinsmann finished top scorer at the club with 15 goals, with most of them being provided by his compatriot Matthäus, whilst Brehme’s defence was the fourth best in the league; maybe not quite as impressive as the season before, but still resolute.
Whilst it may not have been the most successful of seasons for Trapattoni’s side, it set the trio up for what would eventually be an incredible summer, as Matthäus led West Germany to the World Cup at Italia 90, alongside Andreas Brehme and Jürgen Klinsmann.Matthäus would finish on four goals for the tournament, with both Klinsmann and Brehme finishing on three apiece, with the latter’s last goal being the winner in the final against Argentina. Although the victory wasn’t in the black and blue of Inter, their fans felt like they had helped Germany win the World Cup, with their stars being key to the triumph.
If anything, this showed how popular the trio was with the Inter faithful. They were world champions in their adopted home and Inter fans were genuinely happy for them. When they came back for the start of the 1990/91 season, big things were expected, and Inter delivered.
They may not have captured the Serie A title, but success on the continent finally arrived with a UEFA Cup triumph. Inter captured the trophy and managed to finish joint second to Milan in Serie A, also reaching the Coppa Italia quarter-finals, but it was in Europe where Trapattoni’s men flourished.
After falling to a 2-1 defeat in the first round to Austrian side Rapid Vienna, Inter clawed the tie back into their own hands as Klinsmann scored the winner after extra time to put the Nerazzurri through. In the next round, the exact same scenario occurred, with Aston Villa reigning victorious in the Midlands thanks to goals from Kent Nielsen and David Platt before Klinsmann once again helped Inter turn the game on its head and send them through.
Klinsmann may have been getting all the attention due to his goals, but Matthäus and Brehme were just as vital in the victories, especially against Villa. Matthäus himself finally got on the scoresheet in European competition, opening the scoring in a 4-1 demolition of Partizan before wrapping the tie up in the second leg, hitting an 88th-minute equaliser.
Read | When Internazionale won the UEFA Cup but almost got relegated
At this stage, Inter believed that they could go all the way, and with the winning mentality of Brehme, Matthäus and Klinsmann following their World Cup success, they felt like nothing could stop them in their path. Next up were fellow Italian side Atalanta, who held them to a 1-1 draw in Bergamo in the first leg, but quick-fire goals from Serena and Matthäus meant that Inter would be in the final four against Sporting CP.
A 0-0 draw in the first leg in Portugal meant that the tie had to be won in Giuseppe Meazza, and with both Klinsmann and Matthäus scoring, it would be Roma, led by Rudi Völler, to face Inter in the final over two legs. In the first, future Spurs man Nicola Berti scored after a Matthäus penalty had already given Inter the lead, and despite Roma winning the second leg 1-0 in the Stadio Olimpico, the Nerazzurri were champions on the continent for the first time since 1965, thanks to their German influence.
This would prove to be the final high for the Germans in Italy, as they followed up their UEFA Cup success with an eighth-place finish in Serie A, where they were closer to the relegation zone than top spot, and going out of the UEFA Cup in the first round to Portuguese side Boavista.
Trapattoni had left following the UEFA Cup win and things just weren’t the same without him around, at least not for Brehme, Matthäus and Klinsmann. The latter two would finish with 38 goals between them in the 1990/91 campaign, but with Matthäus and Brehme not getting any younger and Bayern Munich lurking around the trio, it was time for them to move on.
It had been a successful time in Italy for the Germans, with Matthäus establishing himself as one of the game’s best midfielders in the toughest league in the world, while Brehme proved that he was able to become an outstanding individual player as well as command a brilliant defensive unit. Klinsmann was able to make the step up and become a world-class striker at the club, playing a huge part in their UEFA Cup win.
They may not be remembered as fondly as the Dutchmen at Milan, but for Inter fans these Germans were just as important and, some would say, even better than Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard. Three legends of the game proved themselves amongst the best players in the world in the toughest league in the world. It may not be as romantic as Milan’s story, but it’s certainly a period of time that should be celebrated for how it broke down barriers for future players.
By Tom Scholes @TomScholes316