Dresden is not the clichéd city that some tourists associate Germany with, but it is by far one of their most culturally significant centres. It is tough to escape the influence of World War Two on the city, which delivered the most compelling and widespread bombing Germany faced by the Allies. The city played a vital role in the war effort – designated by the German military as a defensive strongpoint – and paid the price with the shellacking it received. It was Blitzkrieg in Germany.
The city centre, now rebuilt, stands as a monument to the war. Dresden, however, is so much than just its turbulent military history, with an intellectual community matched only in brilliance by the astounding architecture on display. It is apt, then, that this city would be the birthplace of Matthias Sammer, a man who personifies Dresden’s values through his time in football.
The libero is a positional paradox. While it may be football’s greatest luxury, the proponents of this defensive art remain highly respected. It is a demanding job to be the sweeper in the centre of defence, especially when one’s position is fluid.
Football’s evolution has diminished the importance of the sweeper by definition, even if its remit has been split between a ball-playing goalkeeper and a sweeper-keeper. But even if modern-day formations render the libero to the stuff of legends, it offers the chance to remember the great sweepers of old, the fulcrums of proper footballing sides.
Franz Beckenbauer is credited with being the greatest proponent of the position. He wasn’t the first to play the role but he popularised it such an extent that many believe he did – and it shouldn’t come as a surprise. He played with elegance and regality, winning it all for both Bayern Munich and Germany. What adds to his legacy is his seamless transition into managerial, and later administrative, roles. Perhaps the game intelligence needed to be a great sweeper added to his success on both sides of the touchline.
Read | Franz Beckenbauer: captain, manager, president and serial winner
With Beckenbauer the undisputed Kaiser of German football, finding an heir was no easy feat. Step forward Matthias Sammer.
Taking over the reins of an established legend is always a herculean task, but, to his benefit, Sammer didn’t follow Beckenbauer directly. He couldn’t have either, for their paths growing up and their subsequent careers were on separate tangents. Beckenbauer was an icon, the type people remember for aeons, while Sammer was merely one of the best in his position during his career. It may be that reason why, beyond their positions, there are few links between the sweepers. Their identities only briefly cross paths.
The Sammer family had footballing pedigree. His father, Klaus, spent most of his career at Dynamo Dresden, winning two DDR-Oberliga titles and a cup in his 11 seasons, before managing the club to mixed success in two separate stints. It was also Matthias’ father who gave him his debut in the 1985/86 season, three years after Beckenbauer had retired.
He spent his youth career at Dynamo, joining the club at the age of nine, and had seamlessly made the transition into the first team. Sammer had started off as a striker, with eight goals in his first season, but was shunted to left-wing before finding a more suitable spot in central midfield. By chance or causation, Dresden won consecutive Oberliga titles, which earned him a move to Stuttgart on the back of some commanding performances in the centre of the park.
Sammer spent just two seasons at the Neckarstadion but he was every bit the mainstay in the side. He scored 11 goals in his first season in the unified Bundesliga as Stuttgart finished sixth, but found success the following season, 1991/92, in the league, triumphing over Dortmund on goal difference. He brought talent and physicality, with a dose of intelligence, to the team, making him a force of nature in midfield that alerted many of Europe’s biggest sides to his game.
Eventually, Internazionale stole a march on their rivals and secured the signature of a player many believed could follow in the footsteps of their previous Germans inAndreas Brehme, Lothar Matthäus and Jürgen Klinsmann at the Giuseppe Meazza.
Read | When Lothar Matthäus went to Inter Milan and became a legend
At Inter he was excellent on the pitch, with four goals in 11 games, largely fitting into his new club, but off the pitch, it was another story. Despite persevering, Inter chose to sell a player who’d become popular with the fans just six months into his calcio odyssey. Whether the Nerazzurri had grown frustrated with his inability to adapt to the lifestyle or Sammer pushed for a move home, his time in Italy ended in a way nobody predicted.
Returning to Germany, Sammer’s choice of club was Borussia Dortmund, the side which Stuttgart had pipped to the title just six months earlier. His adaptability on the pitch, even with a revisionist outlook, was excellent, and, after arriving in the winter, he scored 10 goals in 17 games from midfield. Dortmund finished fourth, seven points behind champions Werder Bremen. Crucially, the post-season would see Sammer make a positional switch that would prove every bit as successful as the one he made eight years earlier at Dynamo Dresden.
This was still the era of the sweeper; players who were technically proficient midfielders converted to be the conductor of attacking moves from the back. Ottmar Hitzfield viewed Sammer as the candidate to push Dortmund towards success, emulating a role common in German football.
Dortmund finished fourth again, but this time there was much more promise. It foreshadowed their title triumph – at long last – in 1994/95. This was Dortmund, and Sammer, at their peak. He was the heart of everything good, running the side from deep, and was pivotal in their defence of the Bundesliga the following year.
Seemingly at his peak aged 29, his finest glory yet to take place. Euro 96 saw Germany build around his precocious talents, which was no surprise given manager Berti Vogts’ knowledge of being a top defender. After a lowkey group stage, it was in the knockouts that Sammer took the helm like a true Kaiser, steering his country towards the annals of history.
Read | How Berti Vogts inspired Germany to win Euro 96
He was inspirational against Croatia in the quarter-finals at Wembley, proving the difference between a resolute Germany side and a tremendously gifted Croatian one. The game itself was physical, but Sammer rose above it all, demonstrating his ability at both ends of the pitch. Winning a penalty, which Klinsmann converted, and scoring the second as Die Mannschaft kept a clean sheet.
He then stood tall against an England outfit looking for revenge after Italia 90, helping Germany see off their rivals on penalties again, before Oliver Bierhoff stole the headlines in the final against the Czech Republic with two goals – the winner a golden goal in the 95th minute. At the heart of everything Germany did well that summer was their powerful, opinionated and supremely gifted sweeper, who was duly named player of the tournament.
It is rare for a defender to win individual awards today but was a little more common a couple of decades ago. Sammer had been crowned German Footballer of the Year in 1995 and 1996, but was now officially the best player at Euro 96, and added a Ballon d’Or later that year, beating off stiff competition from Ronaldo and Alan Shearer. It meant that he had emulated the great German player to win the award from the libero position, Franz Beckenbauer.
Unbeknownst to Sammer at the time, ’96 and ’97 would prove to be his final two years at the very top. The next campaign was memorable for Dortmund’s Champions League victory, one which Sammer was yet again integral to. While many remember the attacking exploits of Stéphane Chapuisat, Andreas Möller and Karl-Heinz Riedle, it was Sammer, alongside the great Jürgen Kohler, who was most influential in their win, keeping the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Christian Vieri, Alen Bokšić and Alessandro Del Piero at bay.
For Sammer, though, things would never be so good again. In October 1997, a routine knee operation led to complications due to a bacterial amputation, raising fears of amputation. And while it didn’t lead to that, his career shuddered to a halt, with Sammer retiring soon after. At 32, the game lost a star at his peak.
As a cultured libero, it is no wonder Sammer made the transition into the dugout with relative ease. He returned to take the reins of Dortmund in 2000, leading them to a third-place finish, and then became the first manager to win the Bundesliga as a player and manager the following season.
Read | Did the traditional German leader disappear with Philipp Lahm?
He was unable to win the UEFA Cup final that season, though, losing to Feyenoord. From there on, his managerial career remained short and bittersweet, eventually grinding to a halt in 2005. He was sacked at the end of the 2003/04 season after Dortmund finished a respectable sixth amidst serious financial troubles. He returned to Stuttgart in 2004, taking them to within a point of Champions League qualification, before inexplicibly quitting management for good.
His future would lay in the office, with Sammer becoming technical director at the German Football Association in 2006. He was there until 2011, taking a short hiatus before becoming the sporting director of Bayern Munich. While his contribution to Bayern’s historic treble in 2013 under Jupp Heyneckes was subtle, Franz Beckenbauer was public in his praise of Sammer’s expertise in helping assemble the squad and provide leadership from above. Sadly, a brain disorder in 2016 saw him initially take a leave of absence before leaving the club for good.
Beyond his time on the pitch, what adds to the mystique around Sammer are his connections in his formative years to the Stasi, the East Germany secret police. Dynamo’s players were attached to the guards’ regiment, but their favourable links helped them avoid conscription.
In a show of great fortitude, Sammer’s place as the figurehead of a controversial but brilliant former German footballing power in Dynamo Dresden made him a target of many west-based fans when reunification took place. That he was able to withstand such pressure, and later go on to become a much-loved star for club and country, says much about his personality.
So where does Sammer rank alongside some of his great German peers like Beckenbauer and Matthäus? While he was far from a revolutionary force like Beckenbauer, and despite not having the longevity for Germany like Matthäus, his role in taking Dortmund to consecutive Bundesliga titles, as well as the Champions League, and his litany of personal accolades places him up there with his more illustrious peers.
A career cut short perhaps casts him into the shadows, and his 51 Die Mannschaft caps don’t do his talent justice on paper, but Sammer was a man for the big occasion, and he remains revered by those that saw him play.
By Rahul Warrier @rahulw_