Why Lothar Matthäus is probably the most complete footballer in history

Why Lothar Matthäus is probably the most complete footballer in history

As an introduction to the 20th century, a case can certainly be made for Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ being a good starting point. Released in 1989 to celebrate the singer turning 40, the song lists a series of key events from his lifetime, such as the space race, Vietnam war and Watergate scandal.

It is a very catchy record, however baseball and boxing aside, sporting references are glaringly absent. Joel glosses over several notable moments, such as in 1979 when he lists the Iranian Revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan over a footballing event from West Germany. Kaiserslautern and Borussia Mönchengladbach are perhaps not the best-suited cities for such a fast-paced tune, but the repercussions of events from 22 September 1979 are such one hopes Joel might have reconsidered.

That date marks the Bundesliga debut of Lothar Matthäus, a figure whose relevance to 20th-century sport becomes much clearer when viewed temporally. His career began at a time when Bobby Moore, George Best and Johan Cruyff were still playing, and ended almost a quarter of a century later with Luís Figo, Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane the big names alongside him.

Such remarkable longevity is but the smallest part of Matthäus’ story. This neglects so many other factors; the attitude, the goals, the leadership, the trophies, and the reinvention of positions. When comparing careers of footballers, few can compete with the German.

As with any epic tale, one must start at the beginning, which comes in Erlangen, the town in Bavaria where Matthäus was born in March 1961. He would begin his footballing odyssey some 15km east in Herzogenaurach, where his father worked at the local Puma factory. It is fitting how Matthäus began his career in the town that served as base for Argentina’s World Cup squad in 2006, given how Diego Maradona once described him as the greatest rival he’d ever faced.

Prior to having his talents recognised by one of the game’s best, it fell on the shoulders of talent spotters in Germany to do so. This came in 1979 when, in his first season of management, Jupp Heynckes brought the 18-year-old interior design apprentice to his boyhood club Borussia Mönchengladbach. Starting out in the aforementioned 4-2 loss at Kaiserslautern, Matthäus would feature in central midfield for all remaining 27 league games as Gladbach ended in seventh and lost in the UEFA Cup final to Frankfurt.

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The following four seasons would see Matthäus establish himself as one of Germany’s best midfielders. He would receive his maiden Nationalmannschaft call up at the end of his first full season, travelling to Italy as a minor part of the victorious Euro 1980 squad. At this point Matthäus was a box-to-box midfielder capable of scoring phenomenal goals, such as a thunderbolt of a free-kick against Werder Bremen on the opening day of the 1981/82 campaign.

His final season with Gladbach would be his most successful, with a third-place finish in the league combined with a run to the DFB-Pokal final. Prior to this match, it had been announced Matthäus would be joining Bayern Munich, the opponents in Frankfurt, at the end of the season. With the game going to penalties, Matthäus agonisingly missed his spot-kick in the shootout to controversially award his new club the trophy. Conspiracy theories were abound – and all were nonsense.

At 23, returning to the region of his birth would signal the elevation of Matthäus to another level. He finished as top scorer with 16 goals in the league in his first season in Munich. Bayern won the Bundesliga and Pokal, whilst also reaching the semi-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup before losing to Everton. Such honours would become second nature to Matthäus, who would become a repeat offender for trophy-lifting at the Olympiastadion.

By now, Matthäus represented the complete midfielder. A frightening combination of two-footedness, power, speed, technical ability and set-piece expertise, he could play as the number 10 he wore throughout the majority of his career, but also sit deeper as a schemer capable of making late runs into the box. In simple terms, he was unplayable.

In 1986 he would play a large part as West Germany reached the World Cup final in Mexico. Unfortunately, a tactical change by Franz Beckenbauer saw Matthäus tasked with marking Maradona in the showpiece with Argentina, rather than playing further forward. This served to restrict the Germans’ creative force and saw them go 2-0 down. Despite giving Matthäus free rein to restore parity, a late strike from Jorge Burruchaga stole the glory.

Not that Matthäus was short on that, with the Bundesliga captured again in 1986 and 1987. He would score no fewer than 12 goals in this spell, registering 21 in all competitions in his final season. The pick of these came in a 6-0 win over Hamburg in 1987, where he lifted an exquisite cushioned volley over Mladen Pralija.

In a transfer synonymous with the high times of Serie A, Matthäus announced, prior to captaining his country at Euro 1988, that he would be joined Internazionale. Giovanni Trapattoni had been entrusted with bringing the Nerazzurri a first trophy in seven seasons, and he knew just the man he wanted to lead his revival.

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Just as Maradona had four years before, the arrival of Matthäus galvanised Inter. His versatility and technical prowess allowed for ample goals, with 12 for himself, including a low driven free-kick against Napoli in May 1989. His vision also played a large part in Aldo Serena ending as the Capocannoniere. The result was that, by the end of the season, Inter had their first Scudetto since 1980.

The remaining three seasons didn’t see the same heights reached in Serie A, although they didn’t pass without incident. There were several trademark long-range screamers, the most memorable coming from 35 yards in an all-Italian 1991 UEFA Cup quarter-final with Atalanta. At Rapid Vienna in the first round of the same competition, which Inter won after beating Roma 2-1 on aggregate in the final, Matthäus scored another sublime goal by running around the entire defence before unleashing a fierce drive past Michael Konsel.

The turn of the decade also brought Matthäus his crowning glory. In his temporary home, he would captain West Germany to World Cup glory, displaying just how much influence he had over teams he played in. The opening group match against Yugoslavia featured two  Matthäus goals, the second seeing him dribble from inside his own half to unleash a typically fearsome long-range effort into the bottom corner. This was followed by further strikes against the UAE and Czechoslovakia, alongside in the semi-final shootout with England.

Then, in the Rome showpiece, came the avenging of Argentina, in a game where Matthäus was determined not to make the same mistake as four years previously. Demonstrating his supreme defensive intelligence, he single-handedly marked Maradona out of proceedings. It should also have also been him who scored the winning penalty, although Matthäus didn’t feel comfortable after the sole of his boots cracked in the first half and his replacements were not broken in. Instead, he entrusted Inter teammate Andreas Brehme to do the honours.

Not that such triviality takes away from his overall performances in the tournament, with the West Germans’ triumph largely down to Matthäus’ leadership. It was only right that as captain he got to lift the trophy, symbolically coming just months before German reunification. In recognition of these efforts, he would be crowned German Footballer of the Year, whilst also receiving the 1990 Ballon d’Or and inaugural FIFA World Player of the Year award in 1991.

This would be the last high Matthäus experienced in Italy, with his final season tainted by the replacement of Trapattoni with the defence-minded Corrado Orrico. The German would score just four goals as Inter finished eighth, whilst a prospective move to Juventus to follow his old coach collapsed after he ruptured his cruciate ligament in a 0-0 draw with Parma in early April 1992. Aged 32, it appeared the beginning of the end for Matthäus.

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That summer he received a phone call from Beckenbauer, newly appointed as Bayern president, who, despite the injury, insisted he returned to Germany. Inter, believing his best days were behind him, were all too keen to take a fee of around £1.5m. The club he walked into were also in disarray, having ended the previous season in tenth behind the likes of Karlsruher and Nürnberg.

Despite missing pre-season and the majority of August and September, in his first year back Matthäus helped Bayern to within a point of eventual champions Werder. He would also score arguably the defining goal of his career against Bayer Leverkusen, thundering home a volley straight off a Mehmet Scholl corner in a 4-2 victory. The following season brought another piledriver away at Frankfurt, with such performances dispelling any ideas Matthäus was past his peak.

Admittedly for a conventional footballer, the early 30s signal the winding down stage, although with Matthäus it is difficult to pinpoint when exactly his best years occurred. Like many mammoth scripts, one can break the career of Matthäus down into two parts: pre and post a rupturing of his Achilles tendon in 1995 that sidelined him for almost a year.

Prior to this injury he was a swashbuckling midfielder, capable of scoring goals with both feet and his head or putting in a shift defensively. This layoff, coupled with his advancing years, meant Matthäus lost his thundering power. It was, therefore, the decision of Berti Vogts to convert him into one of the finest liberos the game has ever witnessed, where superior vision and reading of the game would become his new weapons of choice.

It is from such a position that Matthäus would steer Bayern to an array of honours throughout the 1990s, starting with the 1994 Bundesliga. Whilst goals were less frequent, they would still prove special, like in April 1997 when he dribbled past five players before firing in against Fortuna. He would also claim winners medals for the Bundesliga in 1997, 1999 and 2000, alongside two further Pokal triumphs in 1998 and 2000. 

One glaring omission from Matthäus’ otherwise watertight CV is the lack of a Champions League trophy. He came close on several occasions, with a semi-final defeat to Ajax in 1995 to go alongside the two runners-up medals he received from loses to Porto in 1987 and Manchester United in 1999. On both occasions Bayern led for the majority of the match, only to concede twice in the final minutes to lose 2-1.

The latter loss is arguably more gut-wrenching, given the nature in which Die Roten dominated the game and were still leading into injury time. As Teddy Sheringham and then Ole Gunnar Solskjær ended his European dreams, TV cameras focused on the substituted Matthäus, sat in disbelief on the Bayern bench. That he was there rather than on the pitch is for some a black mark on his career.

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In years since it has drawn criticism from teammates, with Sammy Kuffour stating he “would have played till the last drop of my blood”. Meanwhile, the outspoken Stefan Effenberg, with whom Matthäus had a well-documented public feud, called his teammate “a quitter”. Explaining himself in FourFourTwo, the German details how he was more tired than usual after being tasked with man-marking David Beckham. The extra running meant that, after 75 minutes, he told Ottmar Hitzfeld he wouldn’t be averse to being substituted. Upon hearing this, the coach swapped him for Thorsten Fink. The rest is history.

Matthäus did win the German Footballer of the Year award again, at the age of 38, although this was little consolation. It was an unfortunate end to what was one of two huge decades in the career of Matthäus. Accusations of shirking responsibility sting for a player who was renowned as a natural leader capable of raising the levels of all around him. That said, there was also a prima donna persona surrounding him off the pitch, with the player known for his love of gossip and public attention.

Such mannerisms have not endeared him to many in Germany. Whilst respecting him and his career, there is no unbridled love. This has always been a part of Matthäus’ character, with his opinionated nature once reportedly causing Rudi Völler to tell him to talk at a toilet seat. This brashness also saw him banished from the national team between 1994 and 1998, although he is still Germany’s record cap holder with 150 appearances.

One can cynically see this personality as the motivation behind the final move of his career in March 2000 to New York MetroStars. The transfer was largely motivated by a desire to live in Manhattan and promote his then girlfriend’s modelling career. He only played 21 played times, making little impact on MLS before hanging up his boots.

Going into management also brought its fair share of oddities, with Matthäus pursuing a nomadic journey around Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Israel and Serbia. Suffice to say, none of these jobs ended particularly successfully. There was also an ill-fated eight-game spell at Brazilian outfit Athletico Paranaense, who fired Matthäus after he took an unauthorised trip back to Europe. This was supposedly motivated by accusations from his then-wife that he was having an affair with a Brazilian journalist.

Having been married five times, such an approach to relationships is the perfect metaphor for Matthäus’ career. He never settled down, getting around the pitch depending on his age and associated club. Whilst the names of some players – Inzaghi, Makélélé, Pirlo – are synonymous with the position they played, if one was to pin down a Matthäus role they would have to colour in half the pitch. A freak of nature, he should long be remembered as one of the most complete footballers to ever play the game.

Perhaps this is what Billy Joel was pondering when ending his list of events with the rhetorical question, “When we are gone will [the fire] still burn on?”. Applying this to the enormous legacy of Lothar Matthäus, the answer is a resounding yes.

By James Kelly @jkell403

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