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World Cup Legend

Lothar Matthaus: German giant

May 14, 2010
By John Brewin
(Archive)

One of the most successful players in World Cup history, Lothar Herbert Matthaus could teach his rivals a few things about tabloid scandal, rowing with team-mates and bosses and, crucially, captaining a team to World Cup glory while leading by shining example. Matthaus is not necessarily a popular man in Germany and has long been in exile as he seeks - in vain - to find a career in coaching to somehow match a glorious 21 years of playing at the very top, but few can doubt his legend.

Lothar Matthaus
GettyImagesLothar Matthaus celebrates after opening the scoring against Yugoslavia

Matthaus has a trophy haul to rival just about anyone who has ever played the game, with one notable, and doubly harrowing, exception: the European Cup. The only outfield player to have played in five World Cup finals tournaments, he holds the record - at 25 - of most games played by any player. He captained West Germany to their win at Italia '90, a tournament in which he was easily the best player, ten years after winning the European Championship as a 19-year-old.

He debuted at Euro '80 in a 3-2 group game win over Holland. His last match for Germany, an unfortunate group-game 3-0 reverse at Euro 2000 to a Portuguese reserve team, sadly confirmed that even the best get too old.

A midfielder granted all the gifts to prosper in the technocratic brand of football played on the continent in the 1980s, Matthaus could just about do it all. A hard tackler with the positional sense to be both a fine man-marker and creative fulcrum, he possessed great finishing skills augmented by a fierce shot. Later in his career, as his legs lost the energy that had made him so effective, he was able to use his wonderful sense of positioning as one of the last exponents of the dying art of the sweeper.

A glittering club career which included seven Bundesliga titles and two German Cups was more than matched by his international achievements. Having made that early bow in 1980, by 1981 his country were offering him a man-marking job on Diego Maradona in a friendly between West Germany and Argentina. He stuck to his target like a limpet, and by 1986 was asked to play the same role in the World Cup final, despite being his team's leading playmaker in their progress to the final. This time, Maradona, at the zenith of his superhuman powers, was able to get the better of him and a late German comeback collapsed as the Argentine captain skipped past Matthaus one last time to set up Jorge Burruchaga for the winner in Mexico's Azteca Stadium.

The two would be reunited at Italia '90. Maradona was by then far below his best, bloated and slowed by medicines for his many injuries (and some self-medication); by this time it was Matthaus who was the star and he was voted European Player of the Year to prove it.

An incendiary start to the tournament had seen his goals blast away fancied Yugoslavia, as the West Germans, with reunification with their eastern equivalent approaching, eventually made it to the final. A poor match, ruined by Argentina's ugly tactics and a pair of sendings off, was won by a Klinsmann dive and a Brehme penalty, as Matthaus got to lift the trophy his own performances had at least deserved.

Maradona himself, despite the tears he shed in Rome that night, retained respect for the German, describing him in his autobiography as: "The best rival I've ever had. I guess that's enough to define him."

The World Cup in 1994 saw Matthaus once again take the limelight - as Maradona suffered his well publicised problems - and, acting as a sweeper, led the Germans to a quarter-final appearance and shock defeat to surprise package Bulgaria. He was supposed to be playing in his last World Cup but joined Uwe Seeler, Wladislav Zmuda and Maradona in the record books in the tournament with 21 games before his exit.

Yet while the likes of Maradona may have hailed his rival, he was often not held in such regard by his colleagues and team-mates.

Despite their success together, he and Klinsmann shared a mutual loathing that began when the striker arrived at Bayern from Spurs in the summer of 1995. That Berti Vogts had awarded Klinsmann the national captaincy did not help, as the deposed skipper accused his successor of plotting to unseat him. A Matthaus-less Germany consequently won Euro 96 and a jealous Matthaus chose to rubbish his colleague, betting that he would not score 15 goals in the coming season. Klinsmann achieved that target - just - but was soon the fall-guy in the relationship as he fled to Sampdoria in the summer of 1997.

The two were surprisingly reunited at the 1998 World Cup finals when Matthaus stepped in for the injured Matthias Sammer as sweeper. This too would end in recrimination as Croatia ravaged Germany 3-0 in the quarter-finals in Lyon as Matthaus' legs began to show their advanced age - although he set a new record for games by a single player at the tournament (25). That he was granted another go at Euro 2000, where he was again shown up as yesterday's man, was a grave error by coach Erich Ribbeck, yet it was Matthaus' personality, matched by his previous deeds and standing in the game, that made him undroppable when common sense dictated he could be the disaster he turned out to be.

Lothar Matthaus
GettyImagesLothar Matthaus: Five World Cup tournaments and one trophy.

The Euros would prove to be his international playing swansong and, since then, Matthaus has occasionally resurfaced as a coach, though not yet in his homeland. As a player, he had resembled something of a souped-up Bryan Robson. As a manager, he has been more than a match for his English counterpart's failings. Rapid Vienna, Partizan Belgrade, the Hungarian national team, Red Bull Salzburg, Atletico Paranaense and Maccabi Netanya have all been granted his questionable talents, with man-management not one of his often quoted qualities.

In Germany, despite that glorious playing career, Matthaus has become more famous for his ability to rub people up the wrong way. Tawdry headlines have followed him. As well as being on his fourth wife, his mouth has been capable of statements like the tasteful morsel offered to a Dutch tourist in Munich: "The Dutch are all arseholes, Adolf probably forgot you."

A women's basketball team was once greeted with "Hey girls, our black player has the longest appendage." Meanwhile, his desire to return to Bayern in a coaching dream team with Ottmar Hitzfeld can never bear fruit while Uli Hoeness is the club's general manager. Hoeness swore that he would not even have Matthaus as groundsman at Bayern, especially after a legal suit over his farewell testimonial.

After being a player who achieved the greatest heights he seems to have retained few friends in the game, although Loddar could barely care less about that as his status among the greats is written in stone.