Lothar Matthaeus was, doubtless, a great footballer. He’s also a great survivor. Maybe, a wee bit controversial too. But, the most important thing Matthaeus was back in the German World Cup squad after a two-year gap, during the one World Cup — in spite of his never-ending battle of attrition, and power struggle, with captain, Júrgen Klinsmann… Well, his magic today was just as good as it was before — the difference being of degree, if not age alone.
Yes, when the awesome twosome had called it cease-fire, nobody was more pleased than coach Berti Vogts, and football fans. For Matthaeus, who’s booted out of his country’s team for undermining team interests, not to speak of his alleged involvement in spreading rumours and actively lobbying to have Klinsmann removed from the national squad, it’s a remarkable comeback. It’s also a logical return. So much so, Klinsmann and Matthaeus, realising their country’s need for them, had announced that they had no problems playing together — for a noble cause. It was good for Germany. Maybe, it was just too bad for opposing teams. The rest, as the axiom goes, is history.
Matthaeus was, perhaps, Germany’s most capped player. He played in more than 125 Internationals. World Cup 1998 was his fifth World Cup — his last —- after 1982, 1986, 1990, and 1994… He was 38. So, he had gaps in goaltending. But, he wanted to play for the national team, again. That was will power for you. He could be back: it is a possibility construct, not impossibility. But, that is a story for another day, another time.
What made him an explosive ‘striker’? His vintage qualities: teutonic discipline, solid mid-field chemistry, great experience, and organisation. Not for nothing was Matthaeus called Germany’s Field Marshall — a symbol of greatness that won them the 1990 World Cup. Agreed that his work was cut out, in his new position as ‘sweeper:’ that was, if everything went well for him, according to plan. But, one thing was assured. He’d call on his powers of acceleration to ‘police’ the area between the goal and mid-field — saving, stealing, and wreaking havoc on the opposing team.
As one coach put it, “The only thing that can stop him [Matthaeus] is a machine gun.” Perfect description. Apt too. But, what made him a sensational player was his wondrous background. Matthaeus was a player of a rare stock. He was also an eternally realistic gladiator with the contemporary touch. His rudiments were implanted through pure determination; his excellence having been inculcated with his own compass, or radar. He’s special — one who had draped the game meritoriously by way of his own nature, and nurture.
For a man who once studied interior designing, Matthaeus believed that simplicity was his secret to life. It may very well be — albeit the opposition wouldn’t believe one word of it. But, he came a long way: from a ‘rookie’ to the zenith of his impressive career, when he led Germany to an emphatic World Cup victory. The cheers did not stop with Germany’s hour of glory. Matthaeus was not only voted the ‘Year’s World Footballer’ by the International Football Federation, and readers of World Soccer Magazine, but he was also named ‘European Footballer of the Year 1990.’ He repeated the feat the following year — ‘Footballer of the Year’ — in a survey conducted by FIFA. The rest is now part of the game’s folklore.
Matthaeus, whose game plan was synonymous with both power and industry, was, quite simply, the best player in the 1990 World Cup. His sterling performances underlined his good technique, and the whole essence of a winner. His sway was so profound that one of his goals, in a first round match against Yugoslavia, was replayed again and again as the finest goal of the tournament. The shot: Matthaeus surged forward, side-stepped a brace of tackles, and out zoomed the neat, precise hit — a sizzling, curving essay, which never rose more than two feet from the turf. It was perfect nirvana for the ball.
Matthaeus has always been a player of substance. He may not have been blessed with the pure genius of many of the soccer greats of yore. Yet, he’s had everything that cannot be remotely challenged in his build-up to being the numero uno on the world football stage, at one time. As one of his former club managers summed him up: “He’s the most complete modern footballer.”
An outstanding star, who adapted his all in tune with the demands of modern football, Matthaeus covered the entire field with sheer stamina, and supreme athleticism, tackling the ball hard. He gave no room for his opponents to settle on — from one penalty area to another. His methods were scientific, practical and undemonstrative to the hilt. Not that he cajoled the whole character of what was once Germany’s pristine football alchemy: artistry. In his words: “There was then time to stop, look, and play. Now, you look and shoot, all in one moment.”
Matthaeus dismissed critics who inferred that he had no creative instincts, and finesse. His argument: “In modern football, it is not necessary to have a single general in mid-field. It’s better to divide the responsibility among 2-3 key players. One schemer can easily be marked out in the game.” This was no zany lecture from the prolific German player. It was a realistic assessment: of football’s cogent modernity, where speed and craft are intertwined into one composite whole.
A strong critic of German players’ ‘exodus’ to foreign clubs, Matthaeus was an ardent fan of ‘King’ Pele. He may not really compare with the Brazilian wizard. But, that is aside the point. Agreed that Matthaeus’ header was not as good as he himself wanted it to be. But, then, his eye was mercurial and consistent. So also his legendary guts and drive. A case in point: In the 1986 World Cup final against Argentina, at Mexico, Germany lost the match 2-3, but Matthaeus demonstrated that he could match Diego Maradona, when not fully fit. Handicapped by a broken hand, which was covered by a special skin-coloured bandage, Matthaeus played scintillating football. He made no bones about his injury, which his team-mates — and, even some German officials — did not know. That was sheer passion, a commitment to the ultimate, or Platonian, divine frenzy.
Matthaeus was a practical man: one with a mission, and, most importantly, pure common sense. He was only too well aware of a primal fact of sporting existence. That he could not afford to have his nerves frayed, pressure flawed, and expectations betrayed. His challenge was simple enough: to repeat 1990, for old, and new, times’ sake. On the field. In every game, if possible. And, also to say adieu to the game as a world champion. In style — with a national call, again. That was his last hurrah — and, a fitting one, at that. If this wasn’t true greatness, or the mark of a champion, what is?
THE ADVANTAGE OF BEING MATTHAEUS
- Matthaeus was articulate and refreshingly cliché-free, individual. He was football’s Mr Outstanding. He may have had mild grumblings with administrators, and fellow players, but he somehow continued to make all the right noises. So, he was still liked
- A great motivator, Matthaeus was devoted to attacking, entertaining football. He had a good sense of humour, and feet on the ground, not air
- His physical attributes were strong. Injuries had their toll, yes. But, Matthaeus specialised in getting on with the game
- He was ‘old’ style. But, he pumped new air into football each time he went into the arena
- He could have had a job for life. But, he looked beyond just that.