Legends of International Football: Lothar Matthaus
The libero, or the sweeper, is the most demanding and strategically exciting role to have ever existed in world football. Invented by the Italians (surprise, surprise!) and mastered by the Germans, the libero was the spare man at the back.
He was usually the last line of defence and initiator of attacks, putting in goal saving tackles and scoring match winning goals at the same time.
A unique role which demanded exceptional positional sense, incredible drive and a large amount of tactical intelligence, the libero often defined footballing success in the 70s, 80s and 90s.
Lothar Matthaus was one such player, who was part of a very successful German team in a career spanning two decades. A box to box midfielder in his initial years, his developing tactical nous and experience saw him become one of the best sweepers of all time.
His professional club career started with Borussia Monchengladbach, before he joined Bayern Munich in 1984. He spent four seasons with the Bavarian giants and later returned for a longer second stint in 1992.
Sandwiched in between were four successful years in Italy with Internazionale, where he won the Serie A and the UEFA Cup. He won a total of seven Bundesliga titles and lifted the DFB Pokal Cup thrice and the UEFA Cup once with Bayern Munich.
But the biggest prize in club football, the Champions League, was to evade him in extremely cruel circumstances – not once, but twice. In the 1987 Champions League Final, Bayern were leading 1-0 when Porto grabbed two goals in the final quarter of the match to pip them to the finish.
And in 1999, he was substituted in the 86th minute with his team leading 1-0 again, only to lose out to two stoppage time goals from Manchester United, culminating in one of the most famous victories – and infamous defeats – ever in the Champions League.
It was on the international stage however, that he found his calling and the epitome of footballing success. He was a part of the victorious Euro 1980 squad, and made his World Cup debut in 1982 against Chile.
West Germany reached the final. Matthaus playing a bit part role with a couple of substitute appearances, but eventually lost 3-1 to an Italian team which, incidentally, boasted the talents of another excellent libero, Gaetano Scirea.
Lothar Matthaus was taking over a role which had been defined by the great Franz Beckenbauer, both in essence and to some extent, chronologically. His education was to be completed by Der Kaiser himself, as he established himself as a first team regular when Beckenbauer took over the reigns of the German national team.
In 1986, West Germany and Lothar Matthaus lost their second successive World Cup final, this time to an Argentinian team inspired by a certain Diego Maradona. Matthaus himself was given the impossible task of man marking the little magician in the Final, which his team lost 3-2.
Italia ’90 had a far more positive ending as West Germany reached their third consecutive World Cup final. In a rematch from the Mexico ’86 final, West Germany defeated Argentina 1-0 in Rome. Lothar Matthaus, as captain and undoubtedly the best player of the tournament, lifted the Jules Rimet trophy shortly before the German reunification in 1990.
He had a brilliant tournament, scoring four goals and providing the main creative spark in an attacking German setup. His international exploits won him the Ballon d’Or in 1990.
Matthaus’ on-field genius and intelligence has often been in stark contrast to his off-field impetuosity and brashness. Even today, his comments in the German media often leave a sour taste in the mouth and surprisingly for one who has bought so much success to the national team, he is not much loved in his home country. It was this ability to rub people up the wrong way, which derailed his international career in the mid-90s.
He was injured for the Euros in 1992, where Germany lost the final (again!) to surprise winners Denmark and the captain for the 1994 World Cup, where they bowed out in the quarter finals. But his poor relationship with star striker Jurgen Klinsmann and coach Berti Vogts led to his exclusion from the national team and subsequently Euro 96.
That Germany won the Euros that year only served to make him jealous, leading to his claim that Klinsmann would be unable to score even 15 goals the next season.
This public rubbishing of the captain of the national team could not have gone down well the administration. It was therefore all the more surprising, and a testament to his skills as a player that he was called up to national squad for the 1998 World Cup.
In this, he became only the second player to play at five different World Cups, also setting the record of the maximum number of World Cup matches (25) for a single player, a record which stands to this day.
Appearances in a disappointing Euro 2000 campaign extended his international career into the new millennium, ensuring his participation in yet another major tournament. His international career came to a close against Portugal, as a tepid German performance resulted in a 3-0 loss and a surprising exclusion from the knockout stages of a major tournament.
The perfect eulogy to a glittering career was then delivered by Diego Maradona, who in his autobiography published two months after Matthaus’ last international match, called him the best rival he had ever had. High praise, indeed.