World Cup Countdown: 7 Weeks to Go – The Flawed Genius of the Great Lothar Matthäus

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With only five minutes of the 1990 World Cup final to play, Rudi Völler was fouled in the box by Roberto Sensini and the Mexican referee dramatically pointed to the spot. All eyes turned to Lothar Matthäus, West Germany’s captain and scorer of the winning penalty against Czechoslovakia in the quarter finals, as he approached Andreas Brehme rather than the ball.

“Andreas, you take it.”

Arrogant, impulsive, and self-centred, it was unlike Matthäus to pass up his moment in the limelight. It later transpired that the boots he had used for the last four years had lost a stud in the semi final against England, and he felt ill-equipped to convert the spot-kick.

Matthäus trusted Brehme to score. The two had played together at Bayern Munich and then at Inter, and Matthäus has since described Brehme as the best he ever played with. Even so, as Brehme struck the ball into the bottom left corner of Sergio Goycochea’s net, there must have been a twinge of regret for Matthäus. He had lost faith in himself at the crucial moment.

Perhaps that is why Matthäus is not as fondly remembered by German football fans as some other legends of Die Mannschaft. It is hard to imagine Franz Beckenbauer losing confidence in himself. It is hard to imagine Gerd Müller passing up the chance to score in a World Cup final.

Nobody can ever question Matthäus’ commitment to the national team. In appearing at five different World Cup tournaments, he equalled a record set by Mexico goalkeeper Antonio Carbajal. He remained available for selection long after his peak, finally bringing his international career to an end after Germany’s ignominious Euro 2000 exit. He was 39.

After he was restricted to cameo appearances at Euro 1980 and the 1982 World Cup, it was a move to Bayern Munich which gave Matthäus the attention he craved. He was the team’s top scorer in three of his four seasons at the Olympiastadion as Bayern won three consecutive Bundesliga titles.

Matthäus played in every game at the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico, which he considered his “breakthrough.” He scored the winner against Morocco in the last 16 as Franz Beckenbauer’s team went all the way to the final, where Matthäus was tasked with marking Diego Maradona.

“That was a mistake of Franz Beckenbauer’s, I think,” said Matthäus. “I concentrated on Maradona, but we neglected our own game. When they went 2-0 up we changed it around, Karl-Heinz Förster was put on Maradona, I went forward more and we got back to 2-2. Then we made a dumb mistake and lost.”

It’s a wonder the Estadio Azteca could contain the combined egos of Matthäus and Maradona. “He is the best rival I’ve ever had. I guess that’s enough to define him,” wrote Maradona in his book ‘I am the Diego’, almost (but not quite) affording the German as much credit as he reserves for himself.

Matthäus captained West Germany to the semi finals of Euro 1988 before he departed for Inter. 25 goals in his first two seasons at the club showed that the change of league had not affected him. When Italia 90 came around, Matthäus said it was “like playing a World Cup at home”.

Matthäus must have known he was in for a good tournament the moment the draw was made. West Germany were to play all of their group games at the San Siro, where Matthäus played his club football alongside Brehme and Jürgen Klinsmann. 13 of Germany’s 15 goals at the tournament were scored by Serie A-based players.

Matthäus’ two goals in Germany’s 4-1 win over Yugoslavia was his first and only brace for the national team. “It was the best game of my Germany career,” he said. Another goal against the UAE eased Germany through to the knockout stages, where Klinsmann and Brehme scored in the last 16 win over the Netherlands.

Matthäus’ quarter final penalty confirmed a last four meeting with England in Turin – Germany’s first match outside of Milan. Matthäus had a quiet game, but scored in the shoot out as Germany set up a repeat of the 1986 final. It was the most cynical final until 2010, and at least that one ended with a well-worked goal. Thankfully Brehme’s penalty spared the crowd another 30 minutes.

Brehme may have stolen the headlines, but Matthäus’ contributions were not forgotten. He was named German footballer of the year and European footballer of the year, as well as winning the Ballon d’Or by a huge margin. His most prolific season ever followed in 1990/91, as he scored 23 goals in all competitions.

A ligament injury ruled him out of Euro 1992 and ended his time in Italy. He returned to Bayern and won four more league titles despite never scaling his previous heights. The Champions League was the only major trophy to elude him, with Manchester United’s 1999 comeback denying him that honour.

Asked in 2000 why he was still playing, Matthäus at first spoke like an excitable child. “I like football. It’s fun winning the ball from someone, it’s fun shooting at goal, it’s fun hitting a ball over 60 metres that arrives,” he said, almost endearingly. And then the kicker: “And if you don’t play, you don’t get attention.”

Attention. It often seemed to be Lothar Matthäus’ motivation for playing the game. When he retired he went straight into management, lest he leave the spotlight for a moment and be forgotten. But after ten years and seven jobs, he packed it in – because he wasn’t getting enough attention from German clubs.

“In other countries they treat idols differently and I am an idol in Germany,” said Matthäus, humble as ever. “Germany should be ashamed of the way it treats such an idol.” With the arrogance to declare himself an idol, yet the frailty to lose his nerve in a World Cup final, Matthäus really was a flawed genius. No wonder Maradona liked him so much.

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