Whenever the topic of the ‘best’ players of all time or of a certain era crops up, the conversation inevitably slides towards those supremely gifted individuals with the unique skills and abilities which set them apart from their peers.
Diego Maradona, widely perceived as one of greatest footballers of all time – able to create and score goals from anywhere, anytime – had a right foot just for standing on, couldn’t really head the ball and rarely bothered defending. Even the most supreme of talents had the most obvious of flaws. However, consider this with the man Maradona named his toughest rival during his career, Lothar Matthaus.
When you analyse Matthaus as a player it is difficult to elaborate on anything in particular. He was just very good, at almost everything. As a young player starting off in Germany with Borussia Monchengladbach and then Bayern Munich, he formed a reputation as being the complete midfielder – defensively and offensively – and it was such a package that prompted Inter to bring the then 27-year-old to the Peninsula in 1988 in anticipation of ending an eight-year drought for the Scudetto.
Matthaus was the sort of player every side needs and it was no surprise that President Ernesto Pellegrini chose the German skipper to be the fulcrum of the new Nerazzurri. From his central midfield station Matthaus’ intelligence and versatility enabled him to combine a variety of roles, doing the job of multiple men. A natural leader, Matthaus drove and inspired and combined strong, inherently German mental attributes with an unerring quality on the ball. Matthaus was primarily deployed as an attacking midfielder during his time at the San Siro, and from this advanced position he delivered a healthy goals return, scoring at a rate of better than one goal in every three league games. These goals were indicative of Matthaus’ well-honed and all-round game. They were scored with both feet, from inside the box from well-timed or lung-bursting runs, or from outside the area with fierce drives or precise shots. As well as scoring he had a creative guise to his game which provided numerous assists for the Nerazzurri strikers, such as countryman Jurgen Klinsmann. Matthaus was equally adept with the range of his passing – whether it was short, subtle and incisive in central areas or the opposition third, or raking long balls from deep, Matthaus had the ability to hurt teams from all over the pitch.
However, to talk about the goals or assists Matthaus provided would not paint a complete picture of what he was about. His goals record was good but not unbelievable – he set up a decent amount of goals yet was far from unplayable. What made him so important, so valuable and irreplaceable for a large proportion of the prime of his career was just everything which he gave for the team. Inspired by the German ‘Kaiser’ role, Matthaus understood the game from any position on the pitch, and this knowledge essentially made him a master of all trades and a jack of none. There were better individual players around, yet it was Matthaus’ qualities as an individual which made his teams click as a collective. With Matthaus prominent, his club and national side won two of the most difficult competitions to win – the Serie A title in 1989 (in his debut season) and the World Cup the year after. In both sides, Matthaus was fundamental to their success and this was reflected in him winning the Ballon d’Or in 1990 and the World Player of the Year award in 1991. He may not have been the best technical player in the world, but he was one of the most important and influential, and any side would have had him.
Inter circa 1988-1992
It was a testament to his eternal class that Matthaus was able to play on at the highest level until he was approaching 40. His quality on the ball and reading of the game allowed him to simply drop further back as his career advanced, as he still played a prominent role with Bayern Munich and Germany right up until the turn of the millennium.
In summarising his own career, Matthaus tells an anecdote of being on set filming a commercial for American TV. Having just been crowned World Player of the Year, the American director starts chatting to Matthaus, and given his status, expects him to do something miraculous with the ball for the benefit of the commercial. When he enquires what in particular Matthaus can do, the German responds: “Well, I don’t know many tricks. I play in midfield. I just pass a bit, score a few goals and help out the team.”
“Is that it?” enquires the clueless director.
But that was far from it.
Name Lothar Herbert Matthaus
Age 48 (March 21, 1961)
Position Attacking Midfielder, Defensive Midfielder, Sweeper
Clubs (Appearances/Goals) Borussia Monchengladbach (162/36), Bayern Munich (113/57), Inter (115/40), Bayern Munich (189/28), MetroStars (16/0)
Club level honours Bundesliga (1985, 1986, 1987, 1994, 1997, 1999, 2000), Serie A (1989), DFB-Pokal (1986, 1998), UEFA Cup (1991, 1996), Ballon d’Or (1990), World Player of the Year (1991), German Footballer of the Year (1990, 1999)
National honours FIFA World Cup 1990, UEFA European Championship 1980
Past Lessons in Calcio
Alessandro Del Piero
Marco van Basten