When FIFA coined their idea for the World Player of the Year award, an honour that was supposed to compete alongside the more prestigious Ballon d’Or, it was a way to reward the best talent competing in the men’s game. With the first award being handed out in 1991, there were numerous potential winners. Milan’s Marco Van Basten, Jean-Pierre Papin of Marseille and Internazionale’s Andreas Brehme were all contenders for the best player in the world, but it was Brehme’s club and international team-mate who took the plaudits.
Described by Diego Maradona as the “best rival he ever had”, Lothar Matthäus was certainly a worthy champion as the leading footballer in the world. The first couple of years of the ‘90s saw Matthäus collect both the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year, whilst he also captained Germany to World Cup glory in 1990 and it was the culmination of the previous decade’s efforts. Many remember Matthäus as the star of the ‘90s, but his playing days in the preceding decade truly set his stall out as one of the greatest midfielders the world has ever seen.
Having been a youth player at 1. FC Herzogenaurach during the ‘70s, Matthäus’s big chance came prior to the 1979-80 season with one of Germany’s biggest clubs, Borussia Mönchengladbach. Die Borussen won five Bundesliga titles during the decade, whilst also reaching a European Cup final in 1977 and three separate UEFA Cup finals prior to the arrival of the midfielder.
In his first year at the club, Matthäus established himself as one of the key players in the team, featuring 28 times in the league campaign, although the seventh-place finish was ultimately disappointing. Their main success came during the UEFA Cup run, the competition in which they were the defending champions A relatively easy first-round tie against Norweigan side Viking was navigated comfortably and rewarded with a tricky task against Italian powerhouse Internazionale, the place where Matthäus would arise to the throne of the world’s best player.
The Italians were edged past during extra-time of the second leg, a 4-3 aggregate score enough to see Mönchengladbach through. Romania’s Universitatea Craiova and France’s Saint-Étienne were the next two sides attempting to stop Die Borussen’s dominance on the competition, but both ties were handled well by the experienced Germans. The semi-finals presented two all-German ties, still a unique experience in European football and it was under the bright-lights that Matthäus began to show his true quality.
Mönchengladbach narrowly lost the away leg to VfB Stuttgart, conceding two late goals to leave the tie balanced on a knife-edge. The return leg saw Matthäus step up to the plate as the ultimate complete midfielder, combining a diligent defensive performance in marking Hansi Müller, Stuttgart’s key man, out of the game with the opening goal, heading home a cross to give Die Borussen the lead again. The match ended 2-0, and the reward was a tie against Eintracht Frankfurt, a game that was considered an easier opportunity than a game against their bitter rivals Bayern Munich.
The first leg of the final was an open affair, with both teams trying to win the tie early on. Frankfurt took the lead, only for the more experienced side to bounce back within a few minutes. Frankfurt regained the lead with just twenty minutes to go, but Matthäus responded with a fine left-footed effort from the edge of the box before Christian Kulik added his second and his team’s third.
Typically, the second leg was a cagier contest, and the winner came with just ten minutes remaining. Unfortunately for Matthäus, that winner came for Frankfurt, with fellow 19-year-old Fred Schaub grabbing the decisive goal, with Die Adler emerging victorious on the away goals rule. It marked the end of Mönchengladbach’s stint towards the sharp end of European, and to an extent, German football, but the campaign served the purpose of announcing Matthäus to the watching world.
Such was the impact that the young Matthäus made in his professional season, he earned himself a place in the German national squad for the 1980 European Championships. His actual impact on the tournament was limited to a single substitute appearance during the 3-2 victory over the Netherlands, but the simple fact that Matthäus, after a single season of football, had played in a UEFA Cup final and won a European Championship was a testament to his quality and a sign of what was still to come.
The next few seasons were lean for Mönchengladbach, the side unable to continue their impressive form from the ‘70s forward into the new decade. Matthäus had cemented his place in the first-team during the intervening years, missing just two matches across four seasons. And yet, it was his form on the international stage that began to showcase his talent to a wider public.
The 1982 World Cup, held in Spain, was seen as a chance for West Germany to capture a third title. With a squad containing Paul Breitner, Hansi Müller, and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the Germans were amongst the favourites to lift the trophy. Ultimately, Matthäus’s impact was still limited during the tournament, only featuring as a substitute during the group stage in the victory against Chile and the infamous 1-0 victory against Austria.
The Germany team would reach the final, having edged past France on penalties in the semi-finals. The match against Italy would see both sides aiming to equal Brazil’s record of three titles, but it was ultimately the Italians that would triumph, comfortably winning 3-1. He was also a part of the squad for the 1984 European Championships, although it was a disappointing tournament with the Germans unable to progress past the group stage, being edged out by Portugal and Spain.
Yet, 1984 was perhaps the seminal moment of Matthäus’s career, but it was shrouded in controversy. Having narrowly missed out on winning the Bundesliga, finishing third on goal difference behind both Stuttgart and Hamburg, Die Borussen played the DFB-Pokal final against Bayern Munich for the chance to claim a title. Prior to the match, however, Matthäus announced that he would be leaving Mönchengladbach for the Bavarian club.
A cup final against the team that you have just announced that you will be transferring to would be bad enough, but when that match goes to penalties, the pressure gets ramped up even higher. Matthäus was the first Mönchengladbach player to take a penalty and, perhaps predictably, sent his spot-kick high over the bar. Bayern would go on to win 8-7 in the shootout, and some Die Borussen fans still believe that the miss was no accident. The accuracy of the claim can never be verified, but it certainly brought Matthäus’s career with the club to a close in colourful fashion.
Unsurprisingly, Matthäus’s first spell in Bavaria was littered with domestic titles, with the midfielder winning the Bundesliga in each of his first three seasons with Bayern. Matthäus was a highly effective midfield option, managing to chip in with 57 goals in his 113 games, a remarkable record for a midfielder. He also won a DFB-Pokal cup, going a step further with his new team than he could previously manage.
As is still the case for the Bayern fans and management, mere domestic success is not enough and they were being primarily judged on their performances against Europe’s elite in the European Cup. The first of Matthäus’s spell was spent in the Cup Winners’ Cup courtesy of their finish the previous season and Bayern appeared headed to more European success.
Comfortable victories against Moss (Norway), Trakia Plovdiv (Bulgaria) and Roma (Italy) had the fans dreaming of adding another trophy to the collection, but they were met by a strong Everton side in the semi-finals. A 0-0 draw in Munich was followed by a 3-1 defeat on Merseyside saw Bayern exit the tournament, leaving Matthäus still to make a proper impact on the European stage.
A first campaign in the European Cup followed a year later, but once again Matthäus flattered to deceive. A quarter-final exit to Anderlecht was a disappointing end to the campaign, with Matthäus only featuring three times. It was during the 1986-87 season that Matthäus began to exert his dominance on the highest stage.
The midfielder featured more this time around and was a key figure during the second round clash against Austria Wien, scoring the second in a 2-0 home victory. In the quarter-final re-match against Anderlecht, Bayern dominated with Matthäus dictating play from the middle of the pitch.
The semi-final brought a clash of two true heavyweights in the European game: Bayern Munich against Real Madrid. Bayern started the match on the front foot, scoring within the first 11 minutes. Matthäus was running the game and was the figure that truly inspired the victory, stepping up and converting from the penalty spot twice on the way to an emphatic 4-1 victory. Despite a 1-0 defeat in Madrid, Bayern had reached the European Cup final and were tasked with a seemingly straight-forward task against Porto.
All was going according to plan, with Bayern 1-0 ahead with just 11 minutes remaining. Then the unthinkable happened with Porto rallying to score two quick goals and stun the Bavarian club. For Matthäus it would represent a trend in European Cup finals, with him also suffering the same fate at the hands of Manchester United in 1999.
It was once again a near-miss in Matthäus’s career and that trend was also a feature of his international career during the decade. By the time the 1986 World Cup had came around, Matthäus was a key fixture of the Germany squad, featuring heavily across the tournament. He was the match-winner in the Round of 16 against Morocco, firing home the winner in the 88th minute and scored a penalty in the quarter-final shootout against hosts Mexico.
Having reached the final, Matthäus was given the task of trying to stop Argentina’s key man, Diego Maradona. The decision to employ him in this role was a testament to his supreme ability at all aspects of the game, but it blunted the creativity of the team, with Matthäus one of the key playmakers. Matthäus stuck to his task diligently, but Maradona was still able to assist the winning goal, condemning Germany to a second straight World Cup final loss.
Fast-forward two more years to the 1988 European Championships and Germany once again breezed through their group and were met with a semi-final clash against arch-rivals the Netherlands. Matthäus scored another penalty to give his side the lead and with just 15 minutes remaining Germany appeared to be headed to another final. A Ronald Koeman penalty and Marco Van Basten tap-in later and Germany, and more importantly Matthäus, had once again watched a lead disappear in the latter stages of the game.
It was a disappointing trend for the player who was clearly immensely talented and easily one of the best midfielders in the world. Since his professional debut in 1979, Matthäus had been a part of eight separate finals and a European Championship semi-finals, winning only one, in a game he never featured in, and giving up late leads in three of them.
The inability to get over the line in key matches was not negatively affecting the impression people had of Matthäus, and after four seasons in Munich, he departed for a new adventure, moving to Internazionale alongside team-mate Andreas Brehme. It offered the chance to test himself in the best league in the world, and their first season was a major success.
Internazionale cruised to the Scudetto, winning the league by 11 points and also claiming the Italian Supercup. It was a spell for Matthäus that saw him truly confirm himself as the best midfielder player, and simply the best player in the world and his spell in Italy was a truly fruitful one. The following season saw I Nerazzurri slip to third in the league, but the German was just warming up for the true crowning glory of his career.
Heading into the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Matthäus had risen to be the captain of the German team and was determined to go one step further than the previous two iterations. Matthäus led the team from the front, scoring two goals in the opening 4-1 victory over Yugoslavia. The first knockout round saw the Germans avenge their 1988 semi-final defeat to the Netherlands, a 2-1 victory enough to ensure victory.
The quarter-final against Czechoslovakia saw Matthäus again provide the inspiration for his side, with his early penalty the decisive moment of the game. The semi-final against England is well-known throughout the English press, but Matthäus played a solid game in midfield, a secure presence and one of the scorers in the penalty shootout.
A re-match against Argentina was perhaps the perfect final for the Germans. A proper chance to avenge the loss from four years earlier. Befitting the whole tournament, the match was largely disappointing. It was a match consistently broken up by fouls, the game becoming the first World Cup final with two sendings off. A late Andreas Brehme penalty was enough to decide the game and it marked the perfect end to the decade for Matthäus.
Whilst many remember Matthäus as the dominant force of the Bayern Munich and German teams of the 1990s, his career was made during the 1980s. From the beginning of his career with Borussia Mönchengladbach to lifting the World Cup trophy as captain of his country, it was certainly a remarkable run for arguably the perfect midfielder.
YOU CAN FIND MORE OF MICHAEL'S WORK FOR FOOTBALL CHRONICLE HERE