20 years in the national team, a European Champion in 1980, World Champion in 1990, seven-time German champion and two-time Pokal winner. Lothar Matthäus’ list of honours is a long one. Now a TV pundit, the world champion discusses his incredible playing days, his steps into the world of coaching and what made his career so special. He turns 60 on Sunday, but the number isn’t affecting him one bit.
DFB.de: Mr. Matthäus, you are now 60 years old. How important are birthdays to you?
Lothar Matthäus: In years gone by, birthdays have been valuable because they are a welcome opportunity to meet up with my friends. I live in Hungary now so I see them less often. That makes it even better when we can spend time together. I fondly remember many cosy evenings and nights which started out surrounded by family and ended up as a gathering of lads. Last year, such a get-together was not possible due to the coronavirus, so we made up for it in summer. I hope that we will be able to do that this year as well.
DFB.de: Does being 60 have any special meaning for you? Are you scared when you think about this number?
Matthäus: No, not at all. Absolutely not. I’m not scared because I don’t feel 60. I’m healthy, everything is good with me and I am in good shape. You can’t change your biological age and I’m in my 60s now, but nothing changes for me. I won’t live my life any differently because I’m now 60 and not 59. I found a good mix myself; I value my health and I go running every day but I don’t overdo it and I know to enjoy life.
DFB.de: Joachim Löw has confirmed that he will leave his role as Germany head coach after Euro 2021. Your name often comes up as a potential candidate to succeed him. A few years ago, that would’ve been more difficult to imagine. Your public image was... somewhat in need of improvement. The speculation linking you with the Germany role underlines how much that has changed. How much does that matter to you?
Matthäus: I really don’t want to point the finger at others. I know that I made mistakes and contributed to my own poor reputation. Small mistakes became big mistakes, and big mistakes became scandals. I had to learn to get on with it.
DFB.de: Why was that?
Matthäus: When I was 20, I enjoyed plenty of time on the big stage. For two and a half decades, my career was one long success story with only small setbacks. I had to learn that some people are just waiting for something bad to happen. I didn’t find it tough. It’s absolutely not the case that I need this for my spirit, but I’ll admit that it’s nice to read that people would trust me with the job.
DFB.de: You’ve been a coach at Rapid Vienna, Partizan Belgrade, Atlético Paranaense, Red Bull Salzburg and Maccabi Netanya, as well as the head coach of Hungary and Bulgaria. How satisfied are you with your career as a coach?
Matthäus: I haven’t managed Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona or Bayern Munich. But I’ve almost always made the most of the opportunities I was given. The expectations were constantly high due to my success as a player. There have been people who hoped that we would win the Champions League with Partizan, or qualify immediately for the World Cup with Hungary. I didn’t fulfill those expectations, but they weren’t realistic and they weren’t things that I had promised.
DFB.de: Which coaching role had the biggest impact for you?
Matthäus: All of them. (laughs) With Partizan for example, we were champions of Serbia. That wasn’t a surprise, but to progress against a strong Newcastle side in the Champions League qualifiers and make it to the group stage - that was a big shock. The board were shocked too. They had written a huge bonus into my contract which really hurt them. (laughs) It might sound cocky, but I think all of the teams I’ve worked for have benefitted from my work. Rapid were champions two times after I left, for example. A lot of players who I uncovered in the youth team or the second division contributed to that.
DFB.de: Why do you think that the German public has taken more notice of the missteps than the success? Is it a German phenomenon to want to see stars fall?
Matthäus: I don’t know if it’s exclusively a German thing, but it is definitely a thing in Germany, sadly. I’m just one example of it. It’s more extreme for Boris Becker. We woke up in the middle of the night to watch him play tennis, we idolised him. Franz Beckenbauer, who gave our nation more than basically anybody else, is another example. Nobody gets a free pass because they were a good athlete, but here and there I would like a bit more perspective and less desire to feed off our stars’ problems.
DFB.de: Are there any decisions you regret from your coaching career?
Matthäus: Only a few. I don’t regret going to Belgrade, I don’t regret taking over as Hungary boss. I had a good time in Israel.
DFB.de: You terminated your contract after only one season at Maccabi Netanya.
Matthäus: I still don’t regret going there. I always ask people to take a closer look. It’s easy to see my year there as a failure but they were in the midst of a financial crisis back then, and the owner sold the club. Then the purse strings were tightened. Looking back, I only made one truly big error in my time as a coach.
DFB.de: Which was?
Matthäus: Brazil. I was the first European who was allowed to coach in the top division there. That was an honour for me. But I cut ties after just two months even though we hadn’t lost a single competitive match in that time. I still regret that today. There were personal reasons back then, and the president understood, but it’s still a mistake. It still troubles me and so I’m even more grateful that the warmth of the Brazilian people hasn’t changed towards me.
DFB.de: Your career as a player was even greater than that as a coach. You are among the best players of all time both in Germany and the world. You played many big games, and many of them very well. Which of your 150 caps was the second best?
Matthäus: Why do you ask for the second best?
DFB.de: Because the best is obvious: the 4-1 win over Yugoslavia in the group stage of Italia 90.
Matthäus: Correct. The second best is hard to say. Off the top of my head, I like a game from the 1986 World Cup. We played the hosts, Mexico, in the quarterfinals and progressed after a penalty shootout. It was goalless after 90 minutes. There was no huge result, no dream goals, but it was really intense. A lot of things went right for me and I had plenty of good moments. I felt good the whole time and just had an unbelievable amount of fun on the pitch. I converted my penalty in the shootout, too. That game is definitely on my personal list of my best matches.
DFB.de: Which game was most important for your development as a national team player?
Matthäus: They were all important. Especially so was the tour of South America in 1982, with games against Brazil and Argentina. It was 39 years ago today, on my 21st birthday, and we played in front of 170,000 fans at the Maracanã. That was the biggest crowd I ever saw. That game, and the one against Argentina shortly after, were the first highlights of my international career. They were the first games that I started for Germany.
DFB.de: You were always a goal-threat at club level, but for Germany you didn’t score until your 33rd cap.
Matthäus: That’s right, my first goal came in April 1985 against Czechoslovakia. I obviously wanted to score my first goal, it was about time. It was a volley in Prague, a nice goal after a cross from Thomas Berthold. That match was a turning point in my Germany career. Obviously you get more recognition when you contribute directly to success, but more important at that time was the trust that Franz Beckenbauer was putting in me. I was also a Bayern player by that point, which helped my standing within the team.
DFB.de: What was the best decision you made in your time playing for Germany?
Matthäus: That one is obvious: the decision not to take the penalty in the 1990 World Cup final. I had learned from the 1984 Pokal final, when I missed a penalty that I didn’t want to take. I was stronger in 1990 and could have taken on the responsibility. It’s often said that I was scared and bottled it, but that’s not correct. First of all I wasn’t scared, I was a good penalty taker and I had already scored safely in the quarterfinals and semifinals. Normally there would have been no reason not to take it, but in the final I had to change my boots and didn’t feel 100% confident with the new ones. It would have been crazy and selfish to take it myself. As sure as the sky is blue, I knew that Andi Brehme would score. Not only him, but there were also two or three others who I was confident would withstand the pressure. It would have been irresponsible to take a penalty that I didn’t want to take.
DFB.de: You made 150 appearances for Germany, making you the most-capped German player of all time. What does that mean to you?
Matthäus: It just sort of happened. (laughs) I had the privilege of playing football at a high level for a long period of time and I still had enough to keep going at an older age. I do feel satisfaction because many people wrote me off after my injuries and said I wouldn’t be able to come back. Playing football was the thing that brought me the greatest happiness and I am very glad that I was able to do so for so long. It was, and still is, my biggest passion and my greatest love. Playing for Germany was the highlight of my career, and there could not be anything more beautiful to me than pulling on the shirt.
DFB.de: Can you see your record being broken?
Matthäus: Very few records last forever. A good example of that is Robert Lewandowski, who very much looks as though he is going to beat Gerd Müller's record of 40 goals in a Bundesliga season. I’m sure my record will be broken one day, but it doesn’t look like that day is close. Manuel Neuer probably has the best chance of beating me. If he can keep up his current level for four or five years, he could overtake me.
DFB.de: Your successors in the Germany team have an important competition coming up this summer in the European Championship. Taking into account the character of the team and the quality of the players, what do you think the team is capable of?
Matthäus: German football and the Germany national team continue to have a good reputation around the world, and rightly so. We shouldn’t talk ourselves down. Naturally it was a big setback when the team was eliminated in the group stages of the 2018 World Cup but that doesn’t change the fact that nobody will be wanting to play against us. We are feared and respected because of the quality and mentality of our players. There have been a few more setbacks recently and mistakes have been made, and as a consequence the results haven’t been going our way sometimes. However, I would say that Germany is not alone in terms of going through tough periods. One thing is clear to me though, and that is that we cannot and must not excuse our defeats with the defeats of others. The national team must deliver, and I believe it can deliver.
DFB.de: What makes you optimistic?
Matthäus: I believe that Joachim Löw's decision to end his career as national team coach after the European Championship has been made at the right time. Everyone concerned now has clarity and a potentially difficult debate has been averted. Aside from that, I’m confident in the quality that we have in the squad currently. Many players play for the biggest clubs in the best leagues across Europe. Naturally I think we can do well at the Euros.
DFB.de: Germany face Portugal, France, and Hungary in the group stages of the European Championship. What are your thoughts on this group?
Matthäus: I think it’s a very good thing that Germany will be challenged right from the beginning and won’t run the risk of underestimating any opponents. We have to be focused right from the first second of the first game, but I’m confident that they will be. We have three home games as well which is a big advantage. I’m sure that if the right players are selected and perform well, we can get through the group and go far in the competition.
DFB.de: Who are the right players in your opinion?
Matthäus: My view on this is well known but it always depends on how the team lines up, tactically speaking. At the Confederations Cup, the back three of Niklas Süle, Antonio Rüdiger and Matthias Ginter worked very well. Of course, playing in this formation would mean that other positions are impacted, in which case Joshua Kimmich might have to play a different role. There’s a lot for Joachim Löw to take into account and consider. As fans, we can watch which options he decides to take and then tell him afterwards whether his choices were the right ones or the wrong ones. (laughs)