A veteran of five World Cups, Germany’s winning captain in 1990 & holder of most international caps for Die Mannschaft (150), Lothar Matthaus is an iconic star of world football. Here in the country as part of the Bundesliga Legends Tour, the 57-year-old held court as the guest sports editor for The Times of India on Wednesday in his unique style.
What does it take to play five World Cups?
You have to work very hard, particularly when you have injuries like me. I had about 11 or 12 operations in my life, but always had the motivation and passion to come back. After bad results, bad seasons, injuries, I was motivated, and that helped me play for 20 years at the highest level.
Until the last World Cup in Russia, you were the only outfield player to play in five World Cups. Now that Rafael Marquez has matched that, do you think anyone will break that record and play in six World Cups, particularly with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo already playing four?
It’s very difficult. It’s about fitness and agility. Today the teams have so much more. When I started, there used to be a coach, two masseurs and a bus driver with the team. I used to get proper practice twice a week — Tuesday and Thursday. The remaining days, I would play in the park, streets, square. Today, there’s so much more.
Was holding aloft the World Cup in 1990 the most memorable moment of your career?
It was a great feeling not only for me, but also for German football. Sure. I was happy, I was proud; it’s the biggest title you can win as a team in world football. When you win the World Cup, it is great, but when you win the World Cup as captain, it is greater. What made it more special was that we fought for each other. It is not easy when you have 23 players. You will have a scenario where 11 starting players will be very happy and the other 12 not so happy. You have to make them happy. We also had Franz Beckenbauer as coach who could communicate in a frank manner face to face so that every player knew very well what his position was. That was one of the big reasons why we won the World Cup. It was also the No.1 moment for me because the tournament was staged in Italy, where I was playing for Inter Milan. Our base in Italy was just 13 kms from where I lived. My family was living only five minutes away from our base. In Mumbai, it would definitely take two hours to cover that distance!
The penalty that Brehme won in the 1990 final was quite controversial. Do you think it was fair?
I will never give such a penalty in the World Cup final, if it is not a clear penalty. But the referee didn’t give one clear penalty 15 or 20 minutes earlier when their goalkeeper, Sergio Goycochea, committed a foul against Klaus Augenthaler. May be 20 minutes later, the referee thought of a compromise. In a World Cup final, you have to be very sure if you are awarding a penalty or ruling someone offside.
In his autobiography, Diego Maradona mentioned you as the toughest player he played against. What are your views about Maradona?
Maradona was the best player in the world, especially during the 1986 World Cup. We played against each other a lot. We played two World Cup finals against each other and also in the Serie A where he played for Napoli and I played for Inter. It was competition at the highest level whenever we met on the pitch. It’s nice to hear that Maradona said this about me. For me, Maradona was the best player. The 1986 was his World Cup just like 1970 was Pele’s and 2002 was Ronaldo’s. Maradona was magic in 1986. But in 1990, he was not as good as he was four years ago.
How did you prepare yourself for the role of marking Maradona in the 1986 final?
When you have the job of marking a player like Maradona, you have to be ready and alert in your head. You cannot go off to sleep even for a fraction of a second. If he went to the restroom, you had to follow him. He was very fast with the ball. Even if you gave him the smallest of space to pass the ball, he would find it. He was also excellent at dribbling and shooting. You have to know beforehand what he is about to do. If you find out what he is doing when he is actually doing it, it is too late.
The culture and stature of German football is legendary. But we don’t see larger-than-life German footballers. Like how, Maradona or Messi have been to Argentina; Beckham in England. In Germany’s case, it’s always the team. Is that a conscious effort?
We have very big names from Germany. We have Franz Beckenbauer and others. But maybe, we don’t like to show it like Maradona. We are quieter, relaxed, and calmer. That also makes the difference. Maradona was always — on or off the field — making headlines. Like, for instance, six months ago, during the World Cup, I didn’t like what I saw of Maradona. I have had lot of fun with him on and off the field, he’s a very nice guy. But during the World Cup, I didn’t feel good.
You are a legend in German football, someone who played in two World Cup finals and led the team to the title in 1990. But it appears you didn’t get the recognition you deserved with players refusing to be in the same team with you at the 1996 Euro Championship. Are you a rebel with a difference?
You always have a few jealous players. I had two-three players who were against me. Everybody has a little bit of ego; one likes to be captain, another leader. In 1995, when I was injured for a year, they tried to get me out. The coach was doing this too, but in the end, it was a good decision from the coach because six months later they won the European Championship. In the end, they made the right decision, but the way (it was done) was not correct. This is football. I’m not angry; for me it was not fair, but this was their character. But I came back to the team, played the fifth World Cup and stayed till 2000 with the national team.
What do you feel are the problems hurting the German national team at the moment?
I think at the World Cup we made mistakes, the coach made mistakes. Even before the World Cup, I had said that Joachim Loew had to find a better mix, between the youngsters and the World Cup winners from 2014. But he believed in his players when maybe their career was not at the top. Many of these players were not at their highest level in Russia. I don’t think he made the right changes before the World Cup and he didn’t find the right system for the team. There were problems, for example Ozil, but that was not the only one. Maybe the team’s passion was not sharp enough to stay motivated to make it happen again. In Moscow, there was not a unified German team. There were groups in the team.
What do you make of the Mesut Ozil racism saga?
Mesut Ozil is doing just what he likes to do. He didn’t give the answer as to why he was doing this (posing with Turkey President Erdogan). As fans, they wanted to know why he was not living according to our system and why he is living according to another system. The fans in Germany wanted to know why he is doing this. But he shut up and said nothing. And this was the problem which also plagued the team during the (2018) World Cup. Because it was always coming from outside. The players don’t like it. They like to focus on the training sessions, for the games but instead they ended up facing the same question about Ozil in the media conferences. For this many players were upset. This disturbed the team spirit of Germany during the World Cup.
Which of the three German teams (1974, 1990 and 2014) would you term the greatest one?
When I remember the 1974 World Cup final, I think Holland was a better team. When I remember the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil and I was in the stadium, I feel Argentina was a better team. Only in 1990, we were the better team. In 1954, when I was not born, I have heard that the Hungarian team with Puskas was the best team.
With the players getting more protection from the referee these days, has it contributed to more playacting from the players?
I am happy that the referees give more protection to the players today. It has made football more attractive because when I started playing, we could kill somebody and still not get a red card. Today, they think about the health of the players and it’s a good move from Fifa. But when I was playing, our coaches used to tell us, ‘Hey, when you get a chance, kill him a little bit. Show that you are on the field, he has to feel you. If you are unable to get the ball, at least get his feet.’ Now, with new rules and technology like VAR, it is good for football.
Everything now gets magnified, thanks to social media. How different would it be if you were part of the social media set-up?
I’m very happy I don’t play anymore. You can’t have a private life. I’m German but I live in Budapest (Hungary) because there, I have a private life. The people know me. I was the national coach there (2004-2007). When I go out, they recognise me, but they give me privacy. They give me peace to eat, drink, talk to my friends and family. Nobody disturbs me. When I’m in Germany, everybody wants something from me. When I’m sitting in a restaurant, everybody’s looking at me: they’re looking at what I’m eating, what I’m drinking, for how long I’m sitting. That’s why I’m happy to be living in Hungary and happy I played in a different time. Only the salary can make me a little bit jealous!
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been in a record-breaking spree for the past 7-8 years. Do you think they are benefitting from the lack of quality of today’s defenders?
Sure, for the offenders it is a little easier now than 20 years ago because the referees care about them. They have so much quality, they would make the same difference 20 years ago. Messi is known for his intelligent football, while Ronaldo is a different player. I prefer the style of Messi but Ronaldo is a robot. When he gets the chance to score, he’ll score. He is more straight, Messi is more elegant with his dribbling, his passes. He’s more foxy, while Ronaldo is more powerful. I prefer the style of Messi more and I am not against Ronaldo. When I am a coach, I want both in my team.
Why doesn’t Germany produce a Ronaldo or a Messi?
Team spirit is always the for Germany. You look at the Golden Ball every year, where are the Germans? Nowhere. But if you look at the World Cups before this one, we were mostly one of the best teams and we always had good players. Argentina depends on Messi, Portugal on Ronaldo, but Germany does not depend on a single player.
After 13 matches, Bayern Munich are placed fourth, nine points behind league leaders Dortmund. While that is bad for Bayern Munich, is it good for the Bundesliga?
Bayern Munich did not make the right changes before the season. They were thinking they had a good time in the last six years and they can do it again with the same players. You need to change. Dortmund have been preparing well. Now they have a perfect team. Hopefully, Bayern will wake up. It’s good for the Bundesliga that there’s a high level of competition.
In club football, the only trophy that eluded you was the Champions League. Does it haunt you?
What can I say? This is football. You learn a lot from every bad result. Like against Manchester United in the 1999 final, my team felt safe until the 91st minute. United were nowhere in the game till then and they had two corner kicks and scored two goals. This is football and this makes the game so interesting. Never be sure you win until the final whistle. I learnt this lesson from this game.
What do you think of Fifa’s decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar?
You can make better decisions. I’m not against Qatar, but Qatar is a very small country. They don’t have footballing history, but they have money, and when it comes to Fifa, money is talking. Qatar is too small for 48 teams. Please, don’t do it. 32 is enough.
What about the World Cup expansion to 48 teams?
I’m not a fan. I like to see a high level of competition. Before the final round, it’s ok if you have a playoff. Otherwise it will become like the Champions League where during the group stages, you know more or less which two teams will advance. We want to see quality games at the World Cup. I don’t want to see Slovenia play Slovakia.
Are you open to the idea of coaching in India in the Indian Super League?
Four or five years ago, one agency was calling me as manager or coach in India but I had so many contracts that I didn’t take it up. It was a very interesting project. I saw (on Tuesday) the ISL game between Kerala (Blasters) and Jamshedpur; it was a good game. The teams had good speed and technique. Not the same level like in Germany but I think the base is ready to have better results, produce better players. Now, India is playing at the Asian Cup (2019). Ten years from now, you will probably play the World Cup. You have the potential, you have good foreign coaches and kids who are interested in football.