Dynamic, physically imposing and with a fierce will to win, Lothar Matthaus embodied the traditional strengths of German footballers. At the heart of his country's triumph at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™, Germany's third world crown, the midfielder wrote his own fairy tale when he lifted the Trophy as captain in Rome.
A combative central midfielder, Matthaus is considered one of the finest footballers of his generation and achieved almost everything during a career as long and storied as it was successful. Having made 150 appearances, he remains Germany's most-capped player and boasts countless honours to go alongside the World Cup: Matthaus won UEFA EURO 1980, was a World Cup runner-up twice and lifted eight league titles across Germany and Italy (seven with Bayern Munich and one with Inter Milan). In addition to that, in 1991 Matthaus was chosen as FIFA World Player of the Year - to this day, the only German to have won the award.
Now 56, Matthaus played in a record 25 World Cup games during his career. He featured at every tournament from 1982 until 1998, and is one of only three players - and the only outfield player - to have been part of five separate editions of the global showpiece. The others are Mexican goalkeeper Antonio Carbajal (1950 until 1966) and the still-active Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon (1998 until 2014).
"It was a fantastic career, which makes me proud to this day," said Matthaus in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "Of course, it's particularly nice when you hold these records as an individual player, because they were really down to the strength of the team. It won't be easy to beat these records because it really does depend on the team around you. Buffon could play his sixth World Cup: he's a sportsman through and through and always conducts himself well on the field. One can only wish that in Russia he sets a new all-time record."
Matthaus' first memories of the World Cup date from 1966: as a five-year-old, he followed the tournament on a black-and-white television and celebrated as the Germans progressed to the Final, where they eventually lost 4-2 to hosts England after extra time. Matthaus made his first appearance at a World Cup 16 years later.
1982 FIFA World Cup Spain™ (Runners-up)
"I was a little bit of a spare part really. I'd been in good form and just tried to give it my all in training. It was the veterans who had the final say, though, and I also came from Borussia Monchengladbach, a club less well regarded than Cologne or Bayern Munich. It was tough, as a young player, to get a chance. On the whole, the team didn't actually play that well, and so getting to the Final was quite an achievement. We got **ter as the tournament progressed and it was a great experience to be at a World Cup, although in truth, it was little more than that at that stage."
1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™ (Runners-up)
"This tournament was quite an experience. Mexico and Italy are countries where you can almost taste the atmosphere from the teeming stands when you're on the field, and that's a real motivation for a player. The people were very friendly and totally obsessed with football. It was a fantastic World Cup and – after 1990 – the highlight of my career. Sometimes we were playing in 40-degree heat, but we managed to get to the Final with a side that was solid and average at best. We certainly weren't one of the favourites coming into the tournament and so winning it might have been a step too far."
1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™ (Winners)
"Winning the World Cup was just the most emotional experience. At the time I was living and playing in Italy, and so it almost felt like a home tournament for me. Our first games were played in what felt like my living room – the San Siro in Milan! By the end, it wasn't just the German fans supporting us, but the Italian fans too. Rudi Voller, who was at Roma, was also playing in the Final [against Argentina] and Italy had been knocked out by Argentina, so the whole stadium was behind us. Germans talk nowadays about the summer fairy tale of 2006, but this was my summer fairy tale. And it had a happy ending too."
1994 FIFA World Cup USA™ (Quarter-Finals)
"In the USA, we had a team that could have defended the World Cup. But as it was, we had too many leaders and strong characters. Perhaps the coach, Berti Vogts, struggled to cope slightly. There were one or two problems within the group and he didn't necessarily provide the calm hand that was needed. The players had a bit too much freedom and the focus wasn't as much on the football as it should have been. It's nothing against Berti Vogts, but he just didn't have things quite under control."
1998 FIFA World Cup France™ (Quarter-Finals)
"It was just a thrown-together collection of players in 1998. There was no real team. The togetherness that we had in 1986 or 1990 just wasn't there. We played, but there was never the feeling on the field that we were a real team that wanted to achieve success together. We were happy to settle for less. Against Croatia [in the quarter-finals], we played what was probably our best game – strange as it sounds – and all that while we were down to ten men. We did want it somehow, but it wasn't really enough."
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