Ian Plenderleith outlines the chances of Lothar Matthaus being left out of Germany's World Cup squad
The recall of Lothar Matthäus to the German World Cup squad is not just remarkable because the 37-year-old will become only the second player ever to appear in five World Cup finals. More surprising is the fact that less than a year ago Matthäus was completely ostracised by the German footballing establishment,
Berti Vogts had vowed he would never pick him again for the nat-ional team, and fans and media alike were relentlessly lampooning him as an egotistical chump whose every utterance served to confirm his imbecility.
Matthäus possesses such a huge ego that he even manages to overshadow a large array of mammoth arrogance across the German game – from the irascible Stefan Effenberg to the big-mouthed moaners like Andy Möller and Mario Basler. This was manifested in his hilarious My Diary‚ an account of Bay-ern’s 1996-97 championship-winning season published last summer, a tome combining lengthy passages of Terry Major-Ballesque banality with underhand bitchiness and extremes of self-righteousness.
That he slated his Bayern team-mates in print surprised few people, and reading the book leaves you in no doubt why, during that season, they rebelled against Matthäus and had him stripped of the captaincy. Long rumoured to be the mole in the dressing room leaking titbits to the German gutter-rag Bild (his book was ghosted by two Bild employees), Matthäus’s blabbering was at least partially behind months of internal strife which left the rest of the Bundesliga laughing down its sleeve, and sweetened what for all German fans outside Bavaria is the most unbearable end to the season – Bayern taking the title.
Matthäus, of course, saw his sacking as incomprehensible. And throughout his book he cannot understand what all the fuss is about, just because he talked to a couple of journalists and “said what I was thinking”. But should a Klinsmann or a Basler criticise the team or the trainer in public, well, then Lothar is most indignant. Of course they can have their opinions, but they always express them at the wrong moment or to the wrong people. And what they’re saying is completely wrong too. Matthäus may hold a record number of German caps, but this hasn’t stopped radio and TV shows mercilessly satirising his book, his Bavarian pronunciations and his thin-skinned stupidity. One television show composed a song showing Lothar on a sunbed backed by the mournful lyrics: “I’ve got this whole summer free/In France they’ll play without me.” And with Matthäus himself having huffily declared: “For me the national team is no longer an issue, and I’m happy about that,” there seemed little reason to believe that the mockers had got it wrong.
Lothar was originally thrown out of the national side when he publicly declared in his usual oafish manner that he had been the victim of a Klinsmann plot to steal the German captaincy off him behind his back. Berti Vogts declared this ludicrous and rightly dumped him in the interests of intra-team harmony, then when questioned after a soulless German performance at home to Northern Ireland in the qualifiers during 1996 stated: “Matthäus will never again play in this national side.”
Vogts now denies he ever made this well-documented assertion, but he has his reasons. When Matthias Sammer declared himself unfit and Olaf Thon’s participation was cast into doubt by injury late in the season, the media – especially Bild and its televisual brother, the private channel SAT1 – launched a national campaign to reinstate Matthäus as sweeper.
At first Vogts stood firm, but in German football nothing ever happens without Franz Beckenbauer lurking in the background. Beckenbauer is one of Matthäus’s biggest advocates and, while no one would suggest that Berti fits neatly into Franz’s blazer pocket, it wasn’t long before Vogts declared that he would be going away for a weekend to have a ”long, hard think” about Lothar’s recall (with the Kaiser probably standing behind him with a hammer to test just how hard his thinking was).
Matthäus, meanwhile, had suddenly begun playing the good boy and saying he would step up to help the national side out “if they need me”, quite forgetting remarks made last year like: “I ran my arse off for five years in the national team for Berti Vogts. But you don’t get any thanks. I don’t need the national team any more.” Or, during Euro 96, when he said: “Retiring from the national side was the cleverest decision I made in 17 years as a professional.”
The annoying thing is that both this season and last he has been in superb form as Bayern sweeper, and rates alongside Effenberg (also still banned by strict Berti) as the best ball-player in the Bundesliga.
Despite his beer-swilling buffoonery it is hard to begrudge him a final glorious stage to end his career on, and there is no doubt he deserves his place in the squad more than most. At the same time, if it all goes wrong for Germany there is a certain voyeuristic anticipation among neutrals as to who will be first to bleat to the press about the deficiencies of his team-mates. When Vogts announced his squad he said that the Bayern sweeper had “matured” (about bloody time at 37), and that after consulting with other players he had decided that Matthäus would not be “a disturbing factor” in the German squad. Klinsmann has largely kept quiet on the matter, apart from granting his rival “sporting respect”, and making the right noises at a half-hearted press conference where both claimed all grievances were secondary to winning the big one.
Maybe ‘Klinsi’ will forget that Matthäus bet 10,000 marks against him scoring 15 goals in the Bundesliga while they were still team-mates at Bayern. Or that when Klinsmann announced he was leaving Bayern, Matthäus quipped: “Let travellers travel.” And maybe Germany will get knocked out before the final and they’ll all fly home holding hands and saying: “We’re just happy to have taken part.”
From WSC 137 July 1998. What was happening this month