SempreInter.com – Critty Smith’s #InterLegends: Lothar Matthäus – The Definition Of “A Complete Player”
My first memories of football were watching the German National Team win the 1990 World Cup with my Dad in Augsburg, Germany. The team was captained by then Inter superstar Lothar Matthäus. Though another German player for Inter actually scored the cup-winning goal (Andreas Brehme), Matthäus was the biggest star for Franz Beckenbauer’s side. He left Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich after the 1987-88 season to come to FC Internazionale Milano. Rarely has a player made as smooth a transition to a new club, much less a new league, as Matthäus. Come join me on this ride, re-living my childhood as well as capturing the greatness of this truly iconic player, Lothar “Der Panzer” Matthäus.
Where does one start when talking about Lothar Matthäus? 150 caps for Germany (most in history), European Champion, World Champion, seven Bundesliga titles, two German Cups, two UEFA Cups, one Scudetto, the 1990 Ballon d’Or, and the only German player to be named the FIFA World Player of the Year (1991). And these are only a handful of his many accolades.
Being that this is SempreInter, we are going to be focusing on the four magnificent years Matthäus spent with Inter (1988-1992), which were sandwiched in between two brilliant stints with Bayern Munich (1984-1988 / 1992-2000). Matthäus was part of a German “Serie A invasion” in the late 1980s, as five members of the 1990 World Cup-winning Germany squad played in Italy at the time.
Before the arrival of Matthäus at Inter in 1988, the Nerazzurri had gone almost a decade without winning the Scudetto, and were coming off of a fifth-placed finish in 1987-88, 15 points behind champions and arch-rivals AC Milan. Help was on the way though in the form of one of Germany’s greatest exports.
At the time, Matthäus was widely considered as one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the world. He was as comfortable in the opponents’ penalty box as he was his own. Armed with a powerful shot, excellent positioning, an uncanny ability to read the game, as well as being a highly-skilled passer, Matthäus was the very definition of the term “complete player.”
In 1988 as Lothar Matthäus, Andreas Brehme, and one year later, Jürgen Klinsmann joined Inter, Serie A was the best professional football league in the world. It had the best players, the best teams and the best managers. The years from the mid-1980s until the mid 1990s was the “Golden Age” of Italian calcio. It was a proving ground for the world’s elite players. For Matthäus especially, it was an invitation to cement himself as an all-time great. An invitation he simply could not turn down.
During those years Serie A clubs were only allowed three non-Italian nationals. Inter manager Giovanni Trapattoni had to be very selective when shopping outside of Italy’s borders. The Matthäus – Brehme – Klinsmann trio would end up being one of the greatest to ever feature in the Italian top flight.
After having won 13 honors with Juventus before his appointment at Inter, Trapattoni was tasked with closing the gap between the Nerazzurri and their two most-hated rivals, Juventus and Milan. The 1988-89 season would be year three of his rebuild. After finishing in third and fifth-place during his first two seasons, Inter supporters were getting hungry for more.
The impact of Matthäus was felt almost immediately. He modified his play at Inter from what people had grown used to from his days at Bayern. In a league where relentless defense ruled, it was imperative to have a creative player in your midfield who could make everyone around him better. This was a crucial requirement if you had any hopes of competing for the Scudetto. Matthäus elevated his play and became precisely that for Trapattoni’s Inter.
While personally scoring nine goals during the 1988-89 Serie A campaign, it was teammate Aldo Serena who would benefit most from Matthäus’ play-making abilities. Serena had managed to score 16 goals in his two previous seasons (1986-87 – 10 / 1987-88 – 6). Thanks in large part to the service he received from Lothar Matthäus, Serena won the 1988-89 Capocannoniere, scoring 22 goals in his 32 league appearances.
The additions of Andreas Brehme and especially Lothar Matthäus were the missing ingredients for Trapattoni, who had finally written the perfect recipe for Inter to conquer the Serie A. The Nerazzurri would secure their first Scudetto since 1980 on May 28, 1989, with five match days to spare, following a 2-1 win over Ottavio Bianchi’s Napoli.
Inter finished the 1988-89 campaign having collected a total of 58 points (the record for an 18-team Serie A and during which two points were earned for a win). Due to several rule changes, most notably points earned per win and the expansion of the league to 20 teams, this record will likely stand for eternity. Inter’s first loss did not come until match day 17 against Fiorentina. They would lose only once more giving them a final tally of 26 wins, 6 draws, and 2 losses.
The 1989-90 season would see Inter add another German International, Jürgen Klinsmann. The Matthäus – Brehme – Klinsmann trio would play a large part in Germany’s World Cup victory during the summer of 1990. However, their first mission as a unit was to help Inter repeat as Italian champions for the first time since 1965-66.
Unfortunately, this would not come to pass. Despite many brilliant efforts from Trapattoni’s squad, they simply lacked the consistency to keep pace with Milan and eventual champions Napoli. For Matthäus personally, the 1989-90 campaign was a huge success. He scored eleven goals in league competition while assisting eight. 1990 would be the year that would see Lothar Matthäus become a household name.
Despite scoring an impressive four goals on Germany’s path to a triumph at the World Cup, it was his incredible defending in the final against Argentina that would give him iconic status. Germany manager Franz Beckenbauer tasked Matthäus with man-marking perhaps the greatest offensive player in the history of the sport, Diego Armando Maradona.
It was the swarming defense of Matthäus that essentially nullified Maradona. Lothar displayed his incredible versatility to the fullest on the grandest stage in sport. Germany would defeat Argentina thanks to Inter-teammate Andreas Brehme’s late penalty, but it was Matthäus’ efforts against the most dangerous scoring threat on the planet which truly won them the match.
Every great composer has their masterpiece. Every great band has that one iconic album. In the world of football it is often times one incredible year that separates you from the pack and propels you to becoming a legend. For Lothar Matthäus that year was 1990. As a new decade began a new hero was born. In recognition of his efforts over the previous 12 months, Matthäus was awarded the Ballon d’Or on Christmas Day, 1990. This would legitimize him as the best player in the world.
Matthäus’ finest hour from a purely statistical perspective came during the 1990-91 season. He scored 23 goals in 46 matches across all competitions. In league play he finished with 16 goals which resulted in him falling three shy of winning the Capocannoniere. The award would go to Sampdoria’s Gianluca Vialli. Appropriately, Sampdoria would win their first and only Serie A title that season, five points clear of Milan and Inter.
Though Inter were unable to reclaim the domestic crown, a different piece of silverware would await them at the conclusion of this season. The 1990-91 UEFA Cup was a highly-contested tournament. At that time, the UEFA Champions League did not exist in its current format, resulting in far more European superpowers actually playing in the “little brother competition” to the European Cup.
Inter would face Serie A rivals Roma for the UEFA Cup crown over a two-leg final fixture. In the previous ten matches leading up to the final Matthäus was nothing short of brilliant. He scored five goals as he led Inter through a near-perfect European campaign.
Roma were able to defeat Inter 1-0 at the Stadio Olympico, ending their ten match European unbeaten run. It would not matter though, as the first leg at the San Siro would see Inter defeat Roma 2-0, with Matthäus opening the scoring through a successful penalty kick in the 55th minute. Inter would defeat Roma 2-1 on aggregate and claim European silverware for the first time in 26 years.
As a result of what may have been his most productive year as a professional, Lothar Matthäus was named the 1991 FIFA World Player of the Year.
Following the 1990-91 campaign Giovanni Trapattoni would leave Inter and opt for a return to Juventus. This left Inter with a new manager, Corrado Orrico. He attempted to implement a defensive style of play. This was the complete opposite from the offensive-minded tactics of Trapattoni. As a result, Matthäus, and indeed Inter as a whole, would suffer greatly.
The club regressed to a mid-table finish at the end of the 1991-92 season, scoring a mere 28 goals in 34 matches, 17 of which resulted in a draw. This was a massive fall from grace for one of Italy’s most exciting teams, and would mark the end of an era for the Nerazzurri. The influx of German talent which had rejuvenated an Inter side that had experienced very little success over the previous decade was on the verge of an exodus.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Inter’s trio of World Cup champions decided the time was right during the summer of 1992 to move on from the club. Matthäus would return to Bayern Munich where he would revolutionize the “sweeper” position on his way to winning four more Bundesliga titles.
Overall, people may remember Lothar Matthäus as a player for Bayern Munich based purely on his time spent with the club. What is undeniable however, is that he played his most productive years at Inter Milan. To me, Inter is where he featured during the “prime” of his career. Matthäus was the central figure in the Nerazzurri’s three-year exceptional run of form from 1988 through 1991. Without him, none of that happens.
Lothar Matthäus reminded people, if only for a brief period of time, what Inter used to be: a dominant force both domestically and in Europe. He has the individual awards to go along with silverware the Nerazzurri won during his time with the club. He elevated himself to the status of global icon during his time in Italy, evolving into perhaps the most complete player the sport has ever seen.
Perhaps the best way to describe just how good of a footballer Lothar Matthäus was is to hear it straight from the mouth of a player whom many consider the greatest to ever wear a pair of boots: Diego Armando Maradona: “He is the best rival I’ve ever had. I guess that’s enough to define him.”