Few footballers have such a perfect arc as Lothar Matthäus. Euro 1980: a teenage phenom making his international debut. World Cup 1990: striding, peacock-like, in that kit, through a variety of opposition defences as he guided his nation to revenge over Argentina. Euro 2000: mistrusted veteran, sweeping behind a team that had grown old and dysfunctional.
Back in that hypercolour summer of 1990, Matthäus was in his pomp, 29 years old and, two years into his spell with Inter, more than familiar with every blade of grass inside Italian stadia. All four of his goals at the tournament came on his “home” turf at the San Siro, and on July 8 he lifted the World Cup trophy after passing on his normal penalty responsibilities to Andy Brehme due to an issue with his new boots. Matthäus was the first German captain to raise the World Cup since Franz Beckenbauer in 1974. Sixteen years later and Beckenbauer was now Matthäus’s manager, looking on approvingly. The progression was linear, the circle was complete. 1990. Matthäus. Forever.
Matthäus’s pro career begins in 1979 with Borussia Mönchengladbach, and by the following summer he was deemed good enough to be named in the West Germany squad for Euro 80, held in Italy and expanded to eight teams for the first time. Less two semi-finals and a final parachuted briefly into a European country every four years and more a proper tournament. As the World Cup continued to experiment with devices like second group stages, there was a purity to this new Euros format: win your group, contest the final. So that’s what West Germany did.
The late 1970s had been an unusual period of semi-decline for the West Germans. In 1976, they had been deposed as European champions by Czechoslovakia, who defeated them on penalties in the final, thanks to a self-styled effort by Antonín Panenka, a man who disrespects goalkeepers to this very day by inspiring others to follow him. And then two years later West Germany were deposed as world champions in Argentina, failing to make it out of the second group stage. That resulted in Jupp Derwall being promoted from assistant to the main role, like a sort of Giorgio Moroder-era Joachim Löw. As is often the case, a new manager is brave with his squad selection. Hence Matthäus. Hence the reclamation of the Euros at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, 10 years and 16 days later they would be back.
In truth, Matthäus’s input in 1980 was ephemeral. He made only one appearance, in a group game against old rivals the Netherlands. It was Matthäus’s international debut, and like James Tarkowski on his for England against Italy in 2018, Matthäus conceded a penalty. He did not feature in the final, but he was on his way. Two appearances at the 1982 World Cup, three at Euro 84 and then seven in Mexico in 1986.
Matthaus, as discussed above, peaked in 1990 but 10 years later, and 20 years after Euro 80, he was included in the politically unified Germany squad (spiritually: less so) for Euro 2000. The gap between his debut in 1980 and his final match in Euro 2000 was 7,311 days – by far the longest gap between first and last game at the European Championships. As it stands, Dragan Stoiković is in second place, but Cristiano Ronaldo will jump into that spot from fifth when he appears for Portugal against Hungary on Tuesday. A bristling icon who has adapted his game to cope with the ravages of time: there are similarities between Matthäus and Ronaldo certainly, but will the Portuguese still be operating at a level that could get him into his nation’s squad for Euro 2024 in Germany? Probably not. Matthäus’s record will surely stand for some time yet.
Performances are important in football, sure, but so much of what we think and remember is informed by vibes and sensations. On paper, Matthäus’s brief involvement in 1980, one which handed the Dutch a penalty, is nothing much, but he was a rookie, and he still managed two shots. In a win. Against the Dutch. The penalty he handed his opponents was scored, by Rep, but it didn’t harm Matthäus’s rep at all.
Compare that to Euro 2000, when the iconic veteran, now operating as a sort of hybrid sweeper/cruel reminder of the passing of time, started all three games as Germany finished bottom of their group. Even so, there were glimpses of Matthäus’s old methods, his total of five chances created, as a sweeper remember, was one more than Francesco Totti, among others, managed in the whole tournament. The problem for Matthäus was his position as the old man in an old team with old stories. Euro 2000 was a brutal line in the sand for German football, the point of no return. “A major shock moment for us all,” said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. The DFB created the Extended Talent Promotion Programme to rebuild the country’s stockpile of youth talent. They didn’t want the 2000 Matthäus, or even the 1990 Matthäus, but lots of the 1980 version instead.
Even so, it’s tempting to picture the veteran Matthäus in 2000 as a man lost in the (then) modern game, a phenom of the 1980s thrashing confusedly around in the world of Metal Gear Solid and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but that wasn’t the case. Matthäus, much like his Euro 2000 Group A opponent Alan Shearer, had found a way to adapt the way he played to ensure that he could indeed keep playing. He was also helped by the fact that football and footballing trends at European Championships seem to vary less than they do in other competitions. Euro 80 saw less than two goals per game on average and while the fondly remembered tournament in France four years later saw this jump up to 2.73, that remains the high watermark for the competition in the group stage era.
The philosophically dismal 1990 World Cup made the introduction of the backpass law a necessity, and the Euro 92 final between Denmark and – who else – Germany, was the last major game to see goalkeepers repeatedly pick up bleakly frequent two-yard passes from adventure-hating defenders. The 1994 World Cup saw a big leap in goals compared to four years previously, so you’d have expected to see the same at the newly expanded 16 team Euro 96. But that edition saw only 2.06 goals per game, the lowest figure since 1980. And you can’t even blame Lothar Matthäus, as he didn’t feature in any of the European Championships held in the 1990s.
Last time out at Euro 2016, the scoring rate was only 2.12 per game. Can we expect more this year? More than that yes, but the three goals per game mark, regularly surpassed in the Bundesliga and even Serie A these days, will surely not be troubled.
Comparing successful passes to long-range goals, two of the most reliable ways to plot the changing nature of football (RULE: as time goes by, passes go up, players score from closer in) and we can see an incredibly close cluster of tournaments comprising the Euros in 1980, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004. The last two editions have, understandably, seen the number of successful passes go up, but their rates of long-range goals can be filed under “classic Euros.” The two outliers are arguably the two most memorable editions, in 1984 and 1988, and ultimately perhaps that’s the ingredient we want and need from international football. Business as usual isn’t the right look when you have four weeks to make yourself a hero. Do something irrational and become an icon.
As is the wont of many great players, Matthäus made a fairly terrible manager, taking charge of the Hungary and Bulgaria national teams among others but never actually managing in the Bundesliga. Now 60, Matthäus is older than Brian Clough was when he retired as Nottingham Forest manager in 1993. Clough’s career was cut short when he played for England just twice, but he won the European Cup on two occasions as a manager.
Matthäus played in nine different international tournaments for Germany but never won the European Cup with any of his clubs. You can’t have everything in a career, but you can make the most of what you get.
“Football is not only sunshine,” Matthäus once said. As a player he saw the sun come up more than most.
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Design by Matt Sisneros.