Lothar Matthäus won the Bundesliga title seven times in his illustrious career. - © getty images
Lothar Matthäus won the Bundesliga title seven times in his illustrious career. - © getty images
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Lothar Matthäus: The story of a Bundesliga legend

A European champion and a World Cup-winning captain, a FIFA World Player of the Year and a seven-time Bundesliga winner. bundesliga.com takes a look back at the remarkable career of Germany legend Lothar Matthäus.

For Matthäus, it finished how it started. At the age of 57 - heading on 50 years after he first joined the club as a boy - one of the greatest German players of all time lined out one last time for his local club FC Herzogenaurach.

“It was always my dream to play my last competitive game here,” the veteran skipper said, having battled through 50 minutes of his side’s 3-0 win in the German regional leagues.

That symbolic appearance in May 2018 gave Matthäus yet another cherished memory in a career that had provided countless others before he retired from the professional game, aged 39, in October 2000.

The former Germany captain had had it all: scoring goals with his right foot, left foot, or direct from free-kicks, and combined a wide range of passing with the ability to glide past a defender. He was the ”best rival” Diego Maradona ever had, and developed an impressive knack of continuously adapting and improving his game. He is, after all, remembered simultaneously as one of the best box-to-box midfielders, deep-lying playmakers and most intelligent sweepers to ever play the game.

Lothar Matthäus (r) began his professional career at Borussia Mönchengladbach, but was destined to join the likes of Dieter Hoeneß (l) at Bayern Munich. - imago/Kicker/Eissner

Growing great at Gladbach

At the end of his formative years with Bavarian club FC Herzogenaurach – who represented a town of little more than 20,000 people - Matthäus moved over 450 kilometres northwest to the team who – owing to family connections - he had supported as a boy.

In 1979, a teenager from Erlangen could hardly have asked for a better starting point in the professional game than at Borussia Mönchengladbach. Gladbach, helped by star players like Günter Netzer and Jupp Heynckes, had in the previous decade won five Bundesliga titles and two UEFA Cups, as well as finishing runners-up in the European Cup.

Gladbach’s rivalry with Bayern Munich in the 1970s had been epic, but their ambitious new signing soon wrote his own name into the history books. Under the guidance of Heynckes - who had just become Gladbach manager following his retirement - the 18-year-old quickly earned a place at the heart of the Foals’ midfield.

Lothar Matthäus quickly became a leader at Borussia Mönchengladbach. - imago sportfotodienst

He made 41 appearances in his debut year, and one of his six goals came against Eintracht Frankfurt in the first leg of the 1979/80 UEFA Cup final. Matthäus started both matches, but the Eagles won the second leg 1-0 to win the tie on away goals.

There was little time for disappointment to linger. A strong first season saw Matthäus earn a place in West Germany’s squad for UEFA Euro 1980, and he made his international debut as a substitute in a group match against the Netherlands. He watched the final in Rome from the bench, as his a talented side that included the likes of current Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge were crowned champions after beating Belgium.

The drama of the cup

Matthäus continued to be a mainstay through his next four years for Gladbach, who never finished higher than seventh until the 1983/84 season – when they were the third of three teams who finished on the same points at the top.

Lothar Matthäus misses a penalty in the DFB Cup final with his final kick of a ball for Borussia Mönchengladbach before joining Bayern Munich - also the opponents in the final. - imago/Kicker/Liedel

The central midfielder would end with 11 league goals in a campaign where Gladbach missed out on the league title on goal difference, but not before he was dropped for a game in Mannheim late in the season. Heynckes left Matthäus out because he had been dismayed by the 23-year-old’s announcement that he was leaving for Bayern in the summer. With his team trailing 2-1, though, the future Bayern manager turned to Matthäus with 20 minutes to go, and the ever-determined substitute responded by scoring twice to win the game.

Matthäus was back in the side for the DFB Cup semi-final a couple of weeks later, and opened the scoring in a dramatic 5-4 extra-time win over Werder Bremen. That set the scene for the final game of the season, and Matthäus’ last match as a Gladbach player.

As fate would have it, the opposition in the cup final was – of course – the West Germany international’s future employers Bayern. Gladbach took the lead in Frankfurt when a first-half corner from Matthäus was headed home by Frank Mill, but the Bavarians levelled with eight minutes left.

Watch: Matthäus visits Colombia as a Bundesliga legend

First up in the shootout was Gladbach’s uncomfortable-looking number six. Matthäus aimed for the top corner, but just cleared the crossbar. Bayern won 7-6 on penalties.

“That was one of the moments that I would like to erase from my career,” Matthäus told German magazine kicker many years later.

“You never intentionally miss a penalty, especially when you have a chance to win the cup. All the more so, when as a child you slept in Gladbach bedclothes.”

Brilliant at Bayern, magical in Milan

Following his return to Bavaria that summer, Matthäus finally won his first trophy. He netted 16 times in 33 league games as Bayern won the league in 1984/85 – his first season at the club - and he hit double figures again in each of the following two years as his new team made it a hat-trick of Bundesliga titles.

Lothar Matthäus in the red of Bayern Munich - imago

Matthäus also skippered Bayern in the 1987 European Cup final against Porto in Vienna, when they led for much of the game but were undone by two late goals. That same year he was given the captain’s armband by West Germany for the first time.

More success would follow when he and Bayern teammate Andreas Brehme joined Inter Milan in 1988. Under the management of Giovanni Trapattoni, later manager of Bayern, Matthäus won Serie A in 1989, and again featured in a two-legged UEFA Cup final in 1991. Like in 1980, the German scored in the first leg. Unlike eleven years previously, his side held on in the second leg to win the final against Roma.

In between those two trophies with Inter, of course, the two-time German Football of the Year enjoyed his crowning glory. Just a few months before reunification, Matthäus led West Germany at the 1990 World Cup, and scored times in the group stage as Franz Beckenbauer’s side racked up 10 goals in three games.

Lothar Matthäus became a Bundesliga champion for the first time in the red of Bayern Munich. - imago/Kicker/Liedel

World Cup wonder and a match for Maradona

Two of them came against eventual quarter-finalists Yugoslavia. For the opening goal of the match, Matthäus crashed a shot home with his left foot from outside the penalty area. In the second period, he made it 3-1 with a thumping right-footed strike at the end of a driving run from inside his own half.

“I had a few good games, but the one that really stands out was our opener at the 1990 World Cup, when we laid the foundations for our winning campaign by beating Yugoslavia,” Matthäus once told FIFA, when asked about the best match he played at the five World Cup finals he appeared in.

“They were a tough team, and we beat them 4-1 with me getting two of the goals. It was my 75th cap, and I think it was the best of the 150 matches I played for Germany over the years.”

The Germans then beat the Netherlands in the last 16, before a Matthäus penalty saw them past Czechoslovakia in the quarter-finals. A titanic tussle with England followed in the semis, but the midfielder smashed West Germany’s second penalty beyond Peter Shilton as his side won a shootout.

Lothar Matthäus (l) became acquainted with Diego Marradona (r) on the international and club scene. - imago sportfotodienst

West Germany dominated the final against Argentina, but needed a late spot-kick to win it. Matthäus was the designated penalty taker, but he didn’t feel comfortable after changing boots at half-time, and it was left to Brehme to decide the game. The captain had the considerable consolation, after missing out on the chance to score the winning goal, of lifting the trophy for West Germany as they become world champions for a then-record third time.

“It was a unique sensation,” Matthäus said of getting his hands on the coveted prize. “I was afraid of doing something wrong – dropping the trophy.”

The final saw the German skipper get the better of another of the undisputed greats of the game. Matthäus had man marked Diego Maradona in the 1986 World Cup final, and had many battles with him in Italy where the Argentine played with Napoli. Maradona described the West Germany number 10 as the toughest opponent he had ever faced – although the feeling was mutual.

Serious setbacks, super sweeper

Then 29 years of age, Matthäus was defying critics who may have thought he was past his best. He won the German and European Footballer of the Year awards in 1990, and took the inaugural FIFA World Player of the Year prize in 1991 after scoring 23 goals in all competitions for Inter during the 1990/91 campaign.

Lothar Matthäus lifts the FIFA World Cup trophy after defeating Argentina with West Germany in 1990. - imago/Colorsport

Matthäus returned to Bayern in 1992, and fought back from a cruciate ligament injury later that year, as well as an Achilles tendon tear in 1995, to add six more German league and cup trophies to go with the 1996 UEFA Cup.

The one major piece of silverware Matthäus didn’t claim was the European Cup, and he suffered an agonising defeat when the Bavarians were beaten at the death by Manchester United in the 1999 UEFA Champions League final.

Throughout his playing career, though, the former manager of Bulgaria and Hungary showed an admirable ability both to bounce back from setbacks and to reinvent himself as a player. In later years he dropped back to sweeper, and featured there for Germany at the 1994 World Cup in the USA.

“He is the perfect player,” Beckenbauer told The New York Times during that tournament. “He has skill, speed, understanding of the game. His only problem is being 33 years old.”

Bayern legend Beckenbauer had made the libero role famous during his own playing days, and Matthäus performed well enough in that position to play there again at the 1998 World Cup in France. In 1999, at the age of 38, he was named German Footballer of the Year for a second time.

Lothar Matthäus returned to Bayern Munich as an icon. - imago sportfotodienst

Talent, persistence, and staying power allowed Matthäus to clock up a record 25 appearances at the World Cup – scoring six goals along the way – as well as smashing Beckenbauer’s previous benchmark as the most-capped German player.

After two decades of playing for his country, the veteran’s last appearance at international level came at Euro 2000. Following seven Bundesliga titles and 121 goals in 464 matches in Germany’s top flight, Matthäus rounded off an incredible playing career with a spell in Major League Soccer with the MetroStars – now the New York Red Bulls.

That is, until 18 years later, he got his wish of playing for his first love, FC Herzogenaurach, one more time.

Mark Rodden

The Bayern Munich fans say goodbye to Lothar Matthäus before his move to the United States of America. - imago