Lothar Matthäus, Paul Breitner and the best Bundesliga midfielders of all time
The role of the midfielder is perhaps one of the most important in a soccer team. With responsibility both in defence and attack, receiving and moving the ball, their position on the field means they are going to have the greatest involvement and pass the ball more than players in other positions on the pitch, and their influence is therefore second to none.
Since 1963, the Bundesliga has supplied world football with some of the greatest ever midfielders; names that not only go down in the history books with the suffix 'legend' attached, but who also had a major impact on the game in Germany and beyond its boundaries.
Five of the best midfielders of all time are detailed below, with biographies of their historic careers.
The man who pulled on a Germany shirt more times than anybody else, with 150 caps, Matthäus was rightly heralded as one of the best players in the world in the 1980s and 1990s, and one of the most famous No.10s of all time. World Footballer of the Year in 1991, a year after he lifted the FIFA World Cup as Germany captain in one of a record five World Cups he played in, Matthäus was a seven-time Bundesliga winner and he made a total of 464 appearances in Germany's top flight with Borussia Mönchengladbach and Bayern Munich, mainly in the number 10 position, an attacking midfielder role behind the attackers. He retired from the game after a spell with MetroStars (the current New York Red Bulls) in Major League Soccer in 2000, although he did make one more competitive appearance – aged 57 – for FC Herzogenaurach, the club where his career began in 1971. "It was always my dream to play my last competitive game here," Matthäus said after appearing for the sixth-division side, 47 years after the career of one of the world's greatest players of all time commenced in the Bavarian village.
Named, together with nine other Germans, by Brazilian legend Pele in 2004 as one of the 125 best soccer players ever, Breitner actually started out life as a striker-turned-left-full-back, winning three Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich, as well as the 1974 European Cup and the FIFA World Cup that same year from the left side of the field. A move to Real Madrid changed that, though, and he was moved into the centre midfield by their coach Miljan Miljanic, allowing his natural talent and technical skill to unfurl and help the Spaniards to clinch a league and cup double in 1975. When he returned to the Bundesliga in 1977, joining Eintracht Braunschweig, he had already become one of the most menacing midfielders in the game. A subsequent return to Bayern inspired them, as captain, to win the 1980 title – their first since Breitner had left six years earlier, and earned him the German Footballer of the Year award. He became one of only a handful of players (including Pele and Zinedine Zidane) to score goals in two World Cup finals, although his strike in the 1982 final was not enough to earn him a second title, as they were beaten by Italy.
Borussia Mönchengladbach were Germany's dominant force in the 1970s and much of their success lay at the feet of Netzer, whose unparalleled accuracy in passing the ball, combined with deadly set-piece delivery, was one of the most effective, creative central midfielders of his era. He captained Gladbach to their first title in 1970 and ensured they would become the first German club to defend their title a year later. The 1972 German Footballer of the Year was as much an attraction on the field as he was off it, where his own Lovers' Lane nightclub drew the party masses to Mönchengladbach. He was under the spotlight more than the disco lights after scoring in Germany's first ever win at London's Wembley Stadium, on the way to Germany winning UEFA Euro 1972, and he subsequently became the first German to play for Spanish club Real Madrid, with whom he won the 1974 Spanish Cup, a league and cup double a year later, and the Spanish league title in his third and final year in Spain before moving to Grasshoppers Zurich, where he ended his career.
Not far away from Mönchengladbach, Overath was pulling the strings of a Cologne side who were also enjoying the most successful era of their history. In a total of 765 games for the Billy Goats, Overath scored 287 goals and created numerous scoring chances, winning the Bundesliga in 1964 and the DFB Cup on two occasions (1968 and 1977). Among his 81 caps for Germany, are the legendary 1966 FIFA World Cup final in London's Wembley Stadium and the 1974 final win over The Netherlands, with Overath scoring two and playing every minute of Germany's successful campaign on home soil. A rarity in that he only ever played professionally for one club, Overath remained attached to Cologne after his playing career ended as a board member and also as club president, with his name entered into the club's Hall of Fame in 2018, and the German Football League (DFL) honouring him for his services to the game in 2019.
Further south, Eintracht Frankfurt had to wait a little longer before celebrating a hero of their own in Möller, whose list of achievements includes one FIFA World Cup in 1990, one UEFA European Championship in 1996, a UEFA Champions League, FIFA World Club Cup, a UEFA Cup and a Bundesliga title, albeit not all for the Eagles. Nevertheless, it is with Eintracht in 1985 that the career of the Frankfurt-born footballing magician – equally comfortable as a No.10 or in the winger position – commenced. He spent three years with Borussia Dortmund, with whom he won his first trophy – the DFB Cup in 1989 – before returning to Frankfurt for two more years and very nearly winning his first Bundesliga with them in 1992, with a 2-1 defeat on the final day of the season at Hansa Rostock denying them the ultimate prize.
Möller lifted the UEFA Cup with Juventus before winning two Bundesliga titles back in Dortmund and the Champions League with BVB in 1997. After crossing the Ruhr divide with a move to Schalke, with whom he won two more DFB Cups, he returned 'home' to end a glittering playing career with Eintracht.