MLS: A Man Named Matthaeus

Klaus Augenthaler captained Bayern Munich when an ambitious young man named Lothar Matthaeus joined the team in 1984. Augenthaler took the 23-year-old midfielder under his wing, but soon noticed that Matthaeus wasn't satisfied being a young soldier. He wanted to be a general. He had his eye on Augenthaler's captain's band. At a team Christmas party, Augenthaler gave each player a gift. When Matthaeus unwrapped his, he found a small toy ship and a note, "In my bathtub, I'm the captain." Matthaeus didn't appreciate the gag, according to Augenthaler. But neither did Matthaeus ever become more adept at hiding his ambitious nature, a quality that has earned him admirers and detractors, and has turned him into one of history's most successful athletes. His pinnacle came in 1990, when his reign indeed went far beyond his bathroom. For he captained West Germany, with Augenthaler playing sweeper, to the World Cup title. Matthaeus won six Bundesliga titles during two stints with Bayern Munich sandwiched between four seasons at Inter Milan, where he won a Serie A title and a UEFA Cup title. He has played for Germany more than any man has played for his country - even though he was exiled from the team for more than three years. He suffered two of the worst injuries a player can imagine - a torn ACL (1992) and a ripped Achilles' tendon (1995) - but has set new standards for longevity on the soccer field. He turned 39 years old on March 21, yet he is expected to lead MLS's worst team to glory. And Germany coach Erich Ribbeck is still banking on him for this summer's European Championship. We don't know yet if Matthaeus - once a midfield watchdog, then an attacking dynamo and now a defender - can inspire a MetroStars recovery. But it's beyond a doubt that MLS has within its ranks one of the game's most intriguing characters.

Not a choirboy

At age 17, Matthaeus played two games per weekend - once with his youth team and once with the men's team of the minor league club, FC Herzogenrach. Matthaeus, like German boys who don't take the academic route, also attended trade school, but he would never have to rely on his carpet-laying skills. His soccer talent was such that it was simply a question of which team would launch his pro career. That was settled by his father, a Puma employee. "Nuremberg was at our doorstep, but we didn't want such a super talent to strengthen a team that didn't wear our stuff," said Hans Nowak, a Puma PR man who steered Matthaeus to Borussia Moenchengladbach. He made his Bundesliga debut at 18 in 1979. Coach Jupp Heynckes didn't mind that the brash youngster put his cleats into a veteran teammate who tried to belittle the rookie during a 5-v-2 or that he was already apt to make the offensive statement. "We can't expect him to be so bold on the field and act like a choirboy off it," Heynckes said. "You don't win championships with choirboys." With Matthaeus, Moenchengladbach finished high in the standings for a team of modest financial backing. In 1984, it finished third and reached the German Cup final against Bayern. Matthaeus had already signed with Bayern for the following season. He missed a penalty kick in the tiebreaker that Moenchengladbach lost. On subsequent trips to his old club, fans greeted Matthaeus with cries of Judas and tossed eggs, tomatoes and rocks. Perhaps it was that experience that inspired Matthaeus, six years later, to console England's Chris Waddle after his missed penalty kick sent Germany to the 1990 World Cup final. The image of Matthaeus, with his arm around Waddle while Germans celebrate in the background, helps explain the contradictions that surround Matthaeus. His on-field behavior draws admiration from friends and foes. But off the field he squabbles with bosses and peers. The German media - besides the powerful tabloid Bild, which enjoys a cozy relationship with Matthaeus - accuse Matthaeus of being a simpleton. "He is like a 38-year-old kid who wants to be liked and respected," said one reporter who covered Bayern Munich for years, "but he can't avoid saying things that get him in trouble. On the field, however, he never lets anyone down." During an era of high unemployment and government cutbacks in Germany, the public has taken to harshly criticizing professional soccer players, whom they refer to as "crap millionaires." For these fans, Matthaeus remains a notable exception, maintaining a reputation as a diligent fighter among pampered pros.

National team highs and lows

Matthaeus' national team career started at the 1980 European Championship. He came on as a late substitute as West Germany was beating the Netherlands, 3-0, and was guilty of giving up a penalty kick - though the foul actually occurred outside the area. The Germans won, 3-2, and won the tournament, though Matthaeus didn't get on the field again. In March 1982, Matthaeus made an apparent breakthrough. During a South America tour, he hounded two great talents into submission - Zico and Diego Maradona. He established himself as a destroyer and didn't mind if that would lead to starting role. But he was back on the bench at the 1982 World Cup. One of the two games he entered as a substitute came in the scandalous 1-0 win over Austria. German fans burned their own flags in the stands and the rest of the world jeered as the neighboring countries colluded for a result that sent them both to the second round at Algeria's expense. "I played a ball forward to the left flank and Paul Breitner screamed I shouldn't play so risky," Matthaeus said in Joerg Wontorra's book, "Die Bundesliga." "We had to keep the ball in our own area." The Germans reached the final, but the tournament left Matthaeus bitter. Coach Jupp Derwall kept him on the bench against Italy while fielding several injured players. In 1986, in his first World Cup start, Matthaeus gifted Uruguay a goal with a long-range back pass. But Teamchef Franz Beckenbauer stood by Matthaeus. The Germans clawed their way to the final, where Matthaeus was charged with marking Maradona, but the Argentines won, 3-2. Four years later, Beckenbauer dubbed Matthaeus his most important player and shed him of his watchdog duties. In the first game, Matthaeus scored two brilliant long-range goals in a 4-1 win over Yugoslavia. He led the Germans to a rematch with Argentina in the final, and they won, 1-0. Afterward, his national team career went into free fall. His 1992 knee injury took him out of that year's European Championship. He was captain again at USA '94 and had moved to sweeper. But that team, plagued by combating cliques, fell in the quarterfinals, and Coach Berti Vogts considered Matthaeus one of the egos who created disharmony.

The comeback and farewell

Vogts and Matthaeus clashed, Matthaeus wanted to maintain his sweeper spot, while Vogts preferred Matthias Sammer. In 1995, Matthaeus' Achilles' tendon injury kept him out of the picture but not out of the news. Matthaeus accused Juergen Klinsmann of plotting against him and even challenged him to a televised debate. (Klinsmann declined.) Vogts, intent on avoiding the intra-squad strife of 1994, announced Matthaeus would never player for Germany as long as he had the helm. Sammer, not Matthaeus, was the star at the back when Germany won the 1996 European Championship title. Klinsmann and Matthaeus called a truce that summer, but they clashed again when Matthaeus published a diary in which he admitted having bet a teammate $7,000 that Klinsmann could not score 15 goals. (Klinsmann did, and Matthaeus claims he was happy to lose the wager.) Matthaeus played extremely well in the 1997-98 season. When two of Vogts' sweepers - Olaf Thon and Sammer - were injured, he recalled Matthaeus for France '98. The Germans were dismal in France. When Ribbeck took over from Vogts, he asked Matthaeus to help him rebuild. Matthaeus, who recently said his biggest regrets were his battles with Vogts and Klinsmann, admitted that his national team hiatus probably enabled him to play longer. He looks forward to Euro 2000. Germans may not be surprised that the man who has always said he never gives up would keep playing so long. That he left Bayern Munich, during its centennial season as it was playing its most exciting soccer in a decade and vying for three championships? That proved a lot more puzzling. by Soccer America executive editor Mike Woitalla

Lothar Matthaeus by the Numbers

1: Times Matthaeus was named European Player of the Year (1990) and FIFA World Player of the Year (1991). 2: UEFA Cup titles won (Inter Milan 1991, Bayern Munich 1996). 2: Losses in a European Cup final (Porto 2, Bayern Munich 1 in 1987 and Manchester United 2, Bayern Munich 1 in 1999). 4: Goals Matthaeus scored while captain of West Germany's successful 1990 World Cup campaign. 5: World Cups Matthaeus played in (1982, '86, '90, '94, '98) for a record he shares with Mexico goalkeeper Antonio Carbajal. 7: League titles won (6 Bundesliga and 1 Italian Serie A). 19: Goals scored when he shared the Italian League's leading scorer title with Gianluca Vialli in the 1990-91 season. 23: Goals for Germany. 25: World Cup games played - a record (15 wins, 4 defeats and 6 ties). 121: Goals scored in the German First Division. 144: Matthaeus' world record number of national team appearances. 464: Games Played in the German First Division. 2,048: World Cup minutes played - a record.
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