For more information on the Players I Would Play To Watch series read the introduction.
My awareness of football and interest began in earnest in 1986 especially through the World Cup in Mexico. I didn’t really pay attention to the dude playing for what was West Germany at the time. Likewise in the European Championships in 1988 I wasn’t really that interested in anyone playing for the West German side. It was only in the 1990 World Cup in Italy – one of the worst I’ve seen – that the captain of the German side came to prominence.
People talk about midfield generals, but I had no idea about what one of those looked like until I saw the performances of Lothar Matthäus. The man seemed to personify all the key qualities in the German side. His technique and close ball control was exceptional, his awareness of his team-mates positions was astonishing, his passing matched the occasion. He was not a flashy merchant doing the long passes for the cameras, if the short pass to a colleague was the best pass even if it was a backward pass, he would take it. I remember seeing his blockbuster shots burst into the net and it was delight to behold completing a wonderful set of skills.
His stamina was incredible and even as late as the 1999 Champions League final it is notable that Bayern Munich were winning the trophy when Matthaus was substituted and it was while he was off that the famous collapse took place. He was one of the first players I saw on the pitch that was a dominant force. His charisma wasn’t the typical football superstar, but he evidently garnered the respect of his team-mates whether for the national side or playing for clubs like Inter Milan and Bayern Munich.
The Premier League has produced one or two midfield generals who were immense in their time such as Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane, but before these guys had their chance it was the German who stamped his authority on the game. I even enjoyed the use of him as a sweeper, and when I saw that it made the position all the more desirable for me. I enjoyed seeing the position not primarily as a stopper, but as someone to cover and be the hub to launch attacks and Matthäus excelled in that position. His tackling wasn’t the first thing you saw in his game, but it was certainly important to his success in his midfield battles, it was more what he did in possession both in terms of with the ball and making space for others to either capitalise or to use him to start off more attacks.
He was imperious on the pitch and that made him a mesmerising figure to watch. Although he’s been retired from the game for a number of years my memories are such that he is indeed a player I would pay to watch.
(For a fascinating blog highlighting his career I strongly recommend reading Making Of A Legend.)