Lothar Matthaus interview: Football fans won't accept creation of European Super League
German Football Legend Lothar Matthaus opens up on Germany's FIFA World Cup debacle, changing dynamics of modern-day football and spirit of the Bundesliga in an exclusive interview with Firstpost
"Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win." This famous quote from Gary Linekar rarely lost its relevance until Germany made a miserable attempt at defending their FIFA World Cup crown earlier in the year in Russia. The Germans lost to Mexico and South Korea to finish bottom in their group and exit the World Cup at the group stage for the first time since 1938.
The year 2018 was one of the lowest points in the history of German football as World Cup debacle was followed by a racism row that saw midfielder Mesut Ozil retire from international football. Results since have failed to significantly improve as Germany were relegated to the second tier in the newly-established UEFA Nations League. With the formidable Germans facing a daunting task to rebuild after a year to forget, Firstpost caught up with German legend Lothar Matthaus during his visit to India as part of the Bundesliga Legends Tour.
The 1990 World Cup-winning captain who's also the most capped German player ever opened up on the problems plaguing German national team, the ever-changing dynamics of modern-day football and what India must do to successfully pursue their long-held dream of playing in a FIFA World Cup.
Lothar, you own the record of playing the most number of games in FIFA World Cups and are one of only two outfield players to play in five World Cups? What does it take to play for such a long time at the international level?
I love football, this was always my passion. As a kid, I used to play football whenever I got some free time and my love for the game grew with age. Initially, I was a key player for the youth team in my village, then I signed my first professional contract with Borussia Monchengladbach. Later, I played for the national team and then got a chance to play for big clubs like Bayern Munich, Inter Milan. For me, it was a dream come true. I was fortunate, but I worked very hard too.
Football always fascinated me. For all the big players the journey is similar, you start as a fan, then you kick the ball and then you can’t stop.
Nowadays a lot of players retire early from international football. Is international football losing its importance?
Football has changed. When I was a kid, we had two training sessions per week. Now the kids have professional coaches and they start a lot earlier than my time. So if they start earlier they have to finish earlier.
Football is now faster, there’s stronger competition, there are more games and I think the body reacts. Maybe after 15 years of professional football, you have to decide if your body is ready for the fight. Hence many players finish at 32, 33. It wasn’t very different in my time. I was an exception to have carried on playing till 39. I had a lot of injuries, but I had a strong character to come back every time. To play for such a long time was something special.
Since 1998, all defending champions apart from Brazil have made an early exit in the next World Cup. Most countries fail to recover from a slump after the World Cup. What has Germany got to do to get back to competing for the World Cup title?
I think we don’t have problems as we have so many young players. The coach now has to find a good mix between the experienced player and the young generation. We have a lot of potential in the Bundesliga. I think we have a great possibility of achieving similar results as we have in the 30-40 years where Germany always started a major tournament as one of the favourites. Only in the last tournament, we had an accident, a big accident, because the coach made some wrong decisions. He didn’t select the right players, he didn’t give them the right system, the right tactics and that’s why we got that result. Our performance in Russia was not good, so nobody can be angry about Germany going out early.
You mentioned football has changed. What according to you are the positive changes the game has undergone since you stopped playing and what are the changes you don’t really appreciate?
I respect all the changes because this is life. If we see all around us, the world changes very fast. It’s the same about football. I told you that our game is a lot faster and the competition is a lot stronger. I’m happy I played in my time, but I can play even today as the rules are the same. The clubs are more professional, it’s very different than 30 years ago. Today, we are looking at finding young kids when they are 10-11 years of age. The scouting is a lot different, the training is different, and you have a bigger staff around the team. When I was a player, in the beginning, we had two coaches, that’s it. Now I feel each player has his personal coach. The coaches need a separate bus when they have to go for an away game because there are so many staff members.
Players today have to only play football. This was a bit different during my time. We had to clean our own shoes, now every player has a separate person to do that. But it’s all good, it’s all professional and I’m very happy to see football change.
You say we have to accept change, but agents’ influence on the game is growing and it’s reflecting in the amount of money clubs spend on transfer fees. How do you see this change?
Agents are part of football. It’s the situation of the time. I tell everyone, you have a big cake now and everyone wants a piece of this cake. The salaries are now higher, the transfer fees are more, the merchandise is different, and the advertising on the shirt generates more money than 20 years ago. Not only the players, but the agents, the coaches, everyone profits from football because it is so popular, so it’s a market price. The footballers give their best every week, entertain the people. When someone is a good entertainer like Ronaldo, you can give him the money, I’m not jealous of it.
Recently there were talks about a breakaway league involving the biggest clubs in the world. Do you think football can sustain with a model like the European Super League?
We always have many stories and we must wait till it happens. Recently there was a small talk about the European Super League. I don’t think such a league will materialise. Bayern Munich are a German club and will play in the Bundesliga, Chelsea are an English club and will play in the Premier League, same with Juventus and other Italian clubs. You have to talk about everything but we have to take into account the interest of the football fan. The football fan will not accept the European Super League, where Bayern Munich will play Barcelona twice a year or Chelsea play Juventus twice in a league format because the national championships have a great fan following, and so does the Champions League.
You have to discuss a lot of things, but I think after five years, Bayern Munich will still be playing in the Bundesliga and Arsenal will still be playing in the Premier League. This will not change.
We have seen a lot of managers emerge with fresh ideas of football. Which is the manager you admire the most among the current crop and who would you have liked to play for?
Each manager has a different style, each manager has a different character. Personally, I like (Jose) Mourinho. He may not be having great results at the moment, but he is straight-forward, has a great character and is entertaining at the same time for the fans.
(Pep) Guardiola has created a special story in the last few years in Barcelona, in Bayern Munich, and now in Manchester City. When I see myself as a player 20 years ago, I feel I’m a good player for Guardiola. I know his philosophy of football and I feel I could have been a good player in this philosophy, his strategy. So he can be a manager who likes me and someone who I enjoy playing for.
You have been a manager yourself in the past. Do you think the job of a manager has become very difficult especially with players having a lot of power in their hands? How do you see this situation?
Football is booming and it’s discussed so much on social media. The job is very different from what it was 20 years ago. A manager has work from morning to evening. You have to speak with the president, the owner, the media, the sponsors, the players and their agents or managers. The media is much more involved now and it’s a stressful job. I’m not at all upset that I am no longer a manager because when you are one you don’t have a private life.
As a manager, there’s always pressure on you. You are always under control. I’m glad I’m away from it. I have found a new lifestyle where I am close to football, where I talk about the game on a regular basis, but not as a manager.
Niko Kovac, the Bayern Munich coach’s position as head coach is under a lot of scrutiny. What do you think of the Bayern Munich situation at the moment?
Bayern Munich were the champions for the last six seasons, so when you are nine points behind Borussia Dortmund, everyone is not happy at Bayern Munich. They get criticised a lot from the media but this is normal for a manager these days. I hope he gets the time and he is able to turn the situation around.
You watched an ISL game in Kerala. What were you first impressions of Indian football?
I was surprised. I saw some good passes, good organised teams, fast players, technical players. For me, it was a good game. I was happy to watch this game as nobody in Germany knows about Indian football.
However, I can assure you that India is on the right path. The players have profited from the managers who have come from Europe. If India continues on this path, maybe the dream to play in a World Cup is possible, maybe not the next World Cup, it’s too early, you have a strong competition in Asia, but you have to take steps for the future. I feel the national team will benefit from the strong national championship. I was talking to them after the game and I noticed that they were focused. With such attitude I feel Indian players can improve quickly and maybe with a bit of luck, India can participate in a World Cup in 8-12 years.
India is obsessed with the idea of playing in the World Cup one day. We judge our football by how far we are from qualifying for the World Cup. Is it a good obsession to have or you feel it adds extra pressure?
I think this has to be the motivation for everyone who is working in Indian football, from the federation to the ISL, to the players and to the managers. Everybody has to be motivated to make this dream come true for the fans. The fans are the most important for me because I am slightly an old-fashioned football fan. I like to see a full stadium, the fans supporting the team and helping it. I can see that India has the passion for football and they need to do something for the fans.
They have now qualified for the AFC Asian Cup. Each international competition is a step to go to the next level. Once you are at the top level, everything is possible. Nobody expected Croatia to go to the World Cup final, so you have to keep going towards your target.
You had a great career. What is the proudest moment of your career and which failures still haunt you?
I won the German championship seven times playing for Bayern Munich, but the proudest moment for me was in 1990 when we won the World Cup in Italy under my captaincy. We beat Argentina in the final and I as the captain held the trophy aloft. That was a very happy moment for me, very emotional and I was proud that I was the captain of this team which played so well.
But you cannot win everything and I lost a big final, the Champions League final in 1999 with Bayern Munich against Manchester United. It was a terrible result in the end as we dominated the match for 90 minutes, but in stoppage time they scored two goals and won the Champions League. It was unbelievable for us as we were controlling everything in the game and had a lot of chances to score the second goal. In the end, we got a result that we could never imagine. For our fans, it was a big shock as our dominance was such that nobody thought we would lose it.
But you have to always give your best and keep concentration till the final whistle and this is What I learned from this game
Lastly, Borussia Dortmund seem to be running away with the Bundesliga title at the moment, do you think it’s their year this time around?
They have made a great start in the first 13 games. They are nine points ahead of Bayern Munich and seven ahead of Borussia Monchengladbach. They have a good team, they have a good coach. They did very well in the last two season, especially in the transfer market by picking a lot of young, fast and quality players. So as things stand, Dortmund are favourites to win the title, but there are another 21 games. This is a long time. Bayern Munich have always had a quality to bounce back and there’s a chance that they come back.
It’s good for German football to have such competition. It’s not just Dortmund and Bayern, there’s Borussia Monchengladbach, there’s RB Leipzig which is a very good team this year. There’s Hoffenheim who always wins against the big teams, but aren’t too stable with their performances. So this year we will have a stronger competition for the top spots than in the last six years when Bayern dominated.
In Bundesliga, it’s possible that the team in the last place can beat the first. The difference in quality between the teams is not very high. This is the spirit of Bundesliga, to have really good teams, have good games and most importantly we have a great atmosphere in the stadium because most of our games are sold out. I always want to be in a stadium every week and get that energy from the fans. It’s beautiful.
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