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Mar 20, 2009

Lothar Matthäus, unsurpassed but unloved

David Beckham's recent equalling of Bobby Moore's 108 caps yielded significant acclaim. Yet this great achievement pales into insignificance in the light of the longevity of others' international careers.

Firstly, it is often forgotten that Peter Shilton is still England's most capped player at 120, often, unfairly, because he was a goalkeeper. And Beckham has some way to go to match the cap haul of the all-time leaders. By the time he equals the amount of games played by Saudi Arabia's Mohamed Al-Deayea (181), Mexico's Claudio Suarez (178) and Egyptian Hossam Hassan (169), he may well find Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz in the team alongside him.

Estonia's Martin Reim, on 156, is Europe's most capped player but behind him on 150, alongside Vitalijs Astafjevs of Latvia, lies a player who would be regarded as a great even without a century and a half games for his country under his belt.

Lothar Herbert Matthäus could also teach Beckham a few things about tabloid scandal, rowing with team-mates and bosses and, crucially, captaining his team to World Cup glory while leading by shining example. In contrast to Becks, Matthäus is not necessarily a popular man in his home country and has long been in exile as he seeks - in vain - to find a career in coaching to somehow match a glorious 21 years of playing at the very top.

Matthäus, who celebrates his 48th birthday on Saturday, has a trophy haul to rival just about anyone who has ever played the game, with one notable, and doubly harrowing exception. The only outfield player to have played in five World Cup finals tournaments, he holds the record - at 25 - of most games played by any player. He captained West Germany to their win at Italia '90, a tournament in which he was easily the best player, ten years after winning the European Championship as a 19-year-old.

He debuted at Euro '80 in a 3-2 group game win over Holland. His last match for Germany, an unfortunate group-game 3-0 reverse at Euro 2000 to a Portuguese reserve team, sadly confirmed that even the best get too old.

A midfielder granted all the gifts to prosper in the technocratic brand of football played on the continent in the 1980s, Matthäus could just about do it all. A hard tackler with the positional sense to be both a fine man-marker and creative fulcrum, he possessed great finishing skills augmented by a fierce shot. Later in his career, as his legs lost the energy that had made him so effective, he was able to use his wonderful sense of position as one of the last exponents of the dying art of the sweeper.

Beginning his career at Borussia Monchengladbach, a club in some decline after the heights of the 1970s, Matthäus was already the best midfielder in the Bundesliga by the time he joined Bayern Munich in 1984. The previous season had seen him narrowly miss out winning the title on goal difference to VfB Stuttgart while also losing the DFB Pokal final to Bayern on penalties.

A first spell with Bavaria's dominant club saw him win his first domestic trophies. Three consecutive league titles and a German Cup helped reassert Bayern's dominance in Germany. When Bayern reached the European Cup final of 1987 it seemed they would be able to return to continental primacy. In Vienna, they faced an FC Porto team who were distant second-favourites and certainly looked it going into the latter stages of the match. Yet Ludwig Kögl's early strike was cancelled out by an unbelievably back-heeled equaliser from Algerian Rabah Madjer. Two minutes later, a disbelieving Bayern fell victim to another goal, this time from Brazilian sub Juary.

The lure of the lira saw Matthäus, along with Bayern colleague Andreas Brehme, join Internazionale in Milan. The pair would play a big role in the Nerazzurri winning the scudetto, their last until 2006. In 1991, the pair, along with Jürgen Klinsmann, the striker who had joined them in the summer of 1989, were part of a UEFA Cup winning team. That same year saw Matthäus granted the first ever FIFA World Player of the Year award.

At 31, with Inter feeling they had seen the best of him, he returned to Bayern, back in his native Bavaria. He again became key to a Bayern revival, winning four more league titles, another UEFA Cup and two German Cups. As his legs grew less able, he was able to move back into the defence to sweeper, where, in 1999, he put in a masterful display as Bayern contested the Champions League final with Manchester United.

With 86 minutes gone, man-of-the-match Matthäus, the cup surely destined to be in his hands after the horror of Vienna 12 years before, departed the field with typical strutting confidence, shaking the hands of his colleagues as he went. Of course, he was famously denied triumph by Manchester United's Sheringham and Solskjaer and the image most remembered of him that night is of his tearing off of his loser's medal as soon as it was presented to him. European football's premier trophy would forever remain as the one that got away.

A glittering club career was more than matched by his international achievements. Having made that early bow in 1980, by 1981 his country were offering him a man-marking job on Diego Maradona in a friendly between West Germany and Argentina. He stuck to his target like a limpet, and by 1986 was asked to play the same role in the World Cup Final, despite being his team's leading playmaker in their progress to the final. This time, Maradona, at the zenith of his superhuman powers, was able to get the better of him, as a late German comeback collapsed as the Argentine captain skipped past Matthäus one last time to set up Jorge Burruchaga for the winner in Mexico's Azteca Stadium.

The two would be reunited at Italia '90. Maradona was by then far below his best, bloated and slowed by medicines for his many injuries (and some self-medication); by this time it was Matthäus who was the star.

An incendiary start to the tournament had seen his goals blast away fancied Yugoslavia, as the West Germans, with reunification with its eastern equivalent approaching, eventually made it to the final. A poor match, ruined by Argentina's ugly tactics and a pair of sendings off, was won by a Klinsmann dive and a Brehme penalty as Matthäus got to lift the trophy his own performances had at least deserved.

Maradona himself, despite the tears he shed in Rome that night, retained respect for the German, describing him in his autobiography as: "The best rival I've ever had. I guess that's enough to define him."

Yet while Maradona may have hailed his rival, he was often not held in such regard by his colleagues and team-mates.

Despite their success together, he and Klinsmann shared a mutual loathing that began when the striker arrived at Bayern from Spurs in the summer of 1995. That Berti Vogts had awarded Klinsmann the national captaincy did not help, as the deposed skipper accused his successor of plotting to unseat him. A Matthäus-less Germany consequently won Euro 96 and a jealous Matthäus chose to rubbish his colleague, betting that he would not score 15 goals in the coming season. Klinsmann achieved that target - just - but was soon the fall-guy in the relationship as he fled to Sampdoria in the summer of 1997.

The two were surprisingly reunited at the 1998 World Cup Finals when Matthäus stepped in for the injured Mattias Sammer as sweeper. This too would end in recrimination as Croatia ravaged Germany 3-0 in the quarter-finals in Lyon as Matthäus' legs began to show their advanced age. That he was granted another go at Euro 2000, where he was again shown up as yesterday's man, was a grave error by coach Erich Ribbeck, yet it was Matthäus' personality, matched by his previous deeds and standing in the game, that made him undroppable when common sense dictated he could be the disaster he turned out to be.

Euro 2000 would prove to be his playing swansong, though comparisons with Beckham can be again drawn by a disappointing and bad-tempered spell with NY Metrostars which ended in the September of the same year.

Since then Matthäus has occasionally resurfaced as a coach, though not yet in his homeland. As a player, he had resembled something of a souped-up Bryan Robson. As a manager, he has been more than a match for his English counterpart's failings. Rapid Vienna, Partizan Belgrade, the Hungarian national team, Red Bull Salzburg have all been granted his questionable talents, with man-management not one of his often quoted qualities.

Atletico Paranense, in the Brazilian league seemed an odd choice. It became odder still when, in 2006, after just seven games in charge, he dashed back to Germany, citing a family problem. Two weeks later, still AWOL in Europe, he faxed in his resignation. He currently coaches at Maccabi Netanya in the Israeli league. They're currently in third place.

In Germany, despite that glorious career, Matthäus has become more famous for his ability to rub people up the wrong way. Tawdry headlines have followed him. As well as being on his fourth wife, his mouth has been capable of statements like the tasteful morsel offered to a Dutch tourist in Munich: "The Dutch are all arseholes, Adolf probably forgot you."

A women's basketball team was once greeted with "Hey girls, our black player has the longest appendage." Meanwhile, his desire to return to Bayern in a coaching dream team with Ottmar Hitzfeld can never bear fruit while Uli Hoeness is the club's general manager. Hoeness swore that he would not even have Matthäus as groundsman at Bayern, especially after a legal suit over his farewell testimonial.

After being player who achieved the greatest heights he seems to have retained few friends in the game. And though Loddar could barely care less about that, this may be one area in which David Beckham is likely to surpass his achievements.

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