From World Cup glory to tabloid story. Lothar Matthaus: The man who fell to earth.

Lothar Matthaus of Germany

Back in January 2015, Lothar Matthäus, hero of the Italia ’90 World Cup victory, was embroiled in a bout of verbal sparring with Arsenal striker and compatriot Lukas Podolski. Speaking on German television, Matthaus remarked that “Lukas has his qualities; now he must prove them by bringing them back to the pitch. In the past we heard how he tweets more than he plays. He needs to concentrate on football.” The comments came during speculation regarding a potential move for Podolski to Inter Milan. It was advice that Podolski did not take too kindly to however. Apparently not content to leave it there however, Matthäus also took a swing at his former club, saying, “Inter is no longer the team of the past. Italy lost charm. Too many scandals, little modern infrastructure. In the 90s Inter and AC Milan have written the history of football, had players like Gullit, Van Basten, Hansi Müller and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. Today the top players play in Spain, Germany and England, not in Italy.” The Nerazzuri tifosi must have loved that one. ‘A fanabla, Lothar!’

At the time, many fans outside of Germany, may have wondered why such an exalted figure would indulge in mud-slinging. In Germany however, few would have been surprised. Such has been the fall from grace for Matthäus. Here was a man who reached the heights of fame and glory in 1990, only to spend much of his time since apparently indulging in an orgy of self-destruction of his image and reputation, and finding himself not on the ground, but in a hole of his own construction. Podolski was certainly aware. The 29 year-old responded by saying, “I find it very amusing that Matthäus should give me precise tips on how to behave.” He then added emoticons of a bride and love heart, plus the hashtag ‘Erfolgscoach’, translated as ‘successcoach’. It was an extremely thinly-veiled reference to the fact that Matthäus has had four failed marriages, and a less than auspicious managerial career.

That such sarcasm should be delivered to a man with an outstanding record both at club and international level may seem to strange. For a player with a collection of accolades the like of which very few could match, modern players should surely be hanging on his words of advice. Imagine for a second how the late Bobby Moore would be regarded in this country had he not been taken from us at such an early age. The respect that would have been given to him by all linked to the game would be huge. Now imagine he had also won multiple league titles and cups, as well as skippering his country to World Cup glory. I’m sure you get the picture. For Matthäus however, the situation is somewhat different. In Germany, if not actually seen as going from ‘hero to ‘zero’, the level of regard he is held in is well into single figures. How did such a dramatic fall from grace happen?

For the West Germany captain, the Italia ’90 World Cup tournament came almost precisely halfway through his 21 year career, and probably marked the zenith of his powers. The all-action midfielder was the epitome of the modern footballer. In a game that demanded a physicality ranking alongside ability, here was a man for all such seasons. In his country’s first game of the tournament, he had set the tone for his squad by notching a brace against Yugoslavia. It was form he was to maintain throughout, and enough for none other than Diego Maradona to describe as his most difficult opponent ever. The world was soon to drop into accord with the opinions of the Argentine star. Matthäus became European Footballer of the Year and secured the inaugural Fifa World Player of the Year award to boot, the only German player ever to be awarded the global accolade. For good measure, he also picked up the German national award.

When he retired, Matthäus had a collection of medals that included seven Bundesliga titles, three German domestic cups, two Uefa Cups and a Serie A title. On the international stage, as well as triumphing in the the ‘Italian Job’ he also won the European Championship in 1980. He missed the Euros in 1992 through injury, but was fit for his country’s attempt to retain the world title in USA ’94.

Now 33, he was positioned as the sweeper, nominally at the heart of the defence. Aging legs however, meant that this was more being the team’s ‘quarter-back’ beginning much of their play, rather than having many onerous defensive duties. Eliminated by a Stoichkov-inspired Bulgaria, it seemed his international career was over when omitted from the squad for the Euro ’96 tournament that Germany won. Surprisingly however, he earned a recall for the World Cup in France in 1998 at the age of 37. It was in this tournament that he broke the record for appearances in World Cup finals tournaments, reaching 25. His team was unceremoniously sent packing by debutants Croatia however, and an international career encompassing precisely 150 German caps, a record, was done.

 

It was at this time that any seemingly bottled-up resentment began to be freed, with Matthäus revealing himself to be a dispiriting combination of bitterness, envy and possessing a lack of grace, perhaps only matched by an appetite for an erratic social life. Talks of a rift with Berti Vogts and Jurgen Klinsmann surfaced, over the former’s decision to make the latter captain of the Mannschaft, ahead of a returning Matthäus. A true legend on the pitch, his life off it quickly began to fall well short of such exalted standards.

A brief couple of years after his triumph in Italy, Matthäus’s first marriage of 11 years broke up, around the time he returned to Bavaria following four years with Inter Milan. He stayed in Germany for eight years, during which time he married his second wife in 1994, Lolita Morena, a Swiss model and television presenter. The relationship was not to last however, and shortly before moving to the USA for an abortive stint in the MLS in 1999 that led to retirement, the marriage ended.

It assumed that Matthäus was destined to coach in the Bundesliga, and perhaps to take charge of the Mannschaft itself. It was no surprise therefore when he took up the reins at Austria Vienna. It lasted less than a season though, and was hardly a resounding success. He then joined Partizan Belgrade during their December mid—winter break, leading them to the league title by the following May. As they were already top of the table when he joined however, that may not be the achievement that it initially sounds. Almost precisely a year after joining the club, Matthäus unceremoniously left again, amid rumours that he was to take over the Hungarian national team.

The rumours proved accurate and as manager of the Magyars, Matthäus participated in an unpleasant mutual mud-slinging row with his former employers.  If the Hungarian FA thought their new man was worth the aggravation he brought with him, they were quickly to be disavowed of the opinion. Following a failed World Cup qualifying campaign, both parties agreed to part company, and Matthäus moved on to new pastures – this time to South America and Brazilian club, Paranaene. The departure however was not without the now customary ungracious Matthäus swipe, as he accused the Hungarian FA of “not contributing, but exploiting Hungarian football” and alleging that “it’s not coincidental that the Hungarian bid to host Euro 2012 didn’t receive any votes”.

Whilst in Belgrade Matthäus had met the urbane Marijana Kostic. The already twice-married socialite was to become his third wife in 2003. By this time, his private life was almost becoming a soap opera back in Germany, and it was no surprise that the marriage lasted a mere four years before separation and an acrimonious divorce in 2009, following a year-long wrangle over the division of assets.

Whether the brief sojourn to South America was a contributory factor in the break-up, a consequence of it, or a mere passing irrelevance is unclear. Although results on the pitch were not bad – five wins and two draws in an undefeated seven games – Matthäus reported to the club that he had need of an urgent journey to Europe. He flew out, never to return however, faxing his resignation from Germany. The club were clearly less than pleased, not only due to the manner of his departure, but also by the fact that he had left a $6,000 telephone bill unpaid. A clear pattern was by now emerging that although any Matthäus tenure was likely to be short, it was unlikely to be sweet – especially at its denouement.

Logic would suggest that Red Bull Salzburg would be ‘wide awake’ and alert to the potential problems of employing the former German skipper. Nevertheless, he returned to the Austrian Bundesliga in 2006, and after being joined by his former Inter manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, secured the league title. Just over a year after joining however, Matthäus was sacked by a unanimous board decision.

A further single season followed with Israeli club Maccabi Netanya, before a reported financial crisis at the club ended his tenure. Whilst working for the Israelis however, Matthäus now 47 met the 21 year-old Ukranian model Kristina Liliana at a beer festival in Munich. She was studying journalism at a Tel Aviv university. They married in Las Vegas in 2008, but were already living separately by early 2010. Lurid tabloid speculation about the relationship was seemingly vindicated when the fourth Mrs Matthäus was captured by paparazzi in flagrante delicto with an Italian, more her own age, in southern France. The whole sorry episode was revisited by the press sometime later, when she was also arraigned in America, and accused of third degree larceny for allegedly stealing a boyfriend’s charge card and going on a shopping spree. Whilst professing here innocence, Liliana’s lawyer claimed, “She is considered a treasure by German society and has conducted her life in an exemplary fashion.” Lothar Matthäus may dispute that.

Cuckolded, his position apparently cost him the opportunity of succeeding Paul Le Guen as manager of Cameroon. In a statement, Matthäus related: “These photos were like a punch in the face. As soon as I saw them, I lost faith. On the pitch I struggled, but my marriage I’ve lost. I cannot have any future with a woman who behaves in this way. The wife of the President of Cameroon has heard of my marital crisis and has refused to let me lead the nation.” It’s difficult not to sympathise with such a scenario, but the lifestyle Matthäus had built for himself was always likely to have some such outcome eventually. Even in his native Germany, empathy was in short supply. After years of being heralded as a national hero, his reputation had by now crumbled, and such outcomes, on the back of unsavoury outbursts hardly helped matters. A Hitler jibe against the Dutch and a racist and sexual taunt to a women’s basketball team, only served to further alienate him from his country’s affections.

By now, the marriage-separation cycle was rapidly becoming as familiar as the coaching appointment-departure scenario. Following a break from the game, he was appointed to head up the Bulgarian national team. After serving his now seemingly ‘regulation’ one year in post, a failure to qualify for the Euro 2012 tournament brought about an apparent end to his coaching career. His time in Sofia had seen some ignominious scenarios, including players been found on a drunken all-night party after an embarrassing defeat to  Belarus. Some reports say Matthäus stumbled on the players’ shenanigans, whilst others say he was part of it. It also was whilst in post with the Bulgarians that Matthäus issued the comment aimed at the women’s basketball team. As his reputation plummeted, a sustained period as a columnist for Sport Bild, a publication famed for the sort of lurid stories often written about Matthäus, would hardly have helped matters. A case of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em…’ one imagines.

That Lothar Matthäus saw himself as some kind of playboy is probably beyond question. At one stage, his website even had him pictured in a high-society hotel, adopting the guise of some minor royalty or mid-European aristocrat, clinging onto the remnants of a faded glory – perhaps it was more apposite than he imagined. A couple of years ago, in an overt attempt to project himself back into the public eye, he sought to instigate a Facebook campaign stating that he would launch a playing comeback, if he could achieve one million ‘likes’. Whether the paltry response he achieved was a measure of contempt or just lack of interest is unclear. Safe to say however, that there was no comeback.

Now 53, it seems that any hopes he may have harboured of coaching in his native country have now gone. As each appointment was gained and then lost, together with each unsavoury tabloid headline, the chances  receded from unlikely, through improbable, and now to virtually impossible. The baggage that Matthäus would bring with him would surely be too heavy a burden for any but the most desperate of clubs to bear. Perhaps a period of anonymity is now in order. For a man who achieved fame, and then seemingly courted infamy, a reflective period away from the glare of publicity may be the only way to restore a squandered dignity and respect. Someone needs to tell the fallen-hero that when you’re in a hole, it’s probably time to stop digging.

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