"I always kept ploughing on regardless."
This quote neatly encapsulates the exact characteristic that has always made Thomas Berthold such a unique figure. The former world-class German defender has never protected himself nor spared others both during and after his playing career. He was and remains a plain-speaking man.
This trait fits perfectly with the playing style that earned him the most important title in world football as he helped Germany to FIFA World Cup™ glory in 1990. “I either do something properly or not at all; with me there are no compromises,” Berthold explains in an interview with FIFA.com.
“I always wanted to win. You could even see that in training. I was one of those guys who pushed themselves to the limit.” He came from a family of sporting enthusiasts: his father Gunter was a ski jumper, swimmer and - naturally – a footballer, his mother Inge was a handball player and gymnast, and his sister Christine was a German field hockey champion.
Wrong place at the wrong time
Berthold’s pursuit of silverware began at a very early age, when he became a German champion with Eintracht Frankfurt at the age of 15. At 18, he made his Bundesliga debut for the Hessian side under legendary coach Branko Zebec, who praised his young charge as an “exceptionally gifted footballer”.
He stuck resolutely to this path in the years that followed. Initially deployed as a midfielder, he became a decent attack-minded right-back in his final year with Frankfurt. In 1987, the 22-year-old became the youngest German international to seek a fresh challenge in Italy; neither Rummenigge, Voller, Briegel nor Haller had dared to make such a bold move at that age. When he arrived in Verona for contractual negotiations, he got off to a great start by impressing club officials with his command of the language.
Upon reflection, the committed vegan describes his time with Hellas Verona and then with Roma as the best years of his career and regards his decision to move back to the Bundesliga to join Bayern Munich as a mistake. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he explains. “Situations arose there that shouldn’t have. Perhaps I should have stayed in Italy at that point.”
He was excluded from training after clashing with coach Erich Ribbeck, and with little else to do he was soon dubbed “the best paid professional golfer since Bernhard Langer” by the club’s treasurer. After two disappointing years with the record-breaking German champions between 1991 and 1993, he was able to recapture at least some of his former glory with league rivals VfB Stuttgart before heading to Turkey to see out his playing career.
A momentous interview
His departure from international football was somewhat more abrupt. After giving a critical interview in 1994 in which he questioned how a player of his quality could win only 62 caps for his country, the tough-as-nails defender was never again selected to represent Die Mannschaft.
He scored his only international goal in a World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic. “It was a lovely header from a corner,” Berthold remembers with a laugh. Nevertheless, the full-back has 18 World Cup matches under his belt, placing him tenth on the all-time list of appearances at the world’s greatest football tournament.
He was a key member of Germany’s team in 1986, 1990 and 1994, first finishing as a runner-up before lifting the Trophy 24 years ago in Italy, the country where he was then playing his club football. “To play in the Final in Rome was something very special,” he recalls. “At that time, we had five players in the starting line-up who played in Italy. It was by far the strongest league in the world back then.”
Although more than ten years have passed since Berthold hung up his boots, he has retained his open and honest manner, as he proves in his interview with FIFA.com just a few days after his 50th birthday. He asserts that Germany’s 1990 world champions were better than the 2014 team, and when asked why, replies: “In 1990, the team played as a unit from start to finish. We knocked out the then reigning European champions from the Netherlands as well as beating reigning world champions Argentina.”
Man of many talents
Since calling time on his playing career, Berthold has made his peace with the media to become a TV pundit and columnist. Although there are some things he would do differently when looking back, he is not one to cry over spilt milk. “As a player I always kept ploughing on ahead and wasn’t one for plotting or manoeuvring.”
Whether as a defensive hard man, racing driver, mentor, manager, TV commentator or director of a real estate company, Berthold has always lived by the same motto: “nothing is impossible”. When he sets about doing something, he puts his heart and soul into it, and although he may never have been as prominent as Rudi Voller, Jurgen Klinsmann or other stars of his generation, there is no disputing the defender’s success.
Thomas Berthold is someone who never backed down during his career, always expressed his opinions and overcame every obstacle in his path – qualities that more than make up for any lack of recognition.