In September 2010, Germany’s most-capped player Lothar Matthaus took the coaching hot seat in Bulgaria. The east Europeans, whose greatest triumph was fourth spot at the FIFA World Cup™ back in 1994, have made good progress since then, with three victories, a draw and just one defeat.
FIFA.com spoke exclusively with the former midfield general about the Bundesliga, a new generation of talented German starlets and their role in the national team, Bulgarian football and the specifics of qualifying for UEFA EURO 2012.
FIFA.com: You doubtless followed the Bundesliga season very closely. What’s your view of the new German champions?
Lothar Matthaus: Borussia Dortmund were one of the most positive surprises of the season. Nobody expected BVB to win the league, but they absolutely deserved the title because their young team played the most attractive football and thrilled a legion of fans.
You have seven title winners’ medals, so you know exactly what the new champions will have to deal with next term. How far do you think BVB can go in the future?
The destination of the 2011/12 title will be decided by Bayern. The club will be utterly ruthless in that respect. But BVB have a young team, and they’re hungry for more honours. I believe coach Jurgen Klopp and his players can go places both at home and in Europe, because the squad’s strong enough to cope with the twin challenge of the Bundesliga and the Champions League.
You’ve mentioned Jurgen Klopp, one of a new generation of coaches with a non-traditional approach who seem from the outside to be much closer to their players. What are the main attributes of this new generation?
Every coach, young or old, has his own individual approach. Klopp and also Mainz boss Thomas Tuchel do benefit from the relatively small gap in age between themselves and their players, so there’s a good blend: they’re one of the lads but also a figure of authority. But I don’t believe the young coaches are automatically better than the old hands such as Jupp Heynckes or Felix Magath, who I think is one of the best there is in Germany. Klopp and Tuchel need more success before we can really say where they stand.
Do you think it helps if a coach was previously an experienced and successful player?
It was easy enough for me to make the transition to coaching, because as a player, I was very much the coach’s right-hand man on the field. There was coaching blood in my veins even then. I enjoy the work, but I’m obviously always going to be judged on current results. Because of what happened in my playing career, people have unrealistic expectations of the results I can achieve. Limited resources will always mean limited success.
It was easy enough for me to make the transition to coaching, because as a player, I was very much the coach’s right-hand man on the field. There was coaching blood in my veins even then.
2010/11 wasn’t positive for the coaches who were dismissed in the course of the Bundesliga season, fully 12 of them this time round. What do you think of this trend?
Actually, it’s always the same. In any case, installing a new boss is no guarantee of success, as we saw from the example of [relegated] Eintracht Frankfurt. It's very unfair on many of the coaches, but it’s part and parcel of the business. Fans and the sponsors put pressure on the club, and when it all becomes too much, the management reacts. In the case of Wolfsburg, re-hiring Felix Magath was the right decision, but Christoph Daum wasn’t the right man for Frankfurt. However, at the end of the day, it’s always down to the players.
Turning to more encouraging trends, a number of new starlets emerged in the course of the season. Who’s the most promising of the lot?
There are a few. Dortmund’s Mario Gotze and Kevin Grosskreutz showed huge ability for their ages, and Shinji Kagawa had an outstanding first half of the season until his injury. And you have to mention Borussia Monchengladbach’s Marco Reus, who had a terrific season.
Why is it that so many younger players have made the breakthrough recently?
They nurture young talent in a different way these days. The clubs all have academies, so the young players have a much more thorough grounding in the basics. And in turn, it means the chance to move up to the senior ranks comes along earlier.
Will the German national team benefit from the trend?
Definitely. You only have to look at the junior national teams, where German football has made huge progress compared to the likes of Spain, Italy and the other major nations. The senior team is bound to benefit from this development. Germany finished third at the World Cup last summer with one of the youngest teams at the tournament. The footballing world was astonished by Germany. There’s always been plenty of respect, but we’re envied now for our attractive football.
You’re talking about the high-tempo game instilled by Joachim Low and his coaching staff over the last few years?
Exactly. Germany are no longer simply about physical robustness, there’s technical ability too. The play moves at much higher speed now. You need intelligent players who can use their brains, but also boast peak physical fitness. This analysis has been successfully translated into action.
As Bulgaria boss, is your main problem the lack of exceptional young players coming through to inherit the mantle of the great side of the 90s?
You can’t make the comparison with Germany. The options in Bulgaria are limited, and that’s true from the first level of youth development all the way up to the pro ranks. We have young players with fantastic talent, but if they’re not properly nurtured from the start, it’s hard to match current international standards. That's why I think it’s vital for these players to move abroad as quickly as possible and gain experience there. I’m absolutely sure all my internationals would add value to Bundesliga teams.
It sounds as though you don’t really believe the glory days are set to return to Bulgarian football any time soon?
You have to be realistic. 1994 is a long time ago. Those days are gone. Football isn’t held in the same esteem as it was back then, and the mood of the nation has changed. People are struggling to keep their heads above water, and funds are much more urgently required elsewhere. Football obviously suffers as a result, and that affects our international competitiveness.
That's reflected in the situation in EURO 2012 qualifying, where Bulgaria are fourth in Group G behind England, Montenegro and Switzerland.
The two opening defeats under my predecessor Stanimir Stoilov mean we only have a slim chance of making it to the EURO, but I’m realistic enough to understand the limits of our ambition. In any case, it’s no longer in our own hands, as we’re dependent on results elsewhere now. Victory away to Montenegro in early June would be a first step in the right direction. If we miss out on the EURO, we’ll turn our focus to the next major target, the World Cup in 2014.
One problem is a lack of attacking punch: Bulgaria have scored just once in four games. Do you miss Dimitar Berbatov?
My priority is stability in every area of the field, both in defence and attack. Obviously, we can’t be happy with the way chances have gone begging, but with a little more luck we might have had a couple more goals or even a win. Berbatov doesn’t play for Bulgaria any more, so there’s no point speculating whether it would have been better with him in the team. The reality is that all my players give it their best shot.
How important is the contribution made by Stilian Petrov, your captain?
As a coach, I need the dressing room hierarchy to be settled and solid. Petrov is my right-hand man on the field, just like I was for Franz Beckenbauer in 1990. He’s hugely respected by the other players, and we regularly exchange views and ideas. I’m delighted he’s on the team.