Germany and Argentina meet in the FIFA World Cup™ quarter-finals on Saturday, reviving memories of epic clashes in times gone by. In 1986, the South Americans beat the Europeans in a memorable FIFA World Cup Final. Four years later, a Germany team captained by Lothar Matthaus exacted revenge for that defeat in Mexico with victory over La Albiceleste in Rome. The sides met again in 2006, the FIFA World Cup hosts overcoming the South Americans on penalties in the quarter-finals.
The teams now renew acquaintances at the same stage in South Africa. Ahead of the latest instalment in the long-running rivalry, FIFA.com spoke exclusively to former FIFA World Player of the Year Matthaus, asking him for his views on Saturday's showdown, starlet Thomas Muller, the contrasts between head coaches Diego Maradona and Joachim Low, and his favourites to lift the trophy.
Lothar, you've been in South Africa since the start of the tournament. What's been the biggest surprise for you so far?
Lothar Matthaus: I don't think anyone was expecting a quarter-final between Uruguay and Ghana, and not many people backed Paraguay either. Another surprise is the presence of four South American teams in the last eight. But it's been a positive surprise, with their excellent individuals, fighting spirit and smart tactics. Aspects of the climate here are similar to South America, so maybe that's a factor. And the national teams are benefiting from having a lot of players in Europe's leading leagues. But a special mention to Germany at this point. It's not just the excellent results delivered by this young team, it's also their fantastic performances.
Are there any individuals who've particularly impressed you?
There were always certain names we were expecting to see high up in the goalscoring charts - Gonzalo Higuain or David Villa for example. But no-one could have predicted Germany's Thomas Muller, who's only had a year at senior level. I'm really impressed, not just with his three goals, but also with his determination and strong running. He and a number of the young German players are looking at bright futures.
What's your take on the Germany team as a whole?
They're playing some tremendous football. We always thought they'd make it to the quarter-finals, but no-one was expecting them to win the whole thing, because it's a very young team and lacks tournament experience. But this World Cup is unpredictable. Germany's best bet is not to batten down the hatches, but to continue expressing themselves. There's nothing to lose, because they've already met expectations. Everything from now on is a bonus. This is a team for the future, and they're here to learn.
How do you explain Germany's strong showing at the FIFA World Cup, given the loss of captain Michael Ballack to injury before the finals?
I'm genuinely upset for Michael Ballack, but I have to say his absence has helped Germany. I don't mean that in a spiteful way, but Ballack was arguably holding up a number of players who've now blossomed. Each of them has taken on a little more responsibility. Germany are playing with far more pace. Ballack often took a lot of pace out of the game, but that wouldn't fit the mentality of this young team. Missing out is a personal catastrophe for Michael, but it's benefitted Germany.
Germany now meet Argentina in the quarter-finals on Saturday. What are you expecting from the clash in Cape Town?
It's a huge fixture. The two nations are really looking forward to it, and the world's media seem mesmerised by it. It's the next big highlight at this World Cup, the meeting of two of the biggest footballing nations. Argentina arguably have the better individuals, but Germany have been a better team unit so far. I'm really intrigued to see which wins the day: the stronger team, or individual class.
How can Germany win the game?
The biggest factors in Germany's favour are their team spirit and the attacking strength they've shown so far. Taken together, those two aspects could be enough to win. But on the other hand, everyone knows all about Argentina's quality.
Opposing coaches Joachim Low and Diego Maradona are strongly contrasting figures. What's your view of the pair?
Joachim Low has much greater experience and can point to a track record of success. He's selected and shaped his team, he's instilled confidence in his young players, and he has them playing the way he personally favours. I don't see any of that with Maradona. He's not been in the job long, and he's surrounded by plenty of experienced players and coaches, who are doubtless giving him a helping hand. Low takes decisions on his own. In Maradona's case, I have the impression he's not doing that, but relying on his staff instead.
Finally, who will hoist the FIFA World Cup Trophy into the Johannesburg sky on 11 July?
It would be nice if it was a team from the Germany, Argentina and Spain half of the draw, because they'll have followed a much more difficult route than potential finalists Brazil or the Netherlands. Having said that, Brazil remain the overwhelming favourites.