As an energetic, physically imposing player with an unyielding will to win, Lothar Matthaus embodied what used to be known in football circles as typically 'German virtues'. Furthermore, he is still the last player to have lifted the most coveted trophy in world football aloft for Germany - 24 years ago in Rome.
In the meantime the game has changed considerably, including the German national team's style of play. Now 52, Matthaus - Germany's most-capped player with 150 international appearances - is confident his homeland can triumph at a FIFA World Cup™ for a fourth time in Brazil by combining their traditional characteristics with more modern traits.
Matthaus was the inaugural winner of the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 1991 and to date is still the only German ever to receive the honour. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Matthaus gives us his thoughts on the forthcoming tournament, his memories of Italy 1990, the meaning of the term "pack leader” and the importance of a winning mentality.
FIFA.com: When you think of Brazil, what words spring to mind?
Lothar Matthaus: Enjoying life, football, samba, Copacabana and food. As a nation, Brazilians exude a zest for life. I've been to Brazil a lot and not only for international games. I worked there for two and a half months in Curitiba and really warmed to the country.
To what extent will Brazil 2014 be a special tournament?
Of course we're all hoping it'll be something special because Brazilians love football. It's like a religion for them. They'll show great hospitality to visitors throughout the country.
How do you view the performances of the German national team under Joachim Low during qualifying?
On a scale of one to ten I'd give them ten, despite the 4-4 draw with Sweden. It was a terrific match and one we're still talking about today. Still, Germany marched through the qualifiers and there's great quality in the side. There were plenty of injuries but they were able to compensate for those. They've got a big, well-balanced squad which is why Germany are among the favourites to win.
Is it fair to say Germany are outstanding going forward but have some weaknesses in defence?
Yes, the defence is maybe the one area that can be criticised. However, the positives from that 4-4 draw should outweigh the number of goals conceded. We were controlling the match and were comfortably winning 4-0. At some point the team stopped playing. It can happen, but that's one of the great things about the game. It can even happen to a team like Germany, who you'd never expect it from. You can see that Germany aren’t the finished article yet. There tend to be more problems at the back than up front, but it's not all about the goals conceded: defence starts in attack. A lot of the time the forwards don't track back at crucial moments and because of that the defence can get into a bit of trouble.
Yet Germany still have the potential to win the World Cup?
Absolutely. If not now then when? We've played well at tournaments in recent years and have reached the World Cup semi-finals twice, the European final once and the last four of the European championships once. The team has always gone close but the last step has always been missing. Those defeats at past tournaments could make the team stronger and more compact.
You played a leading role the last time Germany won the World Cup. How did it feel to lift the trophy in 1990?
It was incredible. You're a world champion for the rest of your life and you're often reminded of it. You can win a lot of titles but the World Cup tops them all. Every footballer dreams of winning it and I was one of the few who lifted the trophy as captain.
What memories do you have of that tournament in Italy?
Back then I used to live in Italy, in fact my house was only 15 kilometres away from Germany’s squad base. That made it a home World Cup for me, I really felt that. The five games in the San Siro were like five games in my front room, where I played for Inter Milan every week. It was a fantastic, moving feeling to be supported by the Italian fans as well as the German ones. The Inter fans got behind the German team not just because of me, but because Andreas Brehme and Jurgen Klinsmann were also at the club. That created a strong connection with the country.
Would you say it was the high point of your career?
Yes. There were a lot of highlights in my career, but a World Cup beats the lot, especially as it took place in the country with the strongest league at the time. [Diego] Maradona played there, as did Careca, [Ruud] Gullit and [Frank] Rijkaard - so many world-class players. There were some great games too. And we didn’t just play against any old teams [at the World Cup] - we faced the Netherlands and in our opening fixture we played against Yugoslavia, who were dark horses for the title and only got knocked out on penalties in the quarter-finals against Argentina. We played England in the last four and Argentina in the final. It was a hard-fought tournament and I believe we deserved to win it as we had the strongest side, even if other nations don’t like to hear that.
What does winning the World Cup mean for a country?
I think the 1954 title was the most important one for Germany. The country was devastated after the Second World War and nobody believed in Germany anymore. Thanks to football, the people could celebrate being successful at something again.
How do you rate Italy’s chances of winning the title in Brazil?
The Italians knocked us out of the last European championship and you always have to be wary of them. They may not have an attractive style like the Netherlands, Germany, Argentina or Brazil but they’re always dangerous and are very well drilled tactically. They’ve got experienced players and a good mixture, which wasn’t the case in 2010. Back then they relied on the team from 2006, a bit like Germany did in 1994. They forgot to make a break. Now they’ve got the right combination of players though, which is why you can’t rule Italy out. Maybe they’re not one of the absolute favourites to win it, but they’ve got a great outside chance.
Do you think there are absolute favourites to lift the trophy this time?
Yes, I believe Brazil and Germany are the two strongest teams, closely followed by Spain. At the 2013 Confederations Cup, Brazil showed they can handle the pressure of winning important games at home, while Germany have been consistent for several years now. Spain have won the last three major titles but they’re not as overwhelming or as stable now. That’s why I think Germany have a better chance of success than Spain.
In Germany your name is often used alongside the term ‘pack leader’. What does that mean?
When things aren’t going so well either on or off the pitch and when you’re together for six to eight weeks as you are at a World Cup, the pack leader keeps the team together and pushes the players on. He understands the problems of the players who are dissatisfied and talks with them. He’s almost an extension of the coach, who was Franz Beckenbauer in my case. I think that alongside other ‘pack leaders’ such as Rudi Voller, Andreas Brehme and Pierre Littbarski, we did a good job at the 1990 World Cup.
Is there a pack leader in the current German side?
Times have changed. Philipp Lahm is one, as is Bastian Schweinsteiger, thanks to their experience, success and high standing within the squad. Per Mertesacker, who’s having something of a renaissance at Arsenal, is also a kind of pack leader due to his personality. Manuel Neuer is too, of course. There are still pack leaders today, but having just one isn’t enough. These guys are leaders but in a different way, which is in part down to the influence of the media.
So in modern football you need more than one leader?
You need leaders, but the pack leaders nowadays express themselves differently. You used to be able to say things at a press conference, but today people are very cautious with answers and interviews. It used to be a bit different and your team-mates weren’t automatically offended by what you said. You could say what’s what to the outside world, but that’s changed now. Players are better prepared to deal with interviews, press conferences and certain statements they make.
In terms of footballing ability, the current Germany side have it all. Do they have the necessary winning mentality too?
That’s been my criticism of the team at recent tournaments. When it came to the crunch, I felt there was a lack of a winning mentality. Of course, everyone wants to win in their own way and everyone tries to do their best, but sometimes you maybe need to do a bit more than your best. You need to do something your opponent isn’t expecting. That’s what I think is missing. When you’re deservedly losing to Italy in 2012 [at the European championship], you need a player to take the bull by the horns. I expect the team to learn from those mistakes, not to repeat them and do things better. If they can do that [in Brazil], they’ll be world champions.