Matthaus on Germany's close ties with Asia and Maradona vs. Messi
Germany's World Cup-winning captain, Lothar Matthaus, says the Bundesliga is a natural fit for Asia's players. Photo credit: Bundesliga
The Bundesliga is a natural fit for Asia's top players and better suited to them than Europe's other big leagues, according to one of the German championship's favourite sons, Lothar Matthaus.
The 1990 World Cup-winning captain, who claimed seven Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich, made the claim over the weekend during a promotional visit to Singapore.
He said his country and the Bundesliga shared "a special relationship" with Asia because of shared values.
"Asian players have more in common with the Bundesliga than with Italian or Spanish leagues because they are wedded to the team cause, are hard-working and disciplined," Matthaus told ESPN FC. "There is a special relationship here which is still going strong."
Having been a participant and witness to the evolution of football at the highest level since 1979, as player and media pundit, Matthaus delves deep into his treasure trove of experiences to make his point.
"I played the 1980 UEFA Cup final for Borussia Monchengladbach against Eintracht Frankfurt, who had the legendary South Korean Cha Bum-kun as their forward," he said.
"He was the face of Frankfurt then. He had pace, great technique, was a great dribbler and scored goals. And most importantly, he was the ultimate team man.
"His modern countryman, Son Heung-min, had a good season for Bayer Leverkusen last year. I hope he turns out to be as good as Cha Bum-kun."
Including Son, there were seven Koreans and 12 Japanese in the Bundesliga the past season. Eight of the 12 were regular members of the Japan side, including ex-Manchester United midfielder, Shinji Kagawa.
Matthaus dates the Bundesliga's special connection with Asia to the times of South Korean forward Cha Bum-kun.
"Take the example of Kagawa at Borussia Dortmund. He, Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan have complemented each other so well, and each has learned from the other two," Matthaus said. "Kagawa and other Japan internationals plying their trade in the Bundesliga can transfer the experience of playing in the league -- which, as last year's World Cup bears out, is the most technical league in Europe -- to their national team."
This knowledge transfer, according to Matthaus, is an important process but very understated.
"In Germany's 1990 World Cup-winning team, five or six members -- including myself -- were playing in the Serie A," he said. "The Italian League of those days is unrivaled in excellence to this day. We were playing against Maradona in Napoli, Gullit, Baresi and Maldini in Milan, Baggio in Fiorentina and Mancini and Vialli in Sampdoria on a periodic basis.
"Our national team benefitted enormously because those of us who were in the Serie A were able to share our experiences and skills to the others. Our teammates who were in the Bundesliga were not passive in this process and widened our horizons with their inputs."
Matthaus says Shinji Kagawa and other Japanese players in the Bundesliga can transfer their knowledge to the national team.
Matthaus says aspiring Asian youngsters getting into German academies and German coaches imparting skills in Asian football schools will contribute to the knowledge-sharing process at various age-group levels.
"Eventually, each Asian club and country should think long and hard about what is the best way for each to learn and upgrade skills as a group," he said.
When the 54-year-old talks about international football, others tend to listen intently, as this is a man whose on-field achievements are almost too many to mention.
As well as his seven Bundesliga titles and World Cup crown as German captain just before the nation's reunification, he was a European Championship winner in 1980, a twice UEFA Cup winner and Serie A champion in 1988-89 with Inter Milan. He was the inaugural FIFA World Player of the Year in 1991. He played in five World Cups and a total of 25 World Cup finals' matches.
His professional career spanned 21 years, from 1979 to 2000, the first half as a box-to-box midfielder and a substantial part of the second as a 5-foot-8 centre-back.
Germany won the 1990 World Cup with Matthaus as captain, just before the reunification of the country.
Given the facts and figures, one would easily forgive Lothar Matthaus for exhibiting a dollop of vanity, but he prefers to see his role as part of a collective success.
"I am not a superstar, nor do I want to be remembered as one," he said. "I have always been a team player.
"Footballers have to help each other out. Everybody must give his best in pursuit of common goals -- not individual ones. This has been the German approach through our football history."
The Germans -- when you include West Germany and the unified Germany -- have won four World Cups, or one every two decades since 1954, and they finished runners-up four times. Matthaus says German consistency comes down to the power of teamwork over individual brilliance.
"If you look at German football as a family, Fritz Walter, who was captain in 1954, is the grandfather. Franz Beckenbauer, the captain in 1974, is his son," Matthaus said. "I am Franz's son, and Phillip Lahm, who was skipper last year, is mine.
Coach Franz Beckenbauer greets captain Matthaus during the 25th anniversary celebration of the 1990 WC triumph this July.
"All four titles of ours are team triumphs," he said. "In 1954, Hungary's Ferenc Puskas was the best offensive player in the world, yet we won. In 1974, Johan Cryuff was the best, but his Dutch team lost to us in the final.
"Last year, Messi's Argentina lost to us. In 1990, Maradona entered the tournament as the world's best player, but we defeated his team in the final.
"There is a recurrent theme here, and I believe this strikes a chord in many Asian countries."
The concept of espirit de corps is so hardwired into the legend that he even has a rather surprising choice for his personal favorite game of Italia 1990.
"For a lot of people, our semifinal against England was the best. I know some who say that the round-of-16 match against Netherlands was the best," he said. "However, my own favorite is our first group game against Yugoslavia at the San Siro, which we won 4-1. That was the first step towards achieving our goal. We got to know each other well in that game, and coach Beckenbauer got an idea of the tactics he wanted to employ."
The author played an integral role in England's deep run at Italia '90.
Surprisingly, Matthaus' favourite game in Germany's successful Italia '90 campaign was not the semifinal against England.
Any conversation with Matthaus has to involve Diego Maradona, with whom he famously crossed swords in the 1986 and 1990 finals, with contrasting results. Coach Beckenbauer had sacrificed the German's playmaking skills in the 1986 final and got him to man-mark the Argentine genius, who was having the tournament of his life.
With the German legend having closely watched Messi as a TV pundit, he hesitantly entered the debate comparing the two.
"Both Maradona and Messi will be remembered forever as special players," he said. "I played against Maradona a lot and have seen Messi from up close. In terms of technique and skill, very little separates them.
"Both have had great careers with their clubs. Maradona won Serie A with Napoli, who have never won the title before or after. Messi has had a phenomenal career with Barcelona, winning multiple Spanish and European titles. Only Maradona's win in the 1986 World Cup gives him an edge. The World Cup is a special tournament -- players and fans live and die waiting to win it.
"However, all other factors -- goals, consistency and longevity -- are pointing towards Messi being better. And Messi still has a chance to win in Russia in 2018."
No less a legend than the two Argentines, does Matthaus want to be remembered as a unique player who could defend and attack with equal efficiency and ease, much like his 1986 and 1990 coach Beckenbauer?
"Yes, of course, that is a similarity between us," he said.
Then, he quickly added with a roar of laughter: "There is one difference. I worked hard for the team. Franz made the team work hard for him. He is 'the Kaiser.' I am only Matthaus."
The banter, no doubt, is yet another fascinating aspect of the unique father-son bond. Is Lahm listening?
Abilash Nalapat, a Singapore-based editor for ESPN FC, is the former India and GCC content syndication manager of the Press Association.