Football: Matthaus plans to add a final chapter to his World Cup story

At the age of 37, the former German captain is preparing for his fifth World Cup campaign. But as he tells Ian Stafford, he refuses to live on past glories
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IT WAS the year when Dino Zoff raised the World Cup aloft after his Italy team had convincingly beaten West Germany in the final. It was the year when a half-fit Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking were unable to score the goals needed to keep England's hopes alive, the year when Harald Schumacher's crashing collision with Patrick Battiston helped deny France a place in the final.

For one German at least, 1982 holds happier memories. Lothar Matthaus remembers it as the occasion when he first made his appearance in the World Cup finals, as a 21-year-old substitute for Paul Breitner in a group game against Chile.

Although it was to be his only appearance in that tournament, it was the start of a glorious World Cup career. Matthaus went on to play in two finals, losing to Argentina in 1986 but earning revenge as Germany's World Cup-winning captain four years later. He also played in 1994 on his way to a national record of 122 caps.

Yet Matthaus's remarkable World Cup story is not over yet. Last week the 37-year-old midfielder was recalled into Germany's squad for France '98 after what he considers one of the best seasons of his career. Moreover, he has no intention of merely making up the numbers. "I'm not going to France to sit on the bench and watch us play for a month," he said when we met in Munich last week.

Good timing, injuries and a degree of luck have all played their part in the unlikely return of Matthaus to the international fold, but the biggest single factor is the sheer hunger of the man himself for the biggest football event of them all.

"I live for today," he insists. "I always have done. What's happened in the past has been fantastic, of course. But all of that is in the past. What happens now matters most to me. Reputations count for very little in this game. Germany has a chance of winning another World Cup, and I want to be there to play a big part."

The fact that he most likely will is an extraordinary achievement. His World Cup debut seems a long time ago, but Matthaus has strong memories of 1982. "I didn't play in the final against Italy, but I remember it was a great game, and I remember how bad the Germans felt after losing," he said.

By 1986, however, Matthaus, who had moved from his home town club, Borussia Monchengladbach, to Bayern Munich, was a crucial cog in the German team. "That was Maradona's tournament," he recalls. "No doubt about that. Argentina did not win the World Cup, Maradona did." What about the Hand of God? Matthaus smiles and concedes with a shrug. "Yes, that was tough. But what about that second goal?"

This time he experienced a World Cup final defeat at first hand. Was that hard to bear? "Nowhere near as much as people might think," he says. "Of course we wanted to win, but we came second in the World Cup. How many of the other teams would have settled for that? You cannot win all the time, and Argentina were then a great side."

By Italy, 1990, Matthaus, elevated to team captain, had blossomed into the complete article. A rock in front of the back four, he led his team by example, and scored, as Yugoslavia will testify, a number of goals, often from the edge of the penalty area after incisive runs from the half- way line. The final, against Argentina again, was dismal. The semi-final, against England, was not.

"It should have been the final," Matthaus said. "The England team were very correct, very strong. I liked their mentality, and I know we were so lucky to win. I respected the English then, and I respect them now."

He gained a few English friends when he ignored his teammates' wild celebrations to console Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce after they had both missed penalties in the excruciating shoot-out to give the game to Germany. "Of course," he replies, apparently surprised that I should even point this out. "I understood how they felt. It was no way to lose a semi-final, and I just wanted them to know it was not their fault. It could so easily have been me."

In arguably the worst World Cup final ever an Andreas Brehme penalty won the night for the Germans whilst the Argentines concentrated on collecting red cards. "I was happy that we won the cup, but I would have preferred it if we had won 3-2, instead of by one penalty. It takes two teams to make a good match, but one of them only wanted to defend. It was not a good match for the people, and not a good match for the game of football either."

Still, this was probably the last thing to cross the captain's mind as he hoisted the World Cup trophy high above his head in the Olympic stadium in Rome. How did he feel at that moment?

Matthaus shakes his head, splutters, smiles, waves his hands around, and finally apologises for his "bad English" which, incidentally, is better than some English footballers try to produce. In truth, he is just struggling to come up with the words, German or English, to describe such a moment.

"It was normal," he eventually says. "It had always been a dream of mine. Now I was living my dream, and that's exactly how I felt. It was all just a dream. I thought it wasn't really happening, that someone was playing a joke. I thought I would suddenly wake up, and I would not be standing on a football pitch with the World Cup, but I would be in my bed."

If 1990 was a dream, then 1994 turned, by German standards, into a nightmare. Nobody expected Bulgaria to sweep them aside in the quarter-finals, not even Bulgaria. And certainly not Matthaus. "One moment we were drawing, then they scored two quick goals and it was all over," he recalls. "We were shocked, of course, but it only proved what I have been saying for some time now. Every team in the World Cup is dangerous."

Matthaus, cleverly, went on holiday to Hawaii. By the time he returned to Germany, having moved from Internazionale back to Bayern Munich, the consternation had died down. "But it was bad when the players first came back," he says, with a rueful smile. "The people here think we are always going to win the World Cup. I am glad I was on holiday."

A few games later Matthaus's international career seemed to be over. A succession of injuries, and a series of personality clashes, notably with Jurgen Klinsmann, resulted in a growing absence from the side. When Matthias Sammer emerged to become the player of the tournament as Germany won the 1996 European Championship, few could see any way back for Matthaus.

"Yes, I too thought my international career was finished," he admits. "It was very nice to play 122 times, but I was still disappointed. I knew I still had something more to give to the team, and I didn't want to end my career with an injury."

And so, it turns out, the German coach Bertie Vogts agrees, although injuries to Sammer and Olaf Thon have played a crucial part in the return of Lothar Matthaus. Is he too old? "No, in fact I have just played one of my best seasons," he answers.

Was he surprised by his recall? "A little, but I knew I stood a good chance because I spoke with the national coach the week before about the World Cup."

Is he going to be at loggerheads with teammates, then? He smiles. "Any of that is in the past. It won't be a problem for me playing for Germany again. Many of the players are Bayern Munich colleagues. Don't forget, I have played with and I know people like Thomas Helmer, Andreas Moller, Thomas Hassler, Oliver Bierhoff. I don't see this as a big comeback. I see it that I have been away on holiday, and now I have come back to my family, my football family."

I tell him that the English would probably like to avoid Germany this time, especially when it comes to penalty competitions. He smiles again. "I'm sorry for 1996 too," he says, referring to the European Championship defeat. "That should have been the final as well. But we hope we play you in a penalty competition. We always win."

If anyone has an idea of likely World Cup winners it should be Matthaus, but even he is struggling to name a team this time. "It is because the tournament is so wide open," he explains. "Of course I think Germany have a good chance. We have no weaknesses. But I look at Brazil, I look at Italy, maybe Holland, maybe Spain, Argentina, and I see teams that could win too. France will be very difficult in their own country. We musn't forget Nigeria, either. They are a good team."

I look at him with a pleading expression. He gets the drift. "Oh, of course, I think England have a chance too. They are looking very good this time, very strong. Everybody in Germany respects the English."

This, Matthaus promises, will definitely be his last World Cup. "Even my wife has told me this," he said. "But I am first going to enjoy myself. I am not the captain, so I can just concentrate on training and playing. I know this is my last chance and so, for the next few weeks, I am going to try my hardest."

Then, just possibly, Matthaus might be satisfied with his lot. "Maybe," he says. "If Germany win the World Cup again."