To mark Inter’s 110th birthday Saturday’s edition of Gazzetta dello Sport featured a lengthy interview with club legend Lothar Matthäus, fresh from being inducted into the club’s brand new Hall of Fame during their anniversary gala on Friday evening.
On top of reminiscing about his four glorious seasons with the Nerazzurri Matthäus also took time to preview this weekend’s big match against Napoli - a match his name will forever be associated with following his Scudetto-winning strike in May 1989 - but perhaps the section of the interview destined to catch most people’s eyes is the one dedicated to Inter’s umpteenth mid-season malaise, as Lothar didn’t pull any punches when it came to criticising the club’s current crop of players.
How I wish I’d been around to see this man play for Inter.
Matthäus, Inter-Napoli is your match.
“I’ll never forget that goal that won us the Scudetto. There was an unbelievable atmosphere at the stadium that day, especially in the second half. Careca opened the scoring, Berti equalised and then...
“With all due respect we didn’t win the Scudetto against Ascoli or Perugia - we won it against Maradona’s Napoli, a team that wasn’t exactly loved in the north of Italy at that time.”
Tell us about that goal.
“It was a central free-kick: Brehme took it initially - badly - but one of the Napoli players hadn’t respected the required distance. Thankfully the referee made us retake it and I told Andy to be a good lad and step aside.
“I noticed that there was a gap in the wall between the second and third player and I took the risk, aiming it directly through the middle. It’s impossible to forget the explosion of noise all around San Siro!”
You won everything there was to win as a player, including a World Cup, but does that rank as one of the best moments of your career?
“Not just that moment: all four years I had at Inter were special. We had a good team back then, although we weren’t the best. Milan’s style of play under Sacchi was more pleasing on the eye than our football under Trapattoni.
“From the outside while I was at Bayern I preferred how the Rossoneri played, although having said that we didn’t play the catenaccio that everybody associated with Trap. We played attacking football, [Aldo] Serena finished that year as top scorer in Serie A, and we had the best defence in the league.”
What do you think you brought to that Inter side?
“A winning mentality. Even [Beppe] Bergomi, who’d already won a World Cup by then, has explained to me since how before I arrived Inter would play to win at home and not to lose away. They were worried about having to play in Udine, Pescara, Lecce...
“I told them ‘let’s not be silly, we’re strong and we’re going to go there and impose our game on them’. And we didn’t just win 1-0: I remember a 6-0 at Bologna, a 3-0 at Pisa...”
The lack of a winning mentality is a problem that’s still present nowadays, despite a Triplete and a fantastic start to this season.
“It’s impossible to explain what’s happening at Inter from the outside. Normally when a new coach arrives you need time at the start and then you settle in - instead the exact opposite is happening.
“It irritates me to see how many points have been lost against the smaller teams over the last few months, because Spalletti is a great coach. Maybe it’s the players who aren’t good enough to play at a certain level, but they have to demonstrate that they’re at least good enough to finish fourth.”
Who’s going to qualify for the Champions League?
“It’s going to be a fight between Inter and the Roman clubs for third and fourth place. Roma look like the stronger team to me but you can’t consider Lazio a surprise package anymore.”
Inter have been out of the Champions League for six years now. What would you say to that?
“The Champions League is crucial these days for the money it brings you, there’s no point denying it. The gap between Europe’s top clubs and the rest is only widening. Bayern aside, Serie A and the Bundesliga are losing all their best players because there’s more money in the Premier League and La Liga.”
Will Inter end up in the top four this season?
“They have everything they need to do so, but it’s time they proved it on the pitch. A win against Napoli would be the turning point in their season.”
How is Inter-Napoli going to finish?
“I’ll be cheering for Inter but I think Napoli are the better team. A 1-1 draw could be a good result for Inter to at least restore some of their self-belief.”
What will be the key to Inter winning the match?
“Limiting Hamsik, Insigne and Mertens: three world class players. And also playing without fear, making it clear to them that we want to attack you.”
Do you think the postponement of the derby was a good thing for Inter or could that game have represented the turning point for them?
“The derby is a weird and wonderful game, back in my day I won more than I lost even though Milan seemed like the best team in the world. Leaving the league table which favours us aside I see Inter and Milan as being on the same level - with some good players, but not enough to take them to the top level.”
Inter could certainly do with a player like Matthäus: someone with personality and a change of place, who also has a few goals in him.
“True, but I think they’re missing more than that. Inter are too reliant on Icardi, and in fact when he got injured they dropped a lot of points.”
Rafinha arrived in January, how much of a factor could he be?
“He’s a technical player, but the important thing remains the balance within the team. Precisely what we saw up until the start of December. It’s up to Spalletti to find the answers.”
How do you explain Perisic’s dip in form?
“He’s not the only one whose performances have tailed off. And don’t tell me he’s saving himself for the World Cup. When we won the World Cup in 1990 it was because a lot of us were playing in what was then the most difficult league in the world. A footballer doesn’t have a switch that they can just turn on and off.”
Whenever he can Maradona speaks badly of Icardi. Thoughts?
“I don’t understand why certain former players feel the need to have it out with current players. Icardi is young and has scored a lot of important goals for Inter. I think they’re missing things in other areas of the team but the Argentine national team is full of super strikers. Like Lautaro Martinez, who Inter have done well to sign.”
One of the issues Inter are facing at the moment is their rapport with the fans: they’re the most passionate and present fans in Italy, but they seem to be losing their patience now and have started to boo the team.
“You can’t blame them. They’ve been showering the team with affection for years and they keep getting nothing in return...
“If you play for Inter you have to be prepared to fight, always. Here though there’s too much of a tradition of backing down. At other clubs with these results the fans wouldn’t be going to the stadium anymore.”
As an Interista do you miss the club being in Italian hands?
“It’s the way the world is going, those with the money are in command. Roll on the Chinese owners, although not having a footballing background they should be looking to get people who’ve spent a lifetime wearing Inter’s shirt on board. I’m thinking of people like Zanetti, who unfortunately is the only ‘ex’ with any kind of important position at the club.
“As much as you need competence you also need a sense of belonging - look at Bayern with Hoeness and Rummenigge...”
A piece of advice for Spalletti?
“Don’t put too much pressure on the players’ shoulders, find the right balance. Having said that I fear that the real problem is the lack of a leader, someone who can carry the team along with him.”
Zenga was certainly one of those. Nowadays he’s in charge at Crotone.
“I’m pleased that Walter has found a club in Serie A. He’s full of passion, a true Interista - although I’m always sceptical about goalkeepers going on to become great coaches... He wasn’t just any keeper though, perhaps he’s the exception. I hope he can go on to coach Inter one day.”
You only spent four years in Milan but you found your way into the Inter fans’ hearts forever.
“I’m very proud to be part of this family, just as I am to have been chosen by the fans for the Hall of Fame ahead of people who won more trophies here than me.
“There were various different generations of Interisti at the anniversary party, although sadly we were missing the man I believe to be Inter’s true icon: Giacinto Facchetti. He was truly unique as a man and as a player, he was always very close to me during those years.”
Which current German player would you recommend to Inter?
“Goretzka, but he’s already signed for Bayern. And we’re back at the root of the problem. The players who make the difference only want the top clubs these days.
“Back when the Serie A ruled the roost with Maradona, Van Basten, Platini and all the others I had offers from Milan, Juventus, Roma and Udinese. Maradona sent some of Napoli’s management to Munich to convince me to sign for them, but in the end it was Trapattoni who won me over on his third trip to Bavaria. He saw me as the perfect leader.”
During the course of the interview Matthäus also touched upon several other topics, such as this season’s Champions League and Italy’s failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Who’s going to win the Scudetto?
“Juve have that winning habit which Napoli don’t have. We saw it against Totteham. Sarri’s side on the other hand struggle to keep their calm when they’re not allowed to slip up, despite being wonderful to watch.”
And now they aren’t allowed to slip up...
“Yes, if they lose against Inter they’ll be five points adrift of Juventus by Wednesday. Otherwise everything will be decided in the head-to-head next month.”
Who will win the Champions League this year?
“One of Manchester City, Bayern and Barcelona. Don’t ask me why I don’t fancy Real Madrid, although they’re always there too.”
Real Madrid have just knocked out PSG and the sheikh.
“Nasser Al-Khelaifi is a friend of mine, he always invites me to come to the stadium. But how can they aim to make progress in the Champions League if, having to come from two goals down against Real Madrid, Emery sends them out with fear in their eyes, no attack-minded midfielders and three forwards who never receive any service?
“They gave off the same impression of impotence that Milan gave off against Arsenal. Arsenal are floundering in the Premier League and didn’t have any forwards on Thursday but Milan hardly reacted to falling behind. And yet the Champions League misses the two Milan clubs like crazy. They have everything to get back into it and yet they can’t seem to manage it.”
Which current players remind you of yourself, both in Italy and in the world?
“Arturo Vidal has real personality. In Italy there’s Milinkovic-Savic, but I would say Nainggolan above all others.”
Italy aren’t going to be at the World Cup.
“It’s hugely sad. Much like a World Cup without Italy. I think your problem was not making a change when you needed to: the same mistake Inter and Milan made after their respective triumphs.
“You need to have the courage in those moments to turn the page and look to the future - Buffon for instance is a legend, but it makes no sense that he’s going to play in the next two friendlies against England and Argentina! Make way for the young players, they need to start learning the ropes.”
Who are your favourites for the World Cup?
“Brazil, France and Germany.”
Who’s the best player in the world?
And the best German player?