Second Thursday of the month – it’s time for the soccer playmaker series again. After discussing Zico who performed great at the World Cup in 1982 last month and Diego Maradona, who was hot in 1986, let’s move on to a star from the 1990 World Cup.
Let’s start with a question: What do the following teams have in common: SK Rapid from Vienna, Austria, FK Partizan from Belgrade, Serbia, Clube Atlético Paranaense from Curitiba, Brazil and Maccabi F.C. from Netanya, Israel?
The answer is: They have all been coached by a former soccer super star, Lothar Matthäus. Matthäus is one of the most successful German players ever. He lead the team to the victory at the 1990 World Cup, won the UEFA cup twice, seven German league titles and one in Italy. However when you ask people about German soccer idols, they would most probably name other players.
He was an outstanding player, but he failed to connect with the people on an emotional level. It seems like no one loves Matthäus or even takes him very serious – pretty unusual for a player who collected titles the way he did. His coaching career may serve as a proof for this point: Since he started nine years ago, he tried to establish himself as a coach in the first German division or at international top clubs. Without being disrespectful towards the likes of Rapid Vienna, Atlético Paranaense or Maccabi Netanya: They do not fall into this category.
Why did he fail with his mission so far? Why is it that nobody loves Matthäus?
Lothar Matthäus was one of the most ambitious players ever. Not only did he always try to win at any expense, he also always tried to be the leader. Journalists Tim Jürgens and Philipp Köster put it like this in German soccer magazin “11 Freunde” a couple of years ago: “Throughout his career, he always understood each conflict as a power struggle”. He tried to always be the number one in the team, in whatever he did, willing to fight for power with everyone who was not accepting him as the leader – most prominent example probably being Jürgen Klinsmann.
While Klinsmann even today has the image of a soft, empathic guy from next door, Matthäus’ image is quite the opposite: He is seen as way too talkative, insensitive and arrogant. His continuous fight for power made him lonely and and at the peak of his career he seemed to have lost ground, as his legendary interviews in which he was talking about himself as a third person (“A Lothar Matthäus decides about his faith on his own”) clearly showed.
As a result, the public began to eagerly wait for Matthäus to fail, which – not only due to his limited sensitivity – he did more than enough. In his first press conference after switching to the New York/ New Jersey Metro Stars in 2000, reporters talked him into speaking in English even though his language skills were still rather limited. Matthäus couldn’t resist, just like he could never resist when a journalist offered to show-cast him. Excerpts from this press conference were shown in German TV highlight shows for years with viewers gloating: “I hope, we have a little bit lucky”…
The loneliness of a non-participatory leader: Lothar Matthäus may have been one of the greatest individual soccer players of the 1980’s – 1990’s, but it seems like he has lost or is about to lose his biggest match: The fight for appreciation.
Coincidentally, the last two posts in the excellent blog by author and leadership coach Didier Marlier used soccer as a mean to discuss leadership skills. Didier’s point is that great leaders excel at involving others instead of putting themselves first at any price. Leadership is a process of development, not a one-man-show.
Matthäus got it wrong. He was a great soccer player and quite successful in short terms, but on the long run he failed to create followers, which is why today he fails to reach his goals.
The times of the lonely leaders are over. What still used to work in soccer and management in the early 1990’s is not working anymore today. Future leaders will be those that connect others (see my post on “Linchpins” for more details on this).
Lothar Matthäus is none of that kind. In his typical style he once stated that he “dares to be coach in the (German) Bundesliga” – obviously preferably at his former club, Bayern Munich. Their current president Uli Hoeness once said it all when talking about Matthäus: “For as long as myself and (current Bayern CEO) Kalle Rummenigge have a say here, he (Matthäus) will not even become the green keeper”.