It is said that you find out your true friends during moments of adversity and, with England's World Cup preparations currently faltering, a note of optimism has arrived from an unexpected quarter.
Tell Lothar Matthaus that you are English and you can be sure that a big broad smile will follow. That is partially because he knows that the conversation will inevitably shift to Italia 1990 -”my summer dream” - when he was outstanding player in a West German team that won the World Cup, but also a consequence of his admiration for the English game.
And, while he is acutely aware of recent results which have seen England fail to score from open play in 450 minutes, he also quickly reels off a series of positives to support his assertion that Gareth Southgate’s team remain high on his list of six favourites.
There is the depth of quality in the Premier League. There is the time of year. And, above all, there is the undoubted progression in tournaments which, while absent from the comparatively irrelevant Nations League, has been very clearly displayed under Southgate
“I started to follow World Cups in 1966,” says Matthaus, who was just five when Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy. “When you see the names of the players, England are one of the favourites in the World Cup. England and France could have three first teams. Fourth place in Russia. Final of the Euros - they are getting very close to winning a title after 1966. But maybe they have a problem with the goalkeeper. They don’t have a goalkeeper like Germany. This can be a big problem.
'You need each player in the World Cup.'
“But I think it is good especially for the countries with such a long league championship without a winter break to play this World Cup during the season rather than at the end. You have so many games and one [domestic] cup competition more. This means the best players generally have between six and 10 games more than in Germany and Spain.”
Matthaus will be at Wembley for Monday night’s friendly between the two teams and he is also optimistic about Germany’s chances in Qatar for what is their first tournament for 20 years without Joachim Loew among the senior coaching staff.
Matthaus played for three seasons at Bayern Munich with Loew’s successor, Hansi Flick, and they still speak regularly.
“Hansi Flick is somebody who loves football - he thinks about football from the morning until the evening,” says Matthaus. “What he does better than Jogi Loew in the last years is he is communicating with the players. Face to face. Clear talking. He is planning why he does this. He is not making a meeting with the players and saying, ‘You will play and you will not play’. He is explaining the reasons with the players before.
“I think it's very important for each player especially to know why he is not playing. This is a quality for Hansi Flick and I believe our team can go maybe seven games in this tournament. I think we have what was missing.”
And Germany’s key player? “Kimmich - he is not scoring 100 goals but he is key. He prepares himself for each training session like each game on a Saturday. He is the leader.”
In explaining what it takes to win a World Cup, Matthaus repeatedly stresses that it is the moment when results take absolute precedence over performances and that the chemistry of the squad - especially the off-field behaviour of those who are not playing - is absolutely critical.
'The best game of the World Cup was against England'
“The team is not only the first 11 - you have people together every day for five weeks,” he says. “You live together, you train together. We had always this luck with people who were not disturbing the atmosphere in the team. You need each player in the World Cup.”
As well as England and Germany, Matthaus’s most likely winners also includes Portugal, Argentina, Brazil and France, for whom he thinks Kylian Mbappe will take over from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s best player. He also expects an African team to challenge, believing that they are more cohesive and less a team of individuals than when Cameroon became the first real challengers 32 years ago at Italia ’90
Mattahus himself is one of only three players in all football history to play in five World Cup finals. He appeared 150 times for Germany during an extraordinary international career that spanned two decades, peaking of course with the World Cup triumph of 1990 when he was among the penalty takers for the semi-final shoot-out win against England.
“The best game of the World Cup was against England, not the final against Argentina,” he says. “It also was the toughest game for us. England had a great team. England started badly and then they were getting better and better. A lot of high quality players.”
And Gazza? “A strong player - crazy on the field,” he says, smiling.
The final was a repeat of 1986 but Matthaus, who Diego Maradona described as his greatest opponent, says that Germany were no longer so concerned about the Argentine icon and were actually more relieved that Claudio Caniggia was suspended after collecting a second booking in the semi-final. “Maradona was not any more at the level he had before,” says Matthaus. “We were more afraid of Caniggia. He had the speed and, for us, in our talking and meetings, was more dangerous.”
Matthaus is certain, though, that Mardaona at his peak in 1986 was the greatest player he faced. And there is a tangible sadness to think that this will be the first World Cup since the death of a personality who, even in retirement, would attend every tournament in support of the Argentina team.
“He was in Munich for my farewell game - I was in Buenos Aires for his farewell game,” says Matthaus. “We played World Cup finals against each other and many games in Italy. We had a special friendship and, many times when we played we celebrated until late until the morning.”