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Opinion \ Willy Calderon

Matthaus is showing his age.

CHARLEROI, Belgium (Thursday, June 22, 2000) -- Time appears to have finally caught up with Lothar Matthaeus.

The 39-year-old libero has been heavily criticized during Euro 2000 for looking clumsy and out of place on an already aged squad. After suffering it's first competitive loss -- 1-0 -- to England in 34 years on Saturday, Germany has been plunged into crisis with a quick exit from the tournament a reality.

Age, lack of talent and injury have been factors in the demise of the German national team. The focal point has been the play of Matthaeus. Before the tournament started, there had been concern among teammates that Lothar's "holiday" in the United States with Major League Soccer’s MetroStars would result in a lack of readiness to perform on the big stage. The fears were justified after watching his deplorable performance in the opening half of a 1-1 draw with Romania. Throughout the encounter, Matthaeus showed lack of initiative and defensive lapses resulting in his teammates having to bail him out.

The most shining example occurred in the fourth minute of the match. Romanian striker Adrian Ilie traveled down the left wing unabated while Matthaeus stood a few feet away ball-watching. Instead of making a challenge or cutting off the angle to goal, he leisurely watched as Ilie laid a pass across the mouth of goal which Viorel Moldovan tapped into the roof of the net.

Through the rest of the match, Matthaeus did add an element of offense by pushing forward, but it resulted in huge gaps being left at the back with goalkeeper Oliver Kahn being forced to act as emergency sweeper on several occasions. After the match, the German camp was thrown into chaos when anonymous players vocalized their dissent and began finger-pointing.

"I am loathe to say it here and now, I don't want to say anything" said captain Oliver Bierhoff after being asked whether players wanted Matthaeus in the lineup. "The coach has said he will listen to our opinions and everyone will get the chance to get off his chest what he wants to say. We will speak to him in private and I hope he listens."

Defender Jens Nowotny went further by volunteering his services. "If Erich Ribbeck tells me to go in, assume responsibility and take command, I am ready to do it," Nowotny said. "It doesn't mean I can't play with Lothar."

Defiant as ever, Matthaeus hit back against his critics in the week. "I haven't noticed anything," he told Bild newspaper. "If no one can tell me honestly to my face what they have against me, that's too bad...I won't allow myself to be made the scapegoat."

However he changed his tone in a later interview as he revealed that he offered to go back to the United States after his poor form in the opening match. "I said to the coach that if the team can't accept me, then I will get in my car, with my girlfriend, drive away, and go back to the USA."

Despite growing sentiment within the German team to drop Matthaeus from the starting lineup, German coach Erich Ribbeck decided to start the defender for his 148th cap against England. "Lothar is still important to my plans," he explained after the match. "He admitted he was tired after the Romania game, but we showed weaknesses that can't be explained just by age and lack of condition."

In the game against arch-rival England, the Germans rebounded with a better performance on Saturday. The Germans were clearly the more dominant team in virtually every facet of the match. Unlike the Romania game when he was substituted, he played the entire 90 minutes and looked slightly more comfortable playing a more conservative role. Despite the improved play, the Germans went down 1-0.

Then came Mathaeus’ 150th and final cap in Tuesday’s 3-0 humiliation at the hands of Portugal, the nadir of a generation of football.

The damage has been done to Lothar's reputation. Like many aging athletes looking for the last summer in the sun, Matthaeus came to Euro 2000 looking for glory. All he has found is disappointment and ostracism. It wasn't just young players that were making him look unprepared and naive. Players such as 36-year-old Romanian Gheorghe Hagi dribbled through him with ease.

The question now is what Matthaeus will do. Clearly outclassed in international football and his reputation in tatters, he will now head back to America in shame. However, his place in the the Metrostars lineup may be untenable as his club have shown major improvement since his departure. What Euro 2000 should have proven to Lothar is that regardless of legendary status, a 39-year-old cannot take his performance for granted.

Willy Calderon, an American living in Bristol, England, can be e-mailed at willy@netcity.co.uk.

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