It was in the fourth minute of sudden death extra time at Robert F Kennedy Stadium in Washington DC when Lothar Matthäus registered his first assist in Major League Soccer. While playing for the impossibly named New York/New Jersey MetroStars in the first spring of the new millennium, the former European and World Footballer of the Year took a free kick that was headed in by his fellow defender Mike Petke for a 3-2 win at defending champions DC United. Under the league's rules at that time, this meant that the MetroStars had won the game. I remember the moment as much for what happened next.
As his team-mates mobbed Petke and buoyantly celebrated a rare away victory at their east coast rivals, Matthäus stayed well away from the melee, pointedly abstaining from joining the jubilation. The team captain and expensive marquee star was showing everyone just what he thought of a league that was not yet five years old. This is Mickey Mouse football. Two months ago I was still playing for Bayern Munich in the Champions League against Real Madrid. In a few weeks time I'll be heading back over to play for my country in the European Championships. But hey, go ahead and dance around for your tiny little victory if that's what you want. Though knowing Matthäus's ego, he probably thought they should have been mobbing him for the assist.
It was only his fifth game for the MetroStars, but already few people could understand why the 39-year-old Matthäus had bothered coming to play in the US after such a storied career with Bayern (seven Bundesliga titles over two spells), Borussia Mönchengladbach, Inter Milan, and the small matter of holding the World Cup aloft as German captain at Italia 90. The last player to have done that was Franz Beckenbauer. Ah yes, Beckenbauer. Whatever greatness he had achieved, Matthäus more or less mirrored. Until, that is, New York.
No one mentions Pelé, the North American Soccer League and the New York Cosmos without including the Kaiser in the same sentence. When the Cosmos soared in popularity during the 1977 season, a New York Times article seeking to examine the sudden change in the country's attitude towards football partly put it down to "the cool of Franz Beckenbauer". On the field, where he set the tempo and dictated the play. Off the field, where he thrived in his new surroundings, heading out on the town with his new mate and neighbour Rudolf Nureyev and enjoying the absence of the German tabloid press.
Beckenbauer loved New York, and was quick to ingratiate himself with the locals by comparing it favourably with his home nation. “In Germany, the crowd is so different," he said. "It is so masculine… so serious… so ready to criticize. Here it is a delight. Here they come to enjoy and even before the game starts there is a kind of wonderful excitement. They come as fans… not as a jury.” Apart from the long travel to away games and the artificial pitches, "everything else here is perfect. The organization of the Cosmos, the players, the country - it is a great country, a friendly country."
When Matthäus signed for the MetroStars in late 1999 ahead of the following year's campaign, the parallels were duly noted. Beckenbauer had helped to push football into the US sporting consciousness over 20 years earlier. Now his successor was tasked with figuratively lifting a previously hopeless team out of the swamp around the Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey, where the Cosmos had once attracted crowds up to a capacity of 77,000. The MetroStars, by contrast, generally played in front of around 15,000 souls lost inside a ground built for gridiron Sundays.
"I don't feel one player alone can make a difference," said Matthäus upon signing. "But together... we will be able to turn this around and accomplish as much success as I have accomplished in my 20 years." There's no reason to doubt his sincerity, but by the following January the two men at the MetroStars who had persuaded him to sign - coach Bora Milutinovic and general manager Charlie Stillitano - had lost their jobs. Matthäus tried to claim this meant his contract was no longer valid, and said he was having second thoughts. New coach Octavio Zambrano hastily flew to Bayern Munich's training camp in Spain to talk him back around. No doubt flattered by this move, Matthäus agreed to show up for pre-season training in March, but his brief recalcitrance - along with earlier rumours that he wanted to delay his arrival until the end of the European season in June - had set the tone for what was to come.
The cliché in US sports during the 1970s was that if a team could be made to succeed in New York, then the entire league could succeed too. The Cosmos proved this to be true in both senses. The NASL thrived and expanded when the Cosmos were big news. Their general manager Clive Toye wanted to build a team around Beckenbauer after Pelé retired, but he was ignored and sacked. "I had wanted Franz Beckenbauer at the Cosmos to be at the centre of an increasingly American team," he says, but the club just wanted more superstars. The rest of the league tried to follow suit, but superstars cost a lot of money. Not even Beckenbauer's second spell at the Cosmos in 1983 could help halt their decline as teams all around them went bust. By early 1985 both the club and the NASL were finished.
When Major League Soccer kicked off 11 years later, it vowed with good reason to do things differently from the boom-and-bust NASL. Long term financial stability and central control of all player contracts were at the core of the league's founding philosophy. This made the signing of Matthäus all the more curious - surely this was exactly the kind of signing the league eschewed as extravagant and short-sighted? Yet the league's deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis enthusiastically signed off on it, despite the fact that a player of Roberto Donadoni's calibre had already failed to lift the MetroStars in their opening two seasons.
It's a jaded truth that a place like Manhattan will only love a winner. Especially a rich and famous winner. It was all now down to Matthäus to settle in and adapt in the same way as the urbane and worldly Beckenbauer had done so effortlessly in the 70s. Matthäus, though, has always been hampered by a mouth that works much faster than the restricted intellect of his brain, and a chronic shortfall in self-awareness. You don't come to New York and expect to be loved for nothing. You don't show up and start kvetching.
The MetroStars had procured a flat in Trump Tower for the twice-divorced Matthäus and his 22-year-old girlfriend, Maren Müller-Wohlfahrt, the daughter of Bayern Munich's team doctor. The rent was reported to be $10,000 per month. The player found that the rented furniture was not to his liking, so he sent Maren out to buy some new stuff, then charged it to the club. Nice start.
Matthäus had been told during his contract negotiations that the team was mediocre, and that re-building it was going to take a while. Yet when they lost 1-0 at home to Columbus in only the season's third game, he went loud and public with his thoughts on the quality of his team-mates. "We lose the ball very fast," he said. "We have no control. It's a simple game, but we don't understand the simple game."
When the MetroStars asked him quite politely to shut up, though, Matthäus said he'd only done it to motivate them. The club discovered something else about Mattthäus. He is never wrong. And even when he's caught doing something wrong, it's always for the greater good.
In May the league suspended him for a game after three successive yellow cards, given out for bad tackles and a near constant stream of dissent (the referees were clearly just as bad as the players). When Matthäus went off to play for his country at Euro 2000, many wondered if he'd bother coming back. While he was gone, the MetroStars began to regularly win games. Would Matthäus even get back in the team? Wouldn't he spoil the dynamic? In the event, he stuck to his contract and flew in, played his first game back from the start, but left the game after an hour with a back problem.
The injury was apparently so bad that he needed treatment from his girlfriend's father, Dr. Müller-Wohlfahrt, back in Germany. The good doctor wrote Matthäus a sick note for a few days. The player then turned up on the pages of German tabloid Bild, sunbathing on the beach at St. Tropez with young Maren. No doubt all part of the cure. "It doesn't look good when a team's fighting for the championship," said team-mate Tom Dooley, "and an injured player's lying on the beach."
Matthäus eventually returned once more, and even went on to help the MetroStars come within a game of making the MLS Cup Final via the post-season playoffs. In those last few weeks he was playing well, keeping quiet, and staying out of trouble. By this time, however, the damage was done, and few in New York or MLS were sorry to see him depart at the end of the year.
The Kaiser is still revered as a sporting icon in New York, even if his home country knows him better as the idiot who tetchily claimed there was no slavery in Qatar because he personally hadn't seen it. Beckenbauer got plenty out of living in Manhattan, hob-nobbing with Mohammed Ali and Mick Jagger in the nightclub Studio 54, but he put plenty back in too. "In New York I had the most beautiful time of my life," he said in 2013.
Matthäus, though, came to the city expecting it to bow in obeisance, and presuming American soccer would be grateful for his mere presence. Earlier this year, he looked back on his time in the US in the only way he knows - self-importantly. "I would even have liked to stay for another year," he told Kicker magazine. "In the end I hope and think that I made a small contribution to the fact that football has become more popular in the US."
This contribution was certainly very small, at best. Matthäus was derided in America long after the memory of his three assists in 21 appearances had faded. The first thing any fans of the team - nowadays known as the New York Red Bulls, but still playing in New Jersey - will say if you mention the name Lothar Matthäus is, "The fucking furniture!" You can boast as many medals and titles as you want, but in New York and Jersey they'll never forgive you for being a jerk.
Sources: New York Times, Kicker, Elf Freunde, Soccer Digest, Spiegel Online, Soccer America, author interview (Clive Toye)
Ian Plenderleith is the author of Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League* available here with a £2 discount. It will be published in the US by Thomas Dunne Books in September 2015.
Ian is @PlenderleithIan.