Most football fans who consider themselves to be experts will expect to be able to name a long list of recent Ballon D’or winners. If you asked football fans to name the last 20, I believe most would get a good majority; Pavel Nedved, Michael Owen, Andriy Shevchenko and Fabio Cannavaro are probably the toughest gets. The 21st? Perhaps a bit more difficult! The German – Matthias Sammer!
An international tournament is often a place where a player can cement his spot as a member of the elite. Players like Zidane, Ronaldo and Iniesta have all managed this in recent years. Sometimes, as in Euro 2016, no one player can dominate the whole tournament. A star turn at an international tournament is often a show of real quality. At Euro 1996, Matthias Sammer was the star, showing the ability he had shown in the Bundesliga. He had already been German Footballer of the Year in 1995 and starred for Dortmund. He took over the libero position for Germany when Lothar Matthaus injured his achilles in qualification and made it his own. As much as a German side always is expected to do well, the 1996 team were not favourites and described as the poorest German side for years. The honour of favourites went to the Netherlands, whilst Italy, France, Spain and even England were fancied. The group stages went as well for Germany as they could have hoped. They conceded no goals despite being a somewhat makeshift defence. Sammer was central to that with Vogts explaining that “he called the shots in defence.” He was also the key in inspiring a win against Russia. At 0-0, he made a lung-busting run and after receiving a pass from Andreas Moller would split the defence and scored the rebound after the keeper saved his initial attempt.
Croatia, containing the core of the side that finished third in the 1998 World Cup, would be the quarter final opponents. It was a tremendous game. Sammer was booked early in a highly physical game. He would create the first goal though with a driving run that became typical of him. It drew a mistake from Nikola Jerkan to win a penalty which Klinsmann slotted home. Later, Klinsmann and his strike partner Fredi Bobic were both struck down with injuries and Germany seemed to lack the cutting edge in attack without the pair. Of course the hero would be Sammer! He rose to meet a cross from Babbel and headed it off the Croatia defender. Of course, he was first to the rebound and coolly slotted it home. Perhaps his best game came in the semi finals against England. The home nation were in inspired form and grabbed an early goal through Alan Shearer. Sammer was majestic in defence as the Germans were constantly under pressure. His calmness and assurance in defence gave Thomas Helmer the license to attack and he assisted Stefan Kuntz for the equaliser. The Germans after a bout of inspired defending would emerge through on penalties. The German team should have been heavy favourites heading into a final against a Czech team they had already defeated in the group stages. They were but only marginally. The squad had been wrecked through injury and suspension. They only had 12 fit men and were given special permission to call up an extra player. Sammer was one who played despite clearly being injured. He was part of an inspired, battling performance which saw Germany prevail in extra time. Sammer was named player of the tournament for the Euro 1996 champions. He was joined by Hristo Stoichkov as the only men to win two man of the match awards in that tournament.
For those paying attention to the European leagues it was no great surprise. Borussia Dortmund signed him in January 1993 and after Ottmar Hitzfeld moved him to the libero position, the team experienced great success. In the three year period from 1995 to 1997 they won two Bundesliga titles, two DFB-Supercuts and a Champions League. Sammer was German Footballer of the Year two times in a row and won the 1996 Balon D’Or. That period of success for Dortmund would come to an end rather suddenly as Sammer would only play three more games after the Champions League success due to a serious knee injury. A routine operation was complicated by infection and amputation was even feted as a solution. Thankfully it did not come to that but Sammer was unable to play football again. Sammer developed into a world class sweeper but when debuting for Dynamo Dresden in the 85/86 season, it was as a striker. His Dad, who had won two titles with the club, gave him his debut. The following seasons would see him moved onto the left wing and eventually into central midfield by Ede Geyer.
Being born in 1967 in Dresden, he was a staple of the East German youth teams and would make his debut for the national team at 19. He was from a football family, his dad had twice won the league with Dynamo Dresden. It was after he moved to centre midfield that both the team and Sammer would enjoy success. They won the league in 1989 and 1990, also winning the FDGB-Pokal. They reached the 1990 UEFA cup semi finals, losing to Stuttgart who would then buy Sammer for £1.1m that summer. He scored eleven goals in his debut season as they went on the finish sixth. He would also make history as the final captain of the East Germany for whom he made 23 appearances. Following reunification, Sammer would enjoy great success. He was one of a few East Germans who would start for the first unified German team. Stuttgart would then top the first unified German league prompting a move to Italian giants Inter Milan, for £5.1m. On the pitch, adapting was easy as he scored four goals in eleven appearances. He did not settle as well off the pitch and pining for a return to his ‘homeland’, he got it with a move to Dortmund.
Sammer was distinctive with his red hair often matched by a red face. He always had a slight frame, his Dad saying “he had no physicality to his game” and he only “mastered tackling as the years possessed.” He was one of the greatest sweepers ever, probably only bettered by Franz Beckenbaeur and Franco Baresi. Perhaps his best attributes were intangibles rather than skills. His positioning was superb at both ends of the field. It allowed him to make his drives from deep which gave him many scoring opportunities. He also understood what he was as a player. His passing was great, not in a Modric-esque but rather because he barely gave away the ball. His determination and courage was famous, he finished a game against Borussia Monchengladbach after having his eye stapled shut without anaesthetic. He had stamina to chase down balls all day and was considered to be a great leader who inspired his teammates.
Matthias Sammer is a legend, an unappreciated one. Perhaps part of that is his greatest performances came at a position which barely exists anymore. He never played flashy but always was efficient with his ability to influence games at both end. What added to his value was the intangibles. He was a winner who pushed his teammates to greater heights and that was what made him so valuable. Every coach dream’s of having a Matthias Sammer.