20 Greatest Bundesliga Midfielders of All Time
Lothar Matthaeus, Wolfgang Overath, Guenter Netzer, Mehmet Scholl, Michael Ballack... these are just some of the great German midfielders to grace the Bundesliga. The league has in its history also attracted top talents in the middle area of the park, especially attack-minded players like Kevin Keegan, Krasimir Balakov and Franck Ribery.
The list of elite Bundesliga midfielders could go on and on, making a top 20 compilation a daunting task, but one certainly worth creating. Read on for analysis of which players qualify as the top 20 midfielders in Bundesliga history.
Criteria considered include goals scored and titles won with club and country, with special importance given to goals that were of critical importance to title success.
The way he's become a club legend at Gladbach, it's hard to believe that Juan Arango only moved to the Bundesliga in 2009. Aged 29 when he arrived, most of his time with die Fohlen has been spent after his prime. Yet the impression he has made in Germany is undeniable. Gladbach vice president Rainer Bonhof even opined in 2012 that Arango was more technically gifted than club legend Guenter Netzer. And it's for his technique alone that the 115-times capped Venezuela international makes the cut for this list.
A gifted crosser and absolute master of set pieces, Arango has scored 28 goals and given 58 assists in all competitions for club and country since moving to the Bundesliga. Even at 33, he remains one of the league's best players.
One third of Stuttgart's "magic triangle" along with Fredi Bobic and Giovane Elber, attacking midfielder Krasimir Balakov is also among the best Bulgarians to play in the Bundesliga. The fourth-most-capped player in his country's history, Balakov made 92 appearances for Bulgaria.
Balakov was named to the 1994 FIFA World Cup All-Star Team for his part in Bulgaria's fourth-place finish at the tournament. And impressively, he played at Stuttgart until the age of 37.
Germany has produced many world-class talents over the last decade, but one common complaint is that a true, natural leader has been missed. In these discussions, Stefan Effenberg is almost always referenced as the perfect example of an aggressive leader. He may have earned a staggering 109 yellow cards during his Bundesliga career, but his presence and strength of both body and mind were unrivaled.
Due to an incident in which he made a rude gesture to fans in 1994, Effenberg's international career was cut short. But at Bayern he won three consecutive Bundesliga titles, the DFB-Pokal and the Champions League.
Having made his mark at Leverkusen, Bayern and Hamburg during 12 seasons in Germany, Ze Roberto is a Bundesliga legend. Although his Leverkusen lost the 2002 Champions League final and he was not part of the Brazil side that won the World Cup that summer, the Ipiranga native bounced back and was a huge asset especially to Bayern, where he won the domestic double four times.
Ze Roberto was such an impressive footballer, it's debatable as to what his best trait was. On the one hand, he was highly adaptable: Over the course of his career he played well as a left-winger, in defensive midfield and even at left-back. On the other hand, he played at a high level well into his 30s.
Although he may have been eligible for a list of best Bundesliga defenders, Olaf Thon makes the grade among midfielders, his competition in his best position. The 47-year-old spent six years at Bayern, mostly between Lothar Matthaeus' stints at the club, but 13 of his 19 professional seasons were spent at Schalke.
At Bayern, Thon won the Bundesliga three times; he also was a fringe player in West Germany's 1990 World Cup-winning squad. But perhaps the crowning achievement of his career was leading Schalke's "Eurofighters" to victory over heavily favored Inter in the 1996-'97 UEFA Cup final.
Standing at just over 5'5", Thomas Haessler was rather short for a holding midfielder. But in spite of his sleight stature, he was a phenomenal player who enjoyed a successful career in Germany and Italy.
Haessler was German Footballer of the Year in 1989 and 1992, and in the latter year he finished third in Ballon d'Or voting. And although he never won any titles at club level, he won the World Cup in 1990 and the 1996 European Championship.
Juergen Grabowski is a legend at Eintracht Frankfurt, where he made 441 Bundesliga appearances between 1965 and 1980. The attacking midfielder spent his entire career with die Adler and scored 109 goals.
Grabowski was a very adaptable player and could feature on either wing. He won the UEFA Cup in 1980 and was a part of the Germany squads that won the 1972 European Championship and the 1974 World Cup.
Arjen Robben may still be only 29 years old, but he makes this list due to his performances since the spring. A year ago, his spirit seemed broken and the Dutchman was relegated to the Bayern bench. But he made the difference in the Champions League last season and was instrumental in the final, in which he assisted the opener and scored the late winner.
In addition to the Champions League, Robben has won domestic titles in the Netherlands, England, Spain and Germany. An exceptionally rare talent with outstanding technical and physical abilities, it's a shame he spent so many of his early years struggling with injuries.
A five-time Bundesliga champion and winner of the World Cup, European Championship and DFB-Pokal, Herbert Wimmer is one of Germany's most decorated footballers. Although born in Belgium, he represented Germany on 36 occasions, most notably scoring in the Euro 1972 final against the USSR.
Wimmer started his career as a forward, but his almost superhuman endurance and the fact that he played with Guenter Netzer caused him to be used in a deeper role, where he could provide more defensive cover. Wherever he played, he was a huge asset for club and country, and especially Gladbach in the club's best era.
If there were an award for most unfortunate footballer in history, Michael Ballack would probably win. One of a select few elite players to be born in East Germany, the Goerlitz native came up short in the Champions League final with Leverkusen and Chelsea, was suspended as Germany lost the 2002 World Cup final and lost the Euro 2008 final with his national team.
And when he was set to captain the best Mannschaft team of his career at the 2010 World Cup, he suffered an injury in the final day of the club season that saw him miss the tournament.
Although his career was woefully tragic, Ballack was a truly phenomenal player and one of the most talented midfielders the Bundesliga has ever seen. A three-time German Footballer of the Year and member of the FIFA 100, he won three domestic doubles with Bayern and won five trophies during his stay at Chelsea from 2006 to 2010.
German football's most notorious coach is also one of the best midfielders in league history. He played over 300 games for Hamburg and will always be remembered at the club for his winner that stunned Juventus in the 1981 European Cup final.
Although his role in the tournament was limited, it should be noted that Magath also was crowned a European champion with West Germany in 1980 as die Mannschaft beat Belgium 2-1 in the final.
Franck Ribery's position in this list may be somewhat controversial given that he is arguably still at his peak and there remains much to be seen from the 30-year-old. But because this list is being made now, he must be judged based on merit to date.
Ribery is a veritable assist machine and has as of late developed more of an eye for goal. He remains the undisputed heartbeat of Bayern's attack, despite competition from several other world-class players. And although it took two failures before, Ribery finally won the Champions League earlier this year as his brilliance helped set up both goals in a 2-1 win against Dortmund.
For all his success over the last season, he is the out-and-out favorite to win the Ballon d'Or.
He may have not yet won any international titles with Germany, but Bastian Schweinsteiger has one of the most impressive trophy cabinets of any player in his country's history. Still shy of his 30th birthday, the Kolbermoor native has won the domestic double six times, the most recent of which came as part of a treble as Bayern Munich won the 2012-13 Champions League.
Perhaps most impressive (and simultaneously disappointing) is that the Schweinsteiger we see now is not all he could have been. Ever since late 2011 he has been plagued by injuries; an ankle knock sustained a few months later has become a chronic problem that has forced him to play through the pain barrier ever since.
One of the first German-Turks to make his mark in the Bundesliga, Mehmet Scholl is one of the league's best-ever midfielders. His international career was limited to a modest 36 caps, but the Karlsruhe native was a Champions League winner and also claimed the UEFA Cup, eight Bundesliga and five DFB-Pokal titles during his 15 seasons at Bayern Munich.
Never shy to perform on the biggest stage, Scholl scored in both legs of the 1996 UEFA Cup final and perhaps would have made more of an impression on the international stage if not for a blight of injuries that forced him to retire from the Germany team in 2002.
Andreas Moeller is one of the few legends of modern German football not to have played for Bayern Munich. Yet he won the Bundesliga (twice), the DFB-Pokal and Champions League with Dortmund, the UEFA Cup with Juventus and two more DFB-Pokal titles with Schalke.
With Germany, Moeller won the 1990 World Cup and Euro 1996. Although he was suspended in the final of the latter, it was his penalty kick that decided the shootout against England in the semifinal.
Considering his quality, it's a real surprise that Bernd Schuster only made 21 appearances for West Germany between 1979 and 1984. He was part of the Mannschaft side that won the 1980 European Championship and was awarded the Silver Ball trophy for his efforts. But disputes with the German F.A. (DFB) led to his early international retirement.
Schuster was nonetheless a phenomenal midfielder with supreme organization and distributive qualities in deep areas. He was the best midfielder in Spain for over a decade, winning La Liga three times and the Copa del Rey six times during stints with Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. Three times (1980, 1981 and 1985) during this spell he made the shortlist for the Ballon d'Or.
Kevin Keegan may be a somewhat controversial inclusion on this list, given that he only spent three years in the Bundesliga, but his spell at Hamburg from 1977 to 1980 was an outstanding run. Keegan was in his prime and won the Ballon d'Or in 1978 and 1979. A year later, his HSV side reached the European Cup final.
The fact that Keegan so quickly adapted to the Bundesliga speaks volumes of his quality. Few English players have been successful abroad, but the Armthorpe native flourished in Germany.
Long before Mesut Ozil there was Guenter Netzer, a player who in so many ways bucked the trend of German midfielders. Although the cornerstone of the famous Gladbach team of the early 1970s, Netzer rarely started for West Germany due to his poor work rate. But he started at Euro 1972, which Germany won while playing beautiful football, and also won the 1974 World Cup on home soil.
A playmaker with phenomenal technique, Netzer was twice voted German Footballer of the Year even when Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Mueller were in their prime. If you haven't seen it yet, don't miss the embedded video in which he seemingly effortlessly puts five out of six balls through targets in the famous Torwand (goal wall) on ZDF's Aktuelle Sportstudio.
Born less than 20 miles from Koeln in Siegburg, Wolfgang Overath was made to represent die Geissboecke. The midfielder made 409 Bundesliga appearances for the club from 1962 until the year he retired, 1977. There were other, bigger German clubs (namely Bayern and Gladbach) during his career and, as a result, Overath won the German league just once: in 1963-64, the inaugural Bundesliga season.
For Germany, however, Overath was enormously successful. Like the great Franz Beckenbauer, he appeared for West Germany in three World Cups, finishing second in 1966, third in 1970 and claiming the title in 1974.
"He is the best rival I've ever had. I guess that's enough to define him," Diego Maradona wrote of Lothar Matthaeus in his autobiography, Yo soy el Diego. The Argentine's words were glowing, but thoroughly deserved. The case can certainly be made (and it has) that Matthaeus is indeed the best central midfielder of all time.
With a technical skill set that suited all areas of the game, Matthaeus was a natural leader and one of his country's most decorated internationals. He won a record 150 caps for Germany and lifted Euro 1980 and the 1990 World Cup; even at 39 he represented his country. A legend of the game if there ever was one, Matthaeus is certainly the best midfielder ever to play in the Bundesliga.
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