Who will become The Best FIFA Men’s Player 2016? With voting in full swing, fans and experts around the globe are hotly debating who will take home the beautiful game’s most coveted individual accolade at The Best FIFA Football Awards™ on 9 January 2017. As the discussions unfold, one question arises time and again: just how do you become ‘The Best’?

"You have to keep improving yourself, even as a child; if you leave it until you’re a youth player, it’s already too late," Lothar Matthaus explained in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. The 55-year-old German knows what he is talking about, as the first footballer to be named FIFA World Player of the Year in 1991.

Nevertheless, the road to success was far from smooth for the man who played at five FIFA World Cups™. "I come from a moderately successful footballing family," he explained. "My father played in the fifth tier of German football while my brother was in the third division, but I was always captivated by the sport. I was always the youngest and the smallest and repeatedly had to hold my own against bigger opponents to make sure I didn’t lose every game. That was a huge incentive for me."

In part down to that incentive, long before winning a record 150 international caps, Matthaus spent every moment of his spare time training. In addition to attending sessions at his local club, he created his own exercises and played one-on-one against his brother or against his neighbours in the street.

A career highlight in 1990
"We kicked a ball around with anybody wherever and whenever we could," he continued. "Together with ambition, inclination and sheer will, I took the things I learned there all the way to the top," the former Bayern Munich and Inter Milan star explained. These early lessons certainly paid off. In a career stretching more than 20 years, the midfielder won countless accolades including seven German championships, one Serie A title in Italy and two UEFA Cups.

Now we get a fresh perspective from everyone involved with the sport when picking ‘The Best’.

Lothar Matthaus on the fan voting for The Best FIFA Football Awards.

As if that were not enough, Matthaus wore his country’s black, red and gold shirt between 1980 and 2000, becoming both world and European champion in that time. Winning the World Cup at Italy 1990 was, in his own words, “a career highlight” and a major factor in his World Player of the Year win soon afterwards.

This individual award meant a lot to the man from Erlangen and now has a special place in his home. "The trophy is in my living room," he explained. "I have a small corner filled with objects that are significant to me, and this honour is certainly one of them."

Time for a German successor?
So far Matthaus remains the first and last German to collect this accolade, and he does not think the situation is likely to change any time soon. "To become the world’s best player, you have to play in successful teams," the former Hungary and Bulgaria national team coach said. "Although Toni Kroos plays for Real Madrid, Ronaldo scores so many goals that he [Kroos] doesn't have much of a chance to shine."

Matthaus is nevertheless very enthusiastic about his successors in Germany’s national team. "They are playing very impressive football," he said. "I’m also glad that Joachim Low extended his contract. We couldn’t wish for a better coach than him," enthused the former captain.

Manuel Neuer and Kroos are two Germans who could yet benefit from the new voting system, as fans get the chance to have their say for the first time in addition to coaches, players and journalists. Matthaus welcomes the change. "It’s impossible to imagine football without the fans," he said. "Now we get a fresh perspective from everyone involved with the sport when picking ‘The Best’."

The television pundit already has several favourites for the beautiful game’s biggest individual award. To find out who they are, simply watch the exclusive video interview at the top of this article, where Matthaus also recalls what it was like to receive the prize in 1991 and what it means to be ‘The Best’.