Jürgen Klinsmann, the man who led Germany through the World Cup “fairytale” of 2006, has just won his first game with the US national side, on his fourth try. But can his unrelenting optimism take the US further?
You couldn’t accuse Jürgen Klinsmann of not doing his bit for US-German ties. No other German footballer has ever embraced the United States with quite the enthusiasm of the “baker’s son from Botnang” – as he is still regarded in the district of Stuttgart where he learned the family trade.
Klinsmann has lived in California for the past 13 years with an American wife and two American children, so he must have been thrilled in June, when he finally got the chance to succeed Bob Bradley as coach of the US national team.
Except against the background glare of Klinsmann’s habitual optimism, it’s sometimes hard to tell when he is thrilled. “The fact that I’m able to lead the national soccer team in the US is great and special, a fascinating task,” he gushed to Deutsche Welle TV last week, interviewed on some sunny coastal resort apparently chosen to reflect his disposition.
And his smile may have stretched still wider on Saturday, when the US beat Honduras 1-0 in a friendly match at the aptly named Sun Life stadium in Florida. Unfortunately it was a dour match, with Clint Dempsey’s 36th minute strike, and a few fine saves from goalkeeper Tim Howard, proving enough to separate the two sides.
But the victory was vital for Klinsmann, as it was his first win from four games. Up until then, his US adventure comprised a solid draw with Mexico and two disappointing 1-0 defeats to Costa Rica and Belgium.
Klinsmann’s positivity shone through in the post-match interviews. “I had the feeling it was only a matter of time until we scored,” he said. “We controlled the game, but we knew that Honduras had the quality to suddenly threaten us out of nothing.”
The US job has been a long time coming for Klinsmann. It was first offered him in 2006, when he stepped down as German coach in the aftermath of Germany’s glorious run to the home World Cup semifinals, where they were heroically brought down in extra-time by eventual champions Italy.
In those heady days, though, with the world at Klinsmann’s feet, the US had to get in line behind a string of top English Premiership teams, including Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, who all reportedly vied for his attentions.
He eventually took over Bayern Munich in 2008, and was unceremoniously sacked before the season finished, with his reputation considerably damaged. Gleeful tabloid reports of yoga sessions and buddhas on the training pitch seemed to confirm the suspicion that Klinsi, inspirational though he may be, and certainly a fitness guru, was less than a master tactician.
That theory was reinforced by Philipp Lahm’s autobiography, published in August, where the Bayern captain performed an efficient hatchet job on his former boss. “We practically only practised fitness under Klinsmann,” wrote the unforgiving Lahm. “There was very little technical instruction and the players themselves discussed how they would play before the match.”
But while most people now assume that the World Cup 2006 success was due to then-assistant-now-top-coach Joachim Löw pulling the strings behind the scenes, it would be a travesty to obscure Klinsmann’s systemic overhaul of German football in the two years he was in charge.
The detractors tend to forget that when Klinsmann took over, the German national side was a stagnating force that had once again failed to get out of a group at the European Championships (in both Portugal 2004 and Belgium/Netherlands 2000).
From 2004 to 2006, Klinsmann took a chainsaw to the German Football Association. He had ageing conservative cronies sacked, and forced Bundesliga clubs to do regular fitness tests and revamp their youth systems.
It’s easy to make fun of a man who fell on his face after allegedly created motivational collages with pseudo-occult imagery. But Mark Verstegen’s “Core Performance” fitness programs, which Klinsmann famously shipped across the Atlantic, are still being used by Löw, and indeed Bayern Munich.
Similarly, bringing his former teammate Oliver Bierhoff in as manager served to relieve the coach of public relations chores – another administrative adjustment that Löw certainly benefits from.
Klinsmann’s coaching style has always been almost self-consciously American. “I guess it goes more in the direction of a manager than the German idea of a head coach who has to do everything, like setting up training cones,” he said, describing his methods to Deutsche Welle. “In the US, you have different areas that form the pillars of all professional sports, and for each of these pillars, you have people who are really good.”
Occasionally, though, Klinsmann does lapse into disconcertingly corporate-esoteric language: “Basically it’s the principle of empowering the people around you to devote their strengths to the product – to the soccer team in this case.”
Taking the US forward
It remains to be seen whether Klinsmann has read a tactical manual in the two years since Bayern Munich kicked him out. But the Deutsche Welle interview provides some evidence that he has already identified the flaws in US soccer organization.
“Soccer now has a firm position on the national agenda in the US,” he said. “Millions play it, and it’s particularly popular among young people. The major problems are really in professional soccer, youth team soccer and college soccer. They’re all a bit detached, and there’s a bit of ground to make up.”
Such organizational challenges seem to play to Klinsmann’s strengths, so while his US results have been underwhelming so far, there is some scope for similar reforms to the ones he affected in Germany. At least we know that, whatever happens, the big blond bombshell who used to terrorize defenses in the glory days will always stay positive.