Jurgen Klinsmann, the former German star who now coaches the U.S. men’s national soccer team, is a man of strong opinions, especially when the subject is just what it takes to reach the pinnacle of his sport. Klinsmann has done it all in during his career. He’s won a Wolrd Cup as a player and coached a resurgent German side to the 2006 semifinal, in addition to starring for some of the most hallowed clubs in the game, including Bayern Munich and Inter Milan.
Now he is trying to lift the U. S. men’s team into the game’s top tier, a task he says requires a shift that is equal parts, cultural, physical and tactical. In a rare lengthy interview, Klinsmann, whose second and third languages are better than some peoples’ native tongues, expounded upon his experiences and the task at hand.
On the difference between coaching Germany and the U.S. and the need for a January camp for MLS players:
It is different, but at the same time it’s something that you want to be part of to improve certain things in what we are doing here. It is necessary because the off-season is way too long for the professional players here. In order to catch up with the rest of the world you need to have an 11-month calendar full of training and games if you want to get used to play on a very high intensity level throughout the entire year.
On whether it’s strange that someone used to playing in the game’s palaces is now competing in places like Jamaica and Antigua:
I always loved the variety of what the game has given me. In Europe you have games in Albania and Moldova, in very, very poor eastern European countries. The game gives you the opportunity to travel to places where probably as a normal tourist you never would have gone. We played Iran years ago, where the whole city of Tehran freaked out. 120,000 people. Yeah, we won the game but it was actually not about the game anymore, it was about what you lived through socially.
Now when you go through Concacaf to Antigua or Jamaica, or now you go to Honduras and Costa Rica, I see that as a huge learning opportunity. Inhale it, whatever the opportunity gives to you. If the field is bad as a player, there are always two teams on the field. If the conditions are bad, it’s the conditions for both teams. As a really good player you always find ways to solve it.
On whether he identifies as an American or a German after living in the U.S. for 15 years:
I certainly feel part of the American lifestyle. I adopted a lot of components. I have the advantage that I can compare a lot of things without bad-mouthing the other side. I can see a lot of ups in Europe and I can see a lot of ups that you have in America without putting down the other side, because every place is unique. Every place has its pro and cons. This country for us as a family and also where it is right now with soccer, it’s a really exciting time, because it has the biggest potential to grow in this country compared with all the other sports.
On the differences between an American and European player:
We would say it would be great if our 18- or 19- or 20-year-olds would have an environment where they get pushed every day, where they are accountable every day, where they understand what it means to be a pro, where they have 11 months of training, games, training games, where they have a chance to build their stamina to build their systems so you can really take in the game as a leading component, not just seven or eight months and then I go on vacation.
On whether talented American teens need to move to Europe:
You can’t answer that because I was not ready to go abroad until I was 24. Why would you send an 18-year old over in that situation? Maybe he has the talent, but maybe he is not ready, the support is not there, the family is not there, and you break his neck because he goes too early. But maybe another 18-year-old is able to do it. He is focused and more mature. [U.S. defender] Michael Bradley is a good example. He was more mature.
On the importance of attitude:
There is a difference between arrogance and confidence. And if you have three or four players on a 23- or 24-man roster that thinks it’s going to be easy you are done. And so [the German team] threw away a quarterfinal against Bulgaria (in 1994). We thought we won it already. It was 1-nil up, we scored a second goal, it was disallowed. It was a clear goal we thought at Giants Stadium, and suddenly they hit you with a free kick and a header and within a few minutes the game was over. And you stand on the field and you say, ‘Hold on a second. Rewind. What just happened? We are the better team.’
On what makes Spain so good:
They have that approach to the game that carries them from title to title, because they never get content they never get settled with the last success and they want to continue to play on a very high level. So it’s the team to beat in world football and also it’s the team to look at and to learn [from]. Last year I was in Brazil for a coaching seminar and the Brazilians, they have so many doubts now because they think, “How come we can’t catch up with Spain?” and it kills them because they are five-time world champions.
On the connection between a culture and the play on the field:
If you play a way on the field that is not what the people want to see, then you are going to fail anyway because there is not an energy connection between the people in the stands and what they see, and it is not only results-based. It is what they see, the body language of the players, the excitement, how they identify with their roles now.
[In Germany before the 2006 World Cup] it was a two-year process that was very different than what the people had experienced before. It was the government that asked for it, the media that asked for it. Everybody was in the same boat. We said the only way was we got to attack we got to go forward, maybe it’s in our DNA, maybe it was wrongfully in our DNA in two world wars. Who knows that? I don’t know; I was not even born yet. But I just said we Germans, we can’t take just defending, just sitting back, and waiting and countering. We’re not good at that. We need to take things into our own hands. We are a hard-working nation, we are doers. We can’t react to whatever happens. The Italians, they react, they sit back, they relax, they have a nice espresso and they say, “O.K., now, once you make your wrong move, [we] are going to counter-break and kill you.”
On his impact on the U.S. style:
I can’t come with my German approach and say this is how I want to do it in the U.S., because in the U.S., it would fail. I have certain experiences in different countries, I can understand many connections there, but I have to do it the way it is best for the players here, not how I would like to have it if I were somewhere else.
On the U.S. team’s mental approach:
We made some progress in terms of having the confidence to challenge the big nations, with a thought in mind to say we want to beat you here if we go to Italy or to Mexico. If we lose, so be it, maybe you were the better team and then we give you a compliment, but until the game is over we are going to give you a real fight.
On his players’ fitness:
The transition that you are trying to go through from reactive to proactive is also a transition on the physical side, because you have to do far more to play this type of a game than if you react to the game. That’s why Italians work two hours on the field on tactics and they barely move. They just walk. They know to perfection how to play in certain spaces, and they only need two chances to win the game. That is their way of doing it. I don’t think we are made for that here. People are for more. They say, “We want to attack, we want to create chances, we want to score as soon as possible.” But if you get into that aggressive-minded game, then you have to become even fitter than you ever were before.
On the importance of peer pressure for U.S. players:
This learning process, more and more they will understand it, that it is important that you know what you eat, that it is important that you know what sleep does to you. It is important that you know what alcohol will do to you if you consume it. The environment didn’t teach them those things before.
You play in Italy, your environment will teach you that. You go out to a restaurant they will watch you carefully what you eat and what you drink and if you drink more than two glasses of wine you get the looks from people. You understand by the looks–am I doing the right thing or the wrong thing? If you are in Europe or in South America, you are right away accountable for your actions. The soccer player is not bothered here at 3 o’clock in a night club, but if you would do that in Italy or Germany you are on the front page the next day or in England on the back page.
On Landon Donovan’s future:
Landon wanted his time off. He made certain decisions throughout the last couple of years that are his decisions. I watch that. I evaluate that. I could have evaluated him a few times when he was with us, not that many times, but a few times. I will make the call at the end of the day if he fits into my plans or not. I told him in December he’s not part of the January camp, and I told him in December he’s not part of the Honduras game. From his perspective, he’s still on his break.
On what’s missing in U.S. Soccer:
It’s not the accountability environment that we have in these other soccer-driven countries. [Players in the U.S.] settle very early because they don’t get the peer pressure. If a player makes it to MLS when he is 18- or 19-years old, he thinks he made it. This is the problem we have because we are not socially so connected so deeply to soccer in the daily life. They think, you get a tryout in Europe with West Ham, this is huge, you made it. No, you haven’t even made it if you have the contract with West Ham. And even if you play there and if you become a starter, which would make us happy, that still doesn’t mean that you made it.
My whole talk to Clint Dempsey for 18 months was [about how] he hasn’t made s—. You play for Fulham? Yeah, so? Show me you play for a Champions League team, and then you start on a Champions League team and that you may end up winning the Champions League. There is always another level. If you one day reach the highest level then you’ve got to confirm it, every year. Xavi, Iniesta, Messi. Confirm it to me. Show me that every year you deserve to play for Real Madrid, for Bayern Munich, for Manchester United. Show it to me.
On the best moments he has seen the past 18 months:
You saw sequences in almost all of the games but certainly in the World Cup qualifiers at home against Jamaica, against Guatemala, where they completely outplayed both teams. It could have been three- or four-nil. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. It would have looked nicer. It was great to see how they took the pace to another level. The passing pace, the movement off the ball, playing out of the back with confidence. You didn’t see it for 90 minutes but you see it more and more and more, and this excites us. To play in Italy and to play with them, to challenge, boom-boom-boom, suddenly, there was moments where on the sidelines you say, “It’s working.” Even if it’s not enough time yet, but they are developing that sense.
On the worst of what he has seen:
The inconsistency. You got to prove it in a bad environment as well as in a good environment. You got to prove it on a bad field the same way as on a nice field. You can’t play the passing game, but give the same energy, the same determination, the same confidence. Give the signals to the opponent that we are not here to get beaten. Just adjust to wherever you are. We didn’t adjust to the physicality of Jamaica in Jamaica and then we gave away two or three stupid fouls.
On representing Germany:
You understood you are here to get a job done, because if you don’t get a job done you will hear it all over the place tomorrow. You had that pride and that confidence that you will get the job done. A confidence of a team to win many trophies over many decades, it’s a long-term evolution in the whole society. It’s not something that is only done on the soccer field. The U.S. has the confidence and the drive to say in basketball we will beat any team in the world. That has been built over decades because your system outclasses every other system in the world. So you say, “If we do our job properly, if we go to an Olympics we are going to win.” Brazil has that sense or maybe Spain right now. Germany had it a few years ago, though maybe we are lacking some element now to beat Spain, so it’s a path, a long-term path you have to follow.