US soccer gets right man at last

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am


He was so young then, a burgeoning citizen of the world, and if he was not the best soccer player on the planet he was certainly part of the conversation. And although he starred on a stoic and tactful German team that seemed to embody all of his homeland's charmless efficiency, there was nothing Teutonic about Jurgen Klinsmann. He would smile joyfully when he scored while infuriating the opposition by diving willingly to win a penalty. But while he dodged many tackles, he never dodged a question. Reporters once asked the young star what he thought about the United States being chosen to host the 1994 World Cup. 'I wouldn't go to America to watch soccer,' he said. 'I'd go to get away from it.' True to his word, after helping lead his country to victory at the 1990 World Cup, Klinsmann took off to California to enjoy the blissful anonymity of the US. He went to the beach and caught some baseball games while hanging out with friends. Nobody knew him and he loved it.

The US can often be so self-absorbed it makes a perfect refuge for those who are venerated in Europe. Klinsmann never forgot the freedom the US offered him and for the past 13 years he and his American wife and his two US-born children have happily resided in southern California. But freedom could soon be fleeting for Klinsmann on the heels of one of the biggest weeks for soccer in the States.

Manchester United and Barcelona, arguably the two top teams in the world, played a spirited match in front of more than 80,000 fans at Redskins Stadium in Washington last weekend in a rematch of their recent Champions League final. Even the American media was forced to sit up and take notice with a number of pundits claiming that the US seems to be finally getting serious about soccer. While that may be true, it had nothing to do with the visit from the European giants. One day earlier, US Soccer introduced Klinsmann as the new coach of the national team. Now they are getting serious.

For reasons known only to US soccer officials, the last three national team coaches have been homegrown products who made their name at the college level. Granted, the US has the best college soccer in the world but playing top-drawer international matches in no way, shape or form resembles collegiate competition. England invented the game and yet two of their last three national team managers have been foreign. It's about time the US, who have played in the past six World Cups with mixed results, brought in someone with international pedigree. Ironically, Klinsmann was quite deferential at his introductory press conference. 'US soccer is a melting pot of many influences and known for many ideas,' he said. 'I do not want to do my European thing.'

Of course not, why would he? This is a guy who took over as a coach of the German national team before that soccer-loving country hosted the 2006 World Cup. Despite being one of the world's true powers, Klinsmann turned things upside down, bringing a legion of US sports psychologists and fitness experts over to work with the team. He also insisted he would only take the job if he was allowed to commute from his home in Newport Beach, California. 'We need to question every single ritual and habit,' Klinsmann said at the time. 'And we need to do it continuously, and not just in soccer. There's nothing bad about this.'

When the team were thumped 4-1 by Italy in a friendly three months before the World Cup, panic reined in Germany. The media was voracious and politicians also became irate, voicing fears the country would be embarrassed on their home soil. It got so bad German Chancellor Angela Merkel summoned Klinsmann and football officials for a summit to clear the air. But the players responded to Klinsmann's positive and attacking style and his young team made it all the way to the semi-finals before losing to eventual champions Italy. Klinsmann was again the toast of Germany.

He has been fearless as both player and coach. He has an open mind and brings joy to the game. He is accessible and thoughtful. As a player, he was active in Greenpeace and Amnesty International. Yes, he is a different cat and just in time. This is a huge hiring, not just for the US but for soccer globally.

The world needs to hate American soccer and the only way they can do that is if the Yanks are a global force. You start hating on their boys and Americans will take notice real quick. All of a sudden you could have the world's biggest economy truly engaged in the world's biggest game. If all goes well Klinsmann will quickly lose his vaunted freedom stateside. And even for a truly independent soul, you have to figure that Klinsmann would be glad to be a prisoner in his adopted homeland.