Sao Paulo: Jurgen Klinsmann was 19 years old and playing for his hometown Stuttgarter Kickers in Germany’s second division when he touched down in the United States for the first time.
The team president had wanted to challenge his players to achieve more in 1983-84. “So he came into the locker room after the first part of the season and said, ‘You know, guys, if you end up in the top 10 out of 18 or 20, I get you 10 days in Miami, because I have a house in Fort Lauderdale, book you a nice hotel,’” Klinsmann recalled with a smile. “We finished eighth.”
The son of a baker, Klinsmann arrived in sunny south Florida and was shocked.
“They took us on a boat ride and I said, ‘My gosh, I didn’t know that this kind of a planet exists.’ And so we had a blast for 10 days,” he said.
As soon as he got home, Klinsmann headed right back to the US with a teammate. He visited New York and Chicago, then went west with a couple of California addresses of his older brother’s acquaintances.
“And that’s how my kind of American journey began,” Klinsmann said. “I never had an idea that later, years, years later, that I’d bump into a California girl in Europe.”
Now, he’s coaching the US at the World Cup, trying to educate his adopted country with the knowledge gained as a star forward over nearly two decades. He turns 50 on July 30 and has spent nearly one-third of his life living in America.
In the US, Klinsmann is looked at as a German by some. In Germany, he’s viewed as an American. As a player, he drove a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle convertible with a sticker of Snoopy in a rowboat with the words: “Ist es noch weit bis Amerika? (Is it much farther to America?)”
“He’s more American than a German,” said Berti Vogts, former coach of Die Mannschaft and now a US team special adviser. “Jurgen is always positive. That’s an American way of life.”
Throughout, Klinsmann was always affirmative, exhorting players in training and during matches. Having lived in the US for so long, he comes across to American players as one of them, not in the exotic foreigner role Bora Milutinovic played from 1991-95.
When Klinsmann took over, he jettisoned players’ regular uniform numbers, going to the old system where starters were assigned Nos. 1-11 based on position. The message: No starting job was permanent. And having observed US soccer for so long, Klinsmann also knows soccer’s struggles to compete with American football, basketball and baseball for top athletes. Because of its lack of prominence in the US, Klinsmann says American players lack “a higher demand of accountability”.
Klinsmann thinks the timing is right, especially after the advances the national team made under Arena and Bob Bradley over the past dozen years. A decade ago, American soccer might not have been ready for him. A decade from now, a foreign coach might not be wanted.
“You have quality now available that is ready to compete on the next stage,” he said. “We are ready to go eye to eye with the bigger ones. And that’s what the fascinating side is.”