Postcard from America: Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. World Cup mission
CNN's Don Riddell with German football legend Jurgen Klinsmann, now coach of the U.S. national team.
December 13th, 2013
11:23 AM ET

Postcard from America: Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. World Cup mission

It’s always fun trying to explain European soccer to an American who has been raised solely on a diet of football and baseball. The concept of promotion and relegation is totally alien to them, as is the notion that one team can play in up to four different “league-type” competitions every season.

A mate of mine used to play in the NFL and we recently spent a whole lunch working through such matters before we arrived at the notion of international matches. The fact that a player could effectively be two-timing his main employer by also turning out for his country blew his mind.

I struggled to explain how those national teams would be made up and the only way he could get his head around it was to think of them as “All-Star” line-ups.

I suppose that’s a good analogy. An international football manager is tasked with picking the best players available to him, players who share a common nationality. That same rule doesn’t apply to the manager himself, though. Of the 32 teams heading to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, roughly a third will be coached by “foreigners.”

The top teams in Europe wouldn’t dream of looking abroad for a manager. In modern times, the continent’s last three World Cup winners – France (1998), Italy (2006) and Spain (2010) – have always been coached by one of their own. England, champion in 1966, recently dabbled with a Swede (Sven Goran Eriksson) and an Italian (Fabio Capello) but neither experience is remembered with much fondness.

Which leads me back to the United States. In Brazil next year, they’ll be one of those teams with a foreigner on the touchline – Germany’s Jurgen Klinsmann.

Soccer is still developing on this side of the Atlantic and they’d prefer a coach they perceive as "the best" rather than “one of their own.”

It should be said that Klinsmann has based himself in California for the last 15 years and is married to an American. But there’s a deep reverence for the European game and a man who’s found considerable success there both as a player and a coach. Additionally, in the melting pot of the USA, many Americans identify with the countries of their family history – it’s quite OK to be from somewhere else.

As far as his employers are concerned, Klinsmann transcends the debate and his nationality neatly bookends America’s relationship with German coaches; the legendry Dettmar Cramer briefly ran the national team in 1974 and sowed the seeds for the country’s training structure.

It hasn’t always been a perfect match, however. A damning press report earlier this year identified serious divisions within the team, pointing to concerns about Klinsmann’s strategic acumen and communication skills.

Following a dispiriting loss to Honduras in February, World Cup qualification could no longer be taken for granted. Klinsmann’s nationality was never used as a stick to beat him with, but it was a very unhappy camp.

Then everything suddenly clicked. The team went on a record 12-game winning streak, winning the Gold Cup and topping their World Cup qualifying group by four points.

On the day he was hired in 2011, Klinsmann told me he wanted a team that mirrored the country it represented, and two years later it has a very multicultural appearance.

A quick glance at the roster reveals players born to immigrants from Haiti and Colombia and men whose parents are from Norway, Iceland, Mexico and Germany. Every socio-economic background is represented.

Central to the Americans' success has been the confidence Klinsmann has instilled in the squad. An international manager sometimes feels as though he has to work with one hand tied behind his back; throughout the course of a year, the time spent working with their players is very limited. Klinsmann, though, has got his players believing that anything is possible, they have the ability to get where they want to go.

But his biggest challenge is looming large on the horizon.

Before the World Cup draw was made last week, the U.S. would have expected to make it into the knockout rounds.

That was before they were grouped with two of the top five teams in the world, Germany and Portugal, plus the side that ended their hopes in the 2006 and 2010 tournaments, Ghana, with defeats in the first round in Germany and then the last 16 in South Africa.

As Klinsmann revealed with a nervous laugh in his interview shortly afterwards, it was a brutally tough draw.

Klinsmann’s home country is one of the favorites in Brazil. It’s the team he won the tournament with as a player in 1990 and led to third place as a manager in 2006. Now they’ll help shape his narrative as a manager in soccer’s new world, as he comes up against his former assistant Joachim Low - now in charge of Germany's national team.

As is the case with any sport in any part of the world, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you’re like – just as long as you’re winning.

The tens of thousands of American fans who’ll be making the short trip to Brazil are bracing themselves for what might be a short stay.

Fortunately Klinsmann will be around for a while longer, Thursday’s news that the 49-year-old's contract has been extended until 2018 demonstrates that the U.S. are more than happy with a foreign coach and, in particular, this one.

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soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Max

    So many great teams playing during the next World Cup. And what team does CNN ""leading International news""" yet again makes a story about. The United States. One of the least favored teams to win the World Cup. This constant US favoring, US defending and US promoting in just about every single CNN story is getting disgusting. That is not balanced international news by even the worst journalistic standard.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Reply
    • Chris

      It is an American website, for god s sake. What do u expect? If u dont like it, dont specnd time watching it

      January 5, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Reply
  2. Mike

    Has your friend never heard of the NHL? Poor article in so many ways

    December 24, 2013 at 7:19 pm | Reply
  3. thomas

    It may be good for the American to win his first Football world cup.

    December 26, 2013 at 10:41 am | Reply
  4. William

    many people from all around the world make fun of american soccer when usa is ranking 14th on the fifa rankings and is better than most of the countries THOSE people come from. yeah, popularity of the sport might be blinded by american football, baseball, and basketball but we are worthy of making an impact in brazil cause we are the champs of concaf and we have beaten teams like italy, germany, spain etc recently. we have the players. we have klinsmann. we can do this USA!!!

    January 7, 2014 at 10:48 am | Reply
  5. GATA

    Don! please work on your smiling skill.

    January 8, 2014 at 11:44 am | Reply
  6. KyneX

    It's a brutal draw, yes. But the US guys are fighters. Reaching the round of 16 is going to be very hard, but not impossible.

    January 13, 2014 at 9:23 pm | Reply
  7. Vinny

    United States, are emerging in football, the team that has more conditions and potential to be world champion in eight years or a more radical change in 4 years ..
     For that it has to do like Mexico: Put your teams to play in the Libertadores, caught more championship, and that forces players to develop Professional Football and technical intelligence.
     In addition to opening its market to foreign players. But not veteran players end careers, who are just there to make money off the image and not football. But competitive players need not be at the level of the great European signings, but players who make the league stay strong and competitive, forcing the natives to develop.
     One of the secrets of players from Brazil and Argentina (something that has been missing now with the big metropoles), was the fact that younger children are forced to develop their capacity to be able to play with the larger fields of street football. If they did not, they just were not allowed to play with the biggest.
     The same thing needs to happen in the United States, developing his football by competing against stronger players. And the Libertadores would be perfect for this.
     If the contrary, they can put the best coach in the world, the team will be at most a team tactically neat, but technically limited players that when the tactic of opponents balances, does not have technical resources to open the opposing marking.
     Our stay at Sao Paulo FC, the second team that won more world titles, one of the 6 biggest winners of international titles, the biggest winner in Brazil and one of the best clubs in the world structure, will be very profitable for the American.

    January 19, 2014 at 7:02 am | Reply
  8. Dr. Cajetan Coelho

    Jurgen Klinsmann has a good squad. His boys have been gaining experience and growing in stature in the tough overseas leagues. Beating them will not be easy at all.

    March 1, 2014 at 5:54 pm | Reply

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