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.