Germany's Love and Hate for Jürgen Klinsmann The Reviled Reformer

Policy disputes and team coach Jürgen Klinsmann. Or, how football mirrors life.

A reformer? No, he says, he's not a reformer. Would he like to change Germany? No, that's not his thing. But hadn't the United States had a strong impact on him? No, it was more likely Italy.

Actually, that only leaves one last question to be asked. Is this the real Jürgen Klinsmann?

He certainly looks the part: blond, slim, early 40s. He's wearing jeans and a sweater with a zipper, which he tugs on now and then. Three questions. And three curt answers that contradict all prior knowledge. Either the whole world has misread Klinsmann's intentions, or he's reinvented himself completely overnight. Or he simply doesn't feel like doing this interview.

He runs a spoon through his espresso. He's sitting in the Palace Hotel in Munich. He checks his watch. The interview is a disaster, a major disaster. Klinsmann's putting on an act: he's the uncomplicated guy who just wants to work with his team, far away from the hustle and bustle. Nothing more. Everything has been exaggerated, blown way out of proportion. His answers are clipped. You'd need 100 questions to fill an hour.

Sometimes he looks like a little boy who just doesn't understand. And sometimes he looks like someone who understands everything - and usually disapproves. Isn't this supposed to be the golden boy, the guy who went off to America and learned all about thinking big, dreaming big? What's up with Jürgen Klinsmann?

He reminds you a bit of Angela Merkel on one of her bad days, when she's pumped up with mistrust. These two Germans, both with visions of great reforms, always have a shell in tow into which they can retreat. In mid-March they occupied diametrically opposite positions. One had accomplished very little but was still basking in the glow of national popularity; the other had accomplished a great deal and become public enemy No.1 in the process. When they appeared together on the front page of Bild, Klinsmann's lips were compressed into a thin line, Merkel's curved into a huge smile. Bild is crucial in this connection; the paper is the barometer of the nation's mood. In the week after Italy trounced Germany 4-1, Klinsmann was vilified in the headlines on a daily basis. One suggested he should seek advice from the women's team. Another demanded that he drop the Grinsi-Klinsi (Klinsmann-the-grins-man) act. Bild also excoriated him for "whooping it up in sunny California," where he lives, labeling such behavior "insolent and outrageous." It rolled out legions of critics to take pot shots at "Klinsi." Franz Beckenbauer, the moody guru of German football, headed the burgeoning ranks of the malcontents. The euphoria that energized the country during last year's Confederations Cup had died without a whimper.

Football was once a beacon of hope for Germany. The 2006 World Cup was supposed to boost the gross domestic product; an outstanding performance by the national team would fuel a national liftoff. Klinsmann was the public face of this hope.

But things started going wrong in early March. First came the defeat by Italy; then German clubs crashed out of European tournaments, followed by the eruption of a domestic match-fixing scandal involving players and managers. The national team's 4-1 victory over the United States at the end of March did little to lift the depression.

The country seemed grumpy, timid, ugly. The World Cup, an experiment in mass merrymaking, was in danger of being ripped apart in a savage orgy of selfmutilation and bellyaching.

Angela Merkel, Klinsmann and the grandees of German football convened for a sporting summit in mid-March. At the top of their agenda: How to turn the World Cup into a frolicking, fun-filled fest?

They might also have taken the opportunity to discuss their ideas on reform programs. Truth be told, Klinsmann could write tomes on this subject.

In June 2005, he had this to say in an interview with the Munich newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung: "We need to question every single ritual and habit. And we need to do it continuously - and not just in football. There's nothing bad about this. Reforms don't happen in phases. They need to be part of an ongoing process, one that doesn't stop when the World Cup is over."

He continued: "Winning next year would give us the chance to show the world who we are. We have the opportunity to redefine Germany: to create a national 'brand.'"

That was his mission. But during a subsequent interview at the Munich hotel, he renounced the statement. Why? Had he grasped just how difficult it is to achieve such a goal in Germany? After all, that's what he had set out to do. Just like former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who tried to introduce a major reform package called Agenda 2010. To the national coach, speed and networking were the keys to success. He wanted to turn a national team that had meekly exited Euro 2004 after three games into a prolific attacking machine. He wanted to build an integrated framework within which the coaches of the national and youth teams could work together, free from the plodders at the DFB, the German Football Association.

German soccer, German society: You simply can't underestimate the grip that this game exerts on the country. That's why the story of the reformer Jürgen Klinsmann is also a tale of his country's ability to embrace change. When Klinsmann took over the national team in the summer of 2004, his mind was set not just on winning the World Cup; he was also determined to overhaul the DFB. "Basically, the whole organization needs to be dismantled," he said. He then fired a few people and replaced them with trusted allies. Oliver Bierhoff, the hero of Germany's 1996 European championship team, was installed as general manager to the national squad and Joachim Löw as assistant coach. Klinsmann then broke his first taboo, appointing a Swiss rather than a German head scout. He hired an American fitness trainer, Mark Verstegen, who soon became the butt of jokes because he had the team working out with harnesses and bungee cords. On the other hand, the players had a great time doing the exercises. And a new approach was long overdue: the fitness levels of German players, once fêted as tireless workhorses, have slipped in recent years.

But there can be no reforms without casualties, without people being stripped of cherished privileges.

Increasingly, Klinsmann has been turning the national team into a separate world within the DFB, unilaterally declaring independence and freeing it from the organization's ponderous structures. At the beginning of February, Klinsmann and Bierhoff proposed appointing the coach of Germany's hockey team as the DFB's Director of Sports. The hockey team?

The issue lay at the crux of their reforms, the issue of networks. The Director of Sports coordinates the coaches of all the DFB's national and youth teams. The hockey expert was supposed to forge a common philosophy for these teams as the ultimate symbol of autonomy. He wasn't going to be bound by tradition or DFB dictates. And he could introduce totally new, revolutionary ideas.

Theo Zwanziger, DFB's managing director, convened an extraordinary meeting of his board - 14 mostly elderly gentlemen who had played the game in some distant past. Afterwards he called a press conference.

German football is headquartered in Frankfurt. Metal nameplates fringe the parking lot - warding off the threat of trespassing drivers. It's crucial that the association's dignitaries have license to park their cars in their very own bays - immediately, whenever the urge strikes.

With the press in attendance, Theo Zwanziger announced the appointment of Matthias Sammer - not the hockey trainer. Sammer is an experienced Bundesliga coach who won the European championship in 1996 playing alongside Bierhoff and Klinsmann.

Theo Zwanziger is an animated, affable and voluble man who talks a mile a minute. The interview with him, held in the DFB library, has two parts. In part one, Zwanziger praises the national coach. He wants to retain him after the World Cup. In part two, the opening question is: Why won't he let Klinsmann realize his reform project?

"Our association has been around for more than 100 years," Zwanziger says. "It doesn't need reforms that throw everything overboard. We are a democratic organization. We are always open to innovation. But we don't need a revolution."

"What have we accomplished in the past?" he asks. "Was it all bad?" The Germans had won the World Cup in 1954, 1974 and 1990, and were beaten finalists in 1966, 1982, 1986 and 2002.

"We do have a little self-confidence, you know," Zwanziger says. Executive committee member Karl Schmidt (74) was a "former national team player" and "a friend of Fritz Walter's in Kaiserslautern," he says.

The ghost of Fritz Walter is omnipresent in German soccer. It is a spell that Klinsmann has been trying to break for two years. In the 1950s, Walter was a blessing for the German game. But he casts such a long shadow that, when confronted with new proposals, people still ask themselves if Fritz would have approved.


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