Jürgen busting

It says a lot about Germany that they managed to reach the 2002 World Cup final in the middle of a prolonged slump but, as Paul Joyce explains, the expectations for this summer’s hosts and poor recent results leave their long-distance coach under pressure

After a 4-1 mauling by Italy in February left Germany without a victory over a top-ranked nation since defeating England at Wembley in October 2000, CDU politician Norbert Barthle demanded that manager Jürgen Klinsmann be hauled before the national sports committee “to explain what his concept is and how Germany can win the World Cup”. With a mere three per cent of the populace believing that a side ranked three places below Iran could now win the tournament, Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel herself felt obliged to give the under-fire Klinsmann the dreaded vote of confidence: she was convinced that he and his team were “on the right path”.

Yet Klinsmann has not been lacking in concepts since accepting the post in the wake of Germany’s Euro 2004 debacle and declaring the 2006 World Cup to be winnable. Using management-consultancy skills learned during his spell as a sporting adviser to Los Angeles Galaxy, he set about revolutionising and globalising the outdated structures of the parochial German Football Association (DFB), recruiting sport psychologists, American fitness trainers and the Swiss match observer Urs Siegenthaler in an attempt to establish a “corporate identity” that would ensure long-term continuity of approach within the national set-up from youth-team level upwards.

Out went elder statesmen such as Dietmar Hamann, Jens Nowotny and Markus Babbel, to be replaced by a younger media-friendly generation of players able to implement his new philosophy of high-tempo attacking football. With this aim in mind, Klinsmann and team manager Oliver Bierhoff sought to install as the DFB’s technical director the successful national hockey coach Bernhard Peters, who had been openly critical of the inadequate training programmes and levels of fitness at Bundesliga clubs. Drafting in experts from other sports proved an innovation too far for the DFB, however. In February they rejected Klinsmann’s recommendation and unanimously selected his polar opposite, the dourly uninspiring Matthias Sammer, to a position that now makes him Klinsmann’s potential replacement.

The tactically naive inflexibility shown by the Klinsmann clan in implementing these reforms has also undermined the new regime’s attempts to reduce the influence on the national team of the twin-headed hydra of Bayern Munich and the German tabloid Bild. Klinsmann has resisted pressure from Munich to nominate his first-choice World Cup goalkeeper until May and sacked national goalkeeping coach and Bayern legend Sepp Maier in October 2004 for showing open favouritism towards Bayern keeper Oliver Kahn over Arsenal’s Jens Lehmann. Far from leaking stories to the influential Bild, Klinsmann has even abandoned the tradition of giving the tabloid an exclusive preview of the national team line-up on matchdays. “We are not in collusion with certain media,” stated Klinsmann on assuming office. “We will not do the work that these media would like.”

A principled stand, no doubt, but a dangerous one when results turn bad – particularly as Bayern’s president Franz Beckenbauer and Klinsmann’s arch-rival Lothar Matthäus both moonlight at Bild. Since Germany’s capitulation in Florence, the tabloid’s sports editor Alfred Draxler has pilloried the national coach as the ever-smiling “Grinsi-Klinsi”, while former Bayern midfielder Stefan Effenberg has openly called for Klinsmann to be replaced by Ottmar Hitzfeld.

Attention has also inevitably refocused itself on Klinsmann’s unpopular decision to remain based in California, communicating with Germany via video-conferencing and email. After Klinsmann failed to attend a workshop for the 32 World Cup team managers in Düsseldorf in March, Beckenbauer – this time in his capacity as head of the organising committee – lambasted Klinsmann’s “poor upbringing”: “It’s a matter of politeness,” said Kaiser Franz. “We travel round the world to show our respect to the competing countries and he can’t even turn up to this event.” Only the intervention of Chancellor Merkel in March could bring about an unconvincing reconciliation.

Yet Klinsmann is powerless to remedy the main source of public anxiety: the lack of individual class and tactical maturity in the squad, many of whom have gone backwards since the false dawn of the 2005 Confederations Cup. This is particularly evident in central defence, where Hannover 96’s Per Mertesacker couldn’t trap the proverbial bag of cement currently and Robert Huth continues to tackle like one. This might explain the public clamour for the reinstatement of the 33-year-old Borussia Dortmund stopper Christian Wörns, whose poor distribution and outspoken criticism of Klinsmann as “underhanded” and “dishonest” caused the latter to axe him from his World Cup plans in February – via his voicemail.

Sod’s law decreed that the next friendly would take place against the United States in Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park (the renamed Westfalenstadion). The DFB were sufficiently nervous about potential anti-Klinsmann protests from Borussia fans to launch a “package of de-escalation measures”, which included the distribution of 11,000 T-shirts bearing the somewhat desperate message “You for us – we for you”. Yet although isolated banners could be seen in the crowd proclaiming “Pro Wörns – anti California”, the USA reserve team conveniently fielded by Klinsmann’s good buddy Bruce Arena allowed Germany to secure a reassuring, if flattering, 4-1 victory.

Nevertheless, the German attack still looks over-reliant for invention on Michael Ballack, particularly now what his Bayern colleague Sebastian Deisler has been ruled out of the World Cup with a knee injury. Miroslav Klose, the Graeme Hick of German football, might score at will for Werder Bremen, but his goal against the USA was his first for the national team since December 2004, whereas Oliver Neuville’s late strike was only his sixth in 52 internationals.

Germany’s World Cup campaign may yet of course have a happy ending. The draw was as kind as it was in 2002 and the team’s only defeat in 12 home matches under Klinsmann came against world champions Brazil. Yet although 46 per cent of Germans rate his performance as “good” or “very good”, Grinsi-Klinsi’s eventual successors seem more likely to benefit from his long-term reforms than he does.

From WSC 231 May 2006. What was happening this month