Jurgen Klinsmann's New Biography Is Everything That's Wrong with Jurgen Klinsmann
By trying to show how great the head coach of the U.S. men's national team is, Erik Kirschbaum's new book "Soccer Without Borders" supports the arguments of Jurgen Klinsmann's many critics.
Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports
Just a few paragraphs into Erik Kirschbaum's Soccer Without Borders: Jürgen Klinsmann, Coaching the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team and the Quest for the World Cup, the author gives his first, but hardly last, misrepresentation of Klinsmann's managerial career. He refers to the "remarkably strong showing by the U.S. Men's National Team at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil" and its "stylish performances" there, which made it "arguably the most successful U.S. soccer team ever."
The United States? At the World Cup? In Brazil? In 2014? Where it was utterly outplayed in three of its four games? Where it survived a deathly group only because Ghana imploded and Portugal sleepwalked through the tournament? And where it was spared total humiliation against Belgium in the round of 16 by Tim Howard's otherworldly performance in goal?
Yes, that United States at that World Cup, apparently. Per Kirschbaum, they were "undaunted equals against some of the great powers of the game, earning respect and plaudits from soccer connoisseurs in the United States and around the world." Never mind that anybody paying one iota of attention would point to the 2002 run to the World Cup quarterfinals as the national team's modern high point. They would probably argue that the 2010 team was better, too—stylistically, at the very least. (And if you want to watch "arguably the most successful U.S. soccer team ever," might we suggest the women?)
But then, Soccer Without Borders is less biography than hagiography.
The biggest hint on what kind of book Kirschbaum intended to write perhaps comes in his Twitter bio, where he says it was written "with help from Jurgen Klinsmann." Kirschbaum had suggested he could help the U.S. men's head coach and technical director write an autobiography on several occasions, only to be rebuffed. So Kirschbaum went ahead and basically wrote that autobiography anyway, only in the third person, and using Klinsmann's "help" rather than his name.
What results is a one-sided and awkwardly uncritical account of the career forged by a man Kirschbaum makes no secret of admiring a great deal. There's nothing wrong with that, necessarily—most biographers are infatuated with their subjects—but here history is revised and the record buffed up to the point of being implausible. In the business, they refer to this practice as "Godding up." And what else to call it when Kirschbaum claims, "There's no reason the United States can't become a global power – especially with Klinsmann at the helm"?
Yet, quite by accident, this book underwrites the argument many have been making against Klinsmann: that the German lacks the wherewithal and knowhow to bring his big ideas for U.S. Soccer to bear. Take the final chapter, simply titled "Ten-Point Plan." It consists of many vapid subheads, like "Change the mentality"; "Change the programs, connect the dots"; "Think long term and have a multicycle plan"; "Think global"; and "Change the playing style." These aren't ideas so much as obvious platitudes, and the few sentences that follow them offer no specifics whatsoever on what this all means and how Klinsmann intends to accomplish them, or indeed how he may have made inroads already.
As such, Soccer without Borders, more than anything, will arm Klinsmann's legion critics with further ammunition against his fraying credibility after nearly five years on the job. They have long feared that there is no detailed plan underpinning all that talk of reform and progress—that the promises are merely that. Maybe that is Kirschbaum's failing rather than Klinsmann's; you would think that in the "dozens of interviews" in the course of writing this book, at least some of that stuff would have come up and struck him as worthwhile. Unless it never did come up, because it isn't actually there.
If this book is supposed to be some kind of testimony to Klinsmann's coaching chops, it reads as hollow as the manager's endless utterances on his craft. Which isn't to say that there's nothing worthwhile at all in this tome. Particularly in the long passages about his playing career, there are plenty of tidbits about his personality.
Early in his career, Klinsmann happened upon legendary West Germany striker Gerd Muller in Fort Lauderdale, plying German tourists in the steak house he was running. That scared the young Klinsmann. He didn't want to be entombed by his own playing legacy and would keep on reinventing himself.
"Klinsmann the player doesn't exist anymore," Klinsmann says often. When people bring up his career, he says, "I just try to get away as fast as I can. It's all about today and tomorrow."
Klinsmann's drive to better himself is well documented in these pages. When he arrived in the Bundesliga at Stuttgart, he went to see a track coach to help him get faster. He did so on the sly, because his club wouldn't approve of him seeking outside help. Later, he was annoyed when he got put up in an apartment with two German teammates at Inter Milan, because he wanted to learn Italian—the first of several languages he would pick up—and knew that he probably wouldn't if he were surrounded by his countrymen. So he enrolled in Italian classes and spent so much time on it that his Italian coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, grew concerned.
Klinsmann was thrifty even after he became a star, driving a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle and saving most of his money to invest it in rental properties. He was never beholden to soccer's conventions. He briefly considered retiring at 28, when he grew tired of the incessant pressure, which leads you to wonder how he could muster so little empathy for Landon Donovan's sabbatical a decade and a half later. (Speaking of Donovan, Klinsmann learned from Germany's flameouts at the 1994 and 1998 World Cups the importance of a clear recognition of roles within teams, and that if somebody isn't entirely content with his, it's better to leave him home.)
More acute is the book's revelation about Klinsmann's expectations upon his appointment by U.S. Soccer in 2011: that he expected it to take "perhaps a decade or more" for his reforms to take hold with the U.S. This is news because that was hardly how his ballyhooed hiring was presented back then, When he was hired, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati emphasized that Klinsmann's contract only extended through one World Cup cycle: "It's not a seven-year commitment." The hope was that he would repeat his quick success in Germany, where from 2004 to 2006 he totally remade the country's program and enabled its eventual World Cup title in 2014.
Also new, for that matter, is Klinsmann's pragmatism about playing styles. Publicly, Klinsmann has preached on and on about the virtues of attacking soccer while deploying the opposite on the field. "We will never play the same controlling type of soccer that Spain or Germany or Brazil play when you're playing against them," he says in the book, failing to appreciate how this undercuts the entire point of his hiring. "That's just reality. But you want to get to the point where you're closer to playing against them instead of just defending and hope for a counter-break score. You can win maybe one game out of ten with a counter-break philosophy." Diego Simeone would like a word.
The book's few enlightening tidbits are a thin harvest from all those hours of unfettered access to one of the more enigmatic figures in the sport, lost in a flawed book. More unforgivable than the waste of access is the whitewashing of Klinsmann's utter failure as coach of Bayern Munich in 2008-09, a stint between national team jobs that lasted less than a season. Kirschbaum argues that calling Klinsmann's time at Bayern a failure is a "fallacious view." "An objective and deeper look at the bigger picture," he writes, "shows that FC Bayern Munich became a stronger team in European competition in the six seasons after Klinsmann's reforms were introduced than in the six seasons before his time in Munich." This glosses rather grotesquely over the fact that he was succeeded by veteran champion-builders Louis van Gaal, Jupp Heynckes, and Pep Guardiola, who laid the real foundations for future success. The idea that Klinsmann shaped anything at Bayern is almost laughable when noting the players brought into the fold just before and after his tenure: Bastian Schweinsteiger, Franck Ribéry, Miroslav Klose, Luca Toni, Toni Kroos, Arjen Robben, and Mario Gomez, to name a few. Further, this assertion doesn't hold up to the basic facts of Klinsmann's tenure. He inherited a team that won the Bundesliga by 10 points the prior year and was fired in April as the team battled for a Champions League slot.
Soccer Without Borders also leans heavily on hackneyed diagnoses of American soccer's ailments, ones that have been lazily recycled for years. Kids not playing enough, talented children picking other sports because they promise bigger riches, the lagging development of Major League Soccer, the ideological purity of promotion and relegation—it's all there. So is a claim that MLS is inferior to the Portuguese, Dutch, Swiss, Brazilian, Argentinian, Czech, Danish, Swedish, Polish, Scottish, and Ukrainian leagues.
And some of it is just clumsy. Like pointing to Donovan not scoring in nine games, and outlining his diminished goal numbers, to justify his exclusion from the World Cup—an unsophisticated judgment of a player who was never an all-out striker. Or the notion that Klinsmann had "plucked from obscurity" his Germany call-ups Per Mertesacker and Thomas Hitzlsperger. Mertesacker played in the Bundesliga and was one of highest-rated prospects in the league. Hitzlsperger was a regular for Aston Villa in the Premier League.
Then there are the factual errors: the U.S. going to a "sixth straight World Cup final" in 2014 (it was the seventh); a reference to the "Europa Cup" (which never existed); and Clint Dempsey joining the Seattle Sounders from Fulham (it was Tottenham Hotspur).
Completely absent any balanced assessment of Klinsmann from Kirschbaum, this book is desperately short on alternative viewpoints. Except for occasional appearances by other journalists, a London police officer and, for some reason, skier Lindsey Vonn in an incongruous passage about the benefits of training in Europe, the story of Klinsmann is told by Klinsmann and his idolatrous biographer. The book reveals little about Klinsmann's time with U.S. Soccer, despite its subtitle including the words "coaching the U.S. men's national soccer team."
Two decades ago, this might have been received as a solid soccer book. Today, its infantilizing tone feels hopelessly dated—ironically, as it re-litigates all of the issues of American soccer that Klinsmann, as U.S. Soccer's technical director, has been tasked to address in the decades ahead. If it's intended to serve as the primary text for Klinsmann's American legacy, it instead reinforces the view that his grand vision is just a portrait of the treasure, not a roadmap to it.