Subtlety has never been a particularly German trait. Jurgen Klinsmann has become Americanized in many ways, a Starbucks-sipping son of Southern California. But with his blunt assessment of the United States’ chances in the World Cup, he has revealed himself to be indelibly German and definitely out of touch with the casual American sports fan.
The coach of the US men’s national team, Klinsmann has pronounced that his charges cannot win this World Cup, soccer’s Holy Grail. He has said it is not realistic for the United States — a superpower on the world stage, but not a power in the world’s game — to talk about hoisting the hardware in Brazil. He has said it and keeps saying it.
He’s right. It’s an extreme long shot for the Sons of Uncle Sam to win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. They’ll be lucky to get out of Group G, the “Group of Death” featuring Germany, Portugal, and Ghana, the Americans’ opening opponent on Monday.
But Klinsmann’s declaration of Teutonic pragmatism is as off base as a penalty kick airmailed into the 30th row. It’s an unnecessary slap in the face to US soccer fans and a failing on his part to understand one of his most important duties as overseer of US Soccer — the promoting and proselytizing of the sport.
Klinsmann is essentially telling those who want to minimize, marginalize, and ignore soccer that they should go right ahead doing so because the United States has nothing to see here. He is taking all the air out of the balloon before we even get to see how high it can float.
There is a segment of the American sporting public that ignorant of a sport will become emotionally invested in it simply out of sheer patriotism. Do you think the average sports fan really lives and dies with slopestyle events outside of the Winter Olympics?
At a time when the US Soccer Federation is still trying to grow the game, its primary ambassador is reminding everyone that the product is not at an elite level or worth getting emotionally invested in. It’s terrible form.
The hardcore US soccer fan is smart enough to realize that the Yanks aren’t going to win the 32-team tournament in Brazil, that the club lacks the world-class talent of Brazil, Spain, Argentina, and Germany. They know that only eight countries have won the tournament.
But they don’t need to be insultingly beaten over the head with the unfortunate truth by their own coach.
Klinsmann is like Adrian Balboa standing at the top of the stairs in “Rocky IV” shouting down at all American soccer fans, “You can’t win!”
Can you imagine the late Herb Brooks, coach of the gold medal-winning US men’s hockey team, carrying this attitude into the 1980 Winter Olympics?
Do you believe in miracles? Nein, if you’re Klinsmann.
Spare me the idea that there is some grand nobility in Klinsmann’s uncommon frankness, that he is an exemplar for coaching candor. Klinsmann’s brutal honesty should not be contrasted with Patriots coach Bill Belichick not revealing injury information, or any of the other now acceptable coaching fibs.
Klinsmann’s comments are self-serving.
Klinsmann is setting it up so that if the US team doesn’t advance out of group play, it will remain a reflection of the state of US Soccer, not on the man brought in to save it. If the United States does exceed (lowered) expectations, Klinsmann can be hailed as a genius.
There is part of Klinsmann that appears to bask in belittling all that has come before him with US Soccer. He has made his disdain for US college soccer and his disregard for the domestic professional product, Major League Soccer, quite clear.
The hiring of Klinsmann, a European club soccer icon and a member of the 1990 West German World Cup-winning side, was a landmark move. He coached Germany to the World Cup semifinals in 2006. He has been given carte blanche to rewrite the US Soccer program. Everyone who cares about US Soccer wants him to succeed.
But the promotional part of the job, the obligation to build not just a program, but a following, is real. That is the belief of Sunil Gulati, the president of the US Soccer Federation and the man who hired Klinsmann in 2011 to rev up the United States with some German engineering.
In the June 4 New York Times story where Klinsmann was infamously quoted as saying last December, “We cannot win this World Cup because we are not at that level yet. For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament,” Gulati was also quoted.
He said: “Look, part of what we’re trying to do is excite people. And Jurgen’s charm is a piece of that . . . For us, at this point, it’s about selling the game in a way that, frankly, we haven’t had anyone, ever, do before.”
Klinsmann telling everyone his team can’t win isn’t quite the version of soccer salesmanship Gulati had in mind.
It’s even worse that Klinsmann obstinately stood by his comments Wednesday in Brazil. “For us now talking about winning a World Cup, it is not realistic. If it is American or not, you can correct me,” he said.
No problem, Jurgen. This is simply not the American way, conceding ultimate defeat before the competition has begun. It’s not how we play sports or follow them.
America espouses — but doesn’t always live up to — the ideals of meritocracy, upward mobility, and self-determination.
One of Klinsmann’s charges as US coach has been to develop a distinctly American style of play, the way Brazil plays the joyful jogo bonito.
Hopefully, his understanding of the American Way translates to a better statement on the field than the statements he has made off it.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.