ONE ON ONE: JÜRGEN KLINSMANN INTERVIEW
When football folk get together to debate the legends of the European game, there can’t be many players who have entertained, amused and enraged fans quite as much as the infamous Stuttgart dive-bomber, Jürgen Klinsmann.
These days Klinsmann chooses to live in the United States with his American wife and family – his impeccable English, having avoided all traces of a US accent, now shows just enough of a sprinkling of American terminology to give the game away.
Although not taking the route into football management chosen by some of his contemporaries, his connections to the game that made him famous remain – he is a Technical Advisor to the Los Angeles Galaxy, while he is also retained by Mastercard as a football spokesperson.
On the eve of the Euro 2004 opening ceremony we found him in Lisbon, taking part in the MasterCard Football Debate, one of a series of lively discussion forums that he’s an active part of. To English fans at least, it should come as no surprise that he’s a mass debater – he was always was the kind of player who sparked fierce arguments in pubs and clubs across the country. But now he’s doing it for the good of the game, trying to sell the message – as the strapline to these forums would have it – of ‘two sides, one game’.
His stay in Europe was brief. After the opening match of the European Championship, Klinsmann had to fly back to the US, where he would watch the remainder of the tournament on US pay-per-view television, before returning in time for the final – and to name his Mastercard XI of the tournament.
Did you ever seriously consider going into the family business? I could see you in a baker’s hat…
“No, not really. I did my diploma as a baker simply to have the chance as a 16-year-old to start training with a professional team. My dad’s advice was simple: get a degree and a profession and then you can move over to professional football later on. So I never considered it seriously – but I learnt how to bake and my degree is hanging in the bakery. My specialty? I liked making Swabian pretzels. That’s a particular kind of a roll from the region where I come from in Stuttgart and I liked to make that. [Laughs] My dad was always happy with my work in that area.”
Is it true that you used to practice pole vault to improve your running technique? Did it work?
“No, that’s not true. My brother actually did that as he was a decathlete, but I just did additional speed training. I started to do that at the age of 18, training with track and field coaches on the side two times extra per week and it helped me to get a lot faster actually.”
What’s the most number of goals you’ve ever scored in a game – professional or amateur?
“Well, as a professional I think it was five goals in a Bundesliga game for Stuttgart against Düsseldorf. It was in an away game actually and it ended 7-0. It just happened that the week before the game, Stuttgart had fired their coach Otto Baric, who is now the Croatia national team coach. But I didn’t get along with him so well and when he got fired the assistant manager took over and it got me all free again and self-confident and I showed that in the next game, scoring five goals.
“The most goals I scored in a game as a kid was 16 – that was when I was 10 years old and the game ended 20-0. The game was two halves of 20 minutes, so in just 40 minutes I scored 16 goals – and that stayed my record. I don’t remember the goalkeeper’s name but it was a local game against a town close to Stuttgart.”
Was your Olympic bronze medal in 1988 the highlight of your career?
“It was certainly one of my highlights because the Olympics for football players is something very special. To be a part of the Olympic village, to see all the other competitions… I remember in Seoul I had the chance to watch the big track and field meetings and I saw one of my friends, long distance runner Dieter Bauman, winning the silver medal in his 5000m run – I was screaming and cheering in the stadium and that was a very special experience. But at the end of the day, for a football player the bigger competitions are certainly the World Cup and the European Championships.”
Modern-day footballers are known for their extravagances. So how come you drove a 1967 VW Beetle? Be honest: is your other car a Porsche?
“I had the Beetle for a long time and it was always my fun car to enjoy, but before coming to Spurs in 1994 I also had different models of Porche – when I played in Monaco and when I played in Italy. But the Beetle was always with me in a certain way, and when we came to London it made absolutely no sense having a Porche because there was so much traffic. You’re not getting anywhere fast, so if you have a Porche of a Beetle it doesn’t really matter.
“Unfortunately when I left Spurs in 1995, I drove the Beetle down to Munich, to my next place where I played, and the car stopped running three times at gas stations. I took it to a garage and the guy said ‘just forget it, the car is falling apart’. So that was the end of the Beetle – it was too old and it was rusty all over the place. What happened to it? Actually a guy came and said he would love to fix it up and I just said ‘take it’.”
Is it true that when you were at Bayern Munich, Lothar Matthaus bet the general manager £5,000 that you wouldn’t score 15 goals in your second season? Did it feel good to leave him out of pocket?
“The bet is true, but I don’t know about the amount. I don’t know if it was £5,000 or £2,000, but the bet was definitely true and I got pretty upset about it. But fortunately he lost that bet because I scored 15 goals. Later on it became a topic between us when we had some talks – we looked back and said ‘that was not so good’. At the time the bet was part of big arguments going on between us, but we’re friends now.”
What’s the best goal you’ve ever scored?
“Well, there might be one goal. It was when I was playing for Stuttgart against Bayern Munich in 1987 – and it was a bicycle kick. Basically it was the goal that opened the doors to the international football for me, because a month after that goal, Beckenbauer called me up to the national squad and shortly after that I got my first cap for Germany – that’s why I think it was the most special goal.
“For a striker a bicycle kick is something special, something that you love to do. You dream about scoring with a bicycle kick, but if you score that goal in a very big game in front of a 70,000 sell-out crowd – and Stuttgart against Bayern Munich is like Tottenham against Arsenal – then it’s even better.”
Apparently you did so much running after Rudi Völler was sent off against Holland at Italia 90 that you collapsed. Did that mean you didn’t have the energy to collar Rijkaard after the match? If he’d spat at you, what would you have done?
“You just don’t know what you do if something like this happens. I was happy with the way Rudi Völler reacted. He got mad but he didn’t get out of control. Afterwards, obviously Frank Rijkaard apologized and said he was just over-motivated – he didn’t have himself under control. You never wish to get in a situation like that because maybe you’ll over-react yourself, so I was fortunate that I was not in that position because I don’t know what I would have done.”
Does it tarnish your achievement that you won the World Cup thanks to Rudi Völler diving for a penalty? Or did the Argentinian tactics in that game warrant Völler’s reaction?
“It was certainly not a clear penalty and Rudi said that straight afterwards too. The clear penalty was just before that actually, from the Argentina goalkeeper on Klaus Augenthaler. I think the referee was saying ‘I missed the call right before’, so he called it in that moment.
“It was an aggressive game. There were two sent off and it was just unfortunate that they didn’t open the game up, they were just sitting back and were just trying to kill the rhythm of the game rather than playing their own game. Unfortunately it was decided on a penalty, but we were clearly the better team. Argentina never had a chance in that game – they were simply sitting back and hoping for maybe one magical counter-attack through Maradona. It made the game itself not very exciting, but we absolutely deserved to win that title in 1990 because we were actually the strongest team.”
Hand on heart, were you a diver? Don’t you find that if you’re really badly hurt, you can’t roll around that much?
“First of all, I never was a diver and I never dove. When I first came to Spurs and I heard about this story it was a big lesson for me about how to handle the English media. They wanted to see how this guy would react to it, so I tried to do my best. I had the help of Teddy Sheringham and he advised me to do a dive after scoring my first goal – and that kind of turned everything around.
“What Teddy and my team-mates pretty much taught me was that in England, as a person who is in the public eye for a moment, you often get provoked in order that they see how you react to things. And it is the English humour that you never should feel offended, that you should always top any kind of provocative situation. I didn’t know how to deal with it – but people helped me handle it, advised me that I should make a joke out of it.
“Those are important lessons off the football field, because it tells you about the mentality and habits and traditions in a certain country, and that was fascinating for me. I mean, I really tried to learn to top things in conversations with friends, or with teammates, and I learned a lot. It took me a long time to understand Scottish though [laughs], but I pretty much made it by the end of my time there.
“The joke made me popular in England but I was also lucky at that time because I was scoring the goals. You can always say ‘when you score, do a dive’ and joke about the situation, but if you don’t score you can’t make the joke.”
Did you laugh when you saw Diego Maradona blubbing his eyes out in 1990? And if not, why not?
“Absolutely not because I was always a big admirer of Diego Maradona. I think as player he was an artist who had an incredible talent and for a long time he was the best player in the world. Unfortunately he was never able to control his life off the pitch. I found the recent events very sad… that he just can’t get his personal life under control. Would I let myself go like that? Absolutely not.”
The Germans have a reputation for having no sense of humour. Prove it wrong. Tell us your best joke?
[Big laugh] “I think we have a pretty good sense of humour… and without telling a joke, I think that there’s a lot of similar things in both mentalities between English and German people, but I think both sides don’t want to admit it. Because of what maybe happened a long time ago in the past, there’s always this big rivalry, but at the end of the day I think both nations are very funny.
“What makes me laugh? Anything. In Germany we often make jokes about Austrians and vice versa. The English jokes they always game me at Spurs were about the Germans on vacation and how they get up early at 7am and they put their towels by the pool and then go back to bed again. Stuff like that I think is kind of funny, but where ever you live in the world there are certain things that people specifically do and then they make fun of each other. Did I ever get to the pool and get my towel down early when I was with Spurs? No, never. Unfortunately we never stayed in such a warm place that we could lie by the pool.”
When you decided to come to England, were you conscious of your unpopularity here? Did that bother you? Or was it another part of the challenge?
“No, when I first came I wasn’t conscious about it because I had come from Monaco where things were very quiet and you’re not that much in the spotlight. When I came to England for the media presentation I was very surprised about the amount of press there and about the amount of attention. In the beginning it was very difficult for me because I was constantly followed by photographers, by paparazzi and by the media, which made it a little bit uncomfortable for the first few weeks. But after maybe six or eight weeks they realized that me and my wife live a normal life just like anybody else and then they left us alone, and from that moment on we had a wonderful time in London.”
Apparently you wanted to turn up for your first press conference at Spurs in a snorkel and diving gear. Then you performed that diving celebration on your goalscoring debut at Hillsborough. Who came up with the ideas?
“The idea came from a German friend of mine who had lived in England and who at that time lived in Monaco. He suggested bringing the snorkel and goggles to the press conference – and I actually had them in my backpack next to me, but instead I simply asked the journalists if they know a diving school in London because I want to take some classes! But obviously it was the advice that my friend gave me, to make a joke out of it, that pretty much helped the situation.”
How much fun did you have playing in that ridiculously attacking Tottenham side under Ossie Ardiles?
“It was not ridiculous at all playing with these five attacking players – I had a lot of fun and I still think that had we been more consistent defensively, and not made so many individual mistakes at the back, we could have played that system. There were mistakes… mistakes happen at the back but they were not mistakes based on the system. But it was an exciting time. Fans always like to see a lot of goals, especially Spurs fans.”
How did you feel to be voted Football of the Year in 1995 knowing your reputation when you first came to England?
“For me it was a wonderful achievement and it was a wonderful award, because I knew that, besides how I was seen in the beginning, it was something outstanding for a foreign player to become English Footballer Of the Year. It is something very exceptional – and it makes you very, very proud. Being on a list with the big English players of the past, of their history, is something that really honours you. I was the second German player to receive the award because goalkeeper Bert Trautman had that honour years before me, but it was still something very special.”
What would you do with one of Alan Sugar's newly-pressed, pinstriped shirts?
“I think Alan Sugar did a marvelous job for Spurs. If you look now at the stadium at White Hart Lane, at the training ground at the Spurs Lodge, this was all Alan Sugar’s work. He had the ambition of taking the club to the next level with the infrastructure – but unfortunately he didn’t get the satisfaction of taking Spurs into Europe, to establish Spurs as a team among the European big names. But what he did for that club was tremendous.
“Did I like his shirts? The joke that he made at the time was made out of frustration because he wanted me badly to stay at Spurs – and we talked about that later on and there was no problem at all. No problem.”
What was your relationship like with the manager Christian Gross when you returned for a second spell at Spurs? Was he insane or just out of his depth?
“No, Christian actually was one of the best coaches I’ve had. I just think at that time the tension was so big and the situation was so difficult that nobody could really relax within the environment at Spurs. That doesn’t mean anything about the quality of the work he does as a coach, it was more the fact that we were battling against relegation and things got really tense. He came in with his personal Swiss perspective, which was very difficult to handle for the players and for certain people. If he would have done that at a later stage – when you start a season maybe – it would have been a totally different story.
“We had some arguments and some tough times, but at that moment it was very important to do that. It was not good PR wise, because the papers were full of our arguments, but it helped to get things towards the right direction internally. He had a tremendous impact on the way we got out of the relegation zone and I, from a more team-perspective, had my influence. He and I clashed about things that needed to clash… because when you have problems you have to work on solving those problems, and you can’t solve problems if you don’t mention them. But it was obviously a lot of content provided to the media, which I didn’t care about because I just said ‘It doesn’t matter if Christian Gross looks no good or Klinsmann looks no good or whoever’, the only thing that mattered was that we needed to get out of that mess – which we did.
“Step by step we climbed up. He had a big part of that, and I had my little part. After that I left the club and I stopped my career after the last goal in the last game against Southampton, and then a year later I invited Christian to my farewell game at Stuttgart and we had a wonderful talk and a great time. I’m really happy that in the last few years he has proved with Basle and Switzerland that he’s a tremendously good coach.”
Come on, admit it: Germany were lucky to beat England in 1990, even luckier to beat them in Euro 96 and amazingly lucky to get to the final two years ago.
“I agree that we were lucky in 1990 because you need luck in a penalty shoot-out. We were lucky in 1996 with a penalty shoot-out. But they were not just lucky in 2002 to get to the World Cup final because they did a great job in a year when no-one expected them to go so far. But yes, it seems that the luck was on our side in the penalty shoot-outs in 1990 and 1996, but also maybe we just able to control our nerves a little bit better.”
You’ve criticised the desire of the current generation of German footballers. Is Rudi Voller an inspiring sort of chap? Do you think there is a problem with what is being taught at grass roots?
“Rudi Völler is with no doubt is the best coach we could have for the national team. We have problems at the grass roots level because right now we are not developing as many creative players as we’ve had, like Littbarski or Hassler of the recent generation. This comes down to an overall problem we have with the society because the kids have too many other things they can do. They’re not playing football every day any more – and if you’re not playing in the back yard every day, you’re not developing that amount of creativity like we would do.
“They have to find new ways of getting the kids back on the field and getting them playing more – and the more they play the better they get and the more creative they get. But there’s a long way for Germany to go to get the kids back to being enthusiastic about football.”
You played under the false name Jay Goppingen for local side the Orange City Blue Stars in America. Why?
“I didn’t know about it until I heard about it from an article. It seems the guy who runs the league played about with my name on their website, because he didn’t want my name to get out. He actually changed my name… he used my place of birth for my name. But I was happy with it because people left me alone and I could play amateur football locally, but that was it. Whenever I get the chance I play with those guys because it is just a great recreational work-out, nothing special but it keeps me going.”
You were offered a senior position at VFB Stuttgart soon after you retired, but turned it down for personal reasons. What sort of job would make you return to football?
“Well, I’m actually still involved in football. I’m the Technical Advisor of the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Major League Soccer, so I train with the team and I work with the coaching staff and the management staff at the club. And on top of that I try to kick the ball about as often as I can with my amateur team. The reason why we live in America is simply for family reasons – my wife is from California and we have our kids growing up there so it works out really perfectly, so for sure short-term we don’t consider any move back to Europe.”
You’ve been part of a Germany team that benefited from a penalty shootout in 1990 and a Golden Goal at Euro 96. What do you really think is the best way to settle a match?
“I thought the golden goal rule was the best way to settle a match. It’s even more emotional than winning a penalty shoot-out. It’s difficult to say. Sooner or later you have to do something to finish a game. I wouldn’t mind just to keep on going until the first goal happens.”
Who is the best striker in the world today, and why?
“I think the best right now is Thierry Henry because he is a complete striker. He is a hard worker for his team but also has an incredible instinct where to go in specific moments and he has a great decision-making about how he wants to score goals and the timing is always right and he proved that with Arsenal the entire season and on national team level now constantly over a couple of years, so he might be the best one right now.”
If you could change one rule to make football a better game, what would it be?
“I wouldn’t change anything. Keep it as it is.”
The VW Beetle, backpacking, the hair, California – you’ve always seemed something of a hippy. Have you ever experimented with recreational drugs?
Anything in your career you regret?
“No, nothing. I was pretty fortunate not having big injuries during my career, which obviously helps. And I was lucky to play in four different countries during that career and meet a lot of great people and learn a lot from different mentalities and people.”
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007