While the profile and quality of the MLS are growing, the Champions League sets the benchmark. Klinsmann regularly meets up with friends at an Italian coffee shop in Los Angeles to watch the games. “The Champions League is the frontrunner, the Champions League sets the tone,” he says. “Not only for us fans watching it: I think the Champions League sets the tone for all coaches. Whatever you see with trends or tactical moves by coaches on and off the field in the Champions League will be transferred over to the national team environment.
“The frontrunners are coaches like Jürgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti, Zinédine Zidane and José Mourinho, and so many other top coaches, who always lift the standard of the game. All the other coaches watch it and make their own sense out of it. Then you see certain systems, certain trends and moves being implemented in big, big tournaments like a European Championship or World Cup. Whatever you see this year in the Champions League, you will see the next year in the European Championship or the Copa América.”
The European Champion Clubs’ Cup is one of the few trophies that eluded Klinsmann during his golden playing career. The closest he got to lifting it was in 1993/94, when that youthful Monaco team were stopped in their tracks by Fabio Capello’s all-conquering AC Milan in the semi-finals. He turns to explain his choice of shirts on the wall behind him.
“Arsène Wenger was our coach. I enjoyed him very much – a very calm, very intelligent and well-spoken person. We had a team that was in its development, very young –full, full of talent. Players like Lilian Thuram, Youri Djorkaeff and Emmanuel Petit. Arsène said, ‘Jürgen, you’re the oldest, you’ve got to help these guys.’ It was wonderful to see these players coming through. Four years later they became world champions, but when I played with them at AS Monaco they were just on the edge, slowly getting into the picture of Aimé Jacquet, the coach of France.”
Monaco overcame AEK Athens and Steaua București to earn a spot in the group stage, which was then two groups of four teams. The top two in each section advanced to the semi-finals. Klinsmann takes up the story. “We ended up second behind Barcelona and then had to go to San Siro to play AC Milan with all of their big shots: Franco Baresi, Marcel Desailly, Dejan Savićević, Daniele Massaro, Roberto Donadoni. This was a team that was just so full of champions.
“For us as such a young team, it was pretty much impossible to win there. But the memories were just amazing. Especially the two encounters that we had with Barcelona. Barcelona under Johan Cruyff was just an unforgettable experience. At home we lost 1-0. I still remember today that it was a long pass from Pep Guardiola to Hristo Stoichkov, who finished it off – 1-0 and boom, they had got their away win. In Barcelona it was the Michael Laudrup show in midfield and we lost 2-0 – two goals from Txiki Begiristain.
“But it was just that experience – when you see Johan Cruyff out there on the sidelines, you know? And a very young Arsène Wenger – he was 44 at that time. I think Cruyff was just two years older and Arsène admired him. As players looking out there, you said, ‘Holy moly, that’s Johan Cruyff!’”
Klinsmann’s voice quickens as he thinks back, the inflection rising. He also has an infectious giggle and a sharp sense of humour. I ask him what the queen said to him after he climbed the steps at Wembley to receive the Henri Delaunay Cup following Germany’s triumph at EURO ’96 and he deadpans me with “Congratulations,” then a chuckle.
Fans of a certain age will also remember his time at Tottenham, where he celebrated his first Premier League goal with a flying dive along with his team-mates, instantly winning over his critics. Klinsmann was the first of the superstar players to make the move to the Premier League, and all eyes were on him as he prepared to make his debut at Sheffield Wednesday on 20 August 1994.
“When I heard that they had made a big story out of diving in the media, I didn’t know how to take that. A friend of mine in Monaco said, ‘This is the English way of testing you out. They want to see how you react to getting provoked a little bit. You’ve got to make a joke out of it.’ At the press conference when I was introduced, I had goggles and a snorkel in my backpack, but I just made a joke, asking where the best diving school in London was.
“We took it to another level in the first game at Sheffield Wednesday. There’s a sell-out crowd and thousands of fans held up numbers in the air with 5.8, 5.7, 5.9. The whole Spurs team were cracking up. It was crazy. Then Teddy Sheringham had a brilliant idea: ‘When you score your first goal, we’re all going to do a dive.’ And yeah, that’s what happened. I scored the first goal and we all went for a dive. I think I won over a lot of people because seeing a German making fun of himself was not the regular picture they had in mind.”
There was one group of fans he could never win over. “I couldn’t hang an AC Milan shirt up there and not have an Inter shirt up. For me, that experience in the Champions League against AC Milan with AS Monaco was not a very nice one. It was a sell-out of 85,000 basically booing me at every touch because I was a former Inter player. The 3-0 loss was one thing but getting booed was another, so I cannot hang an AC Milan shirt without having my Inter one.”
It was during his spell at Inter that Klinsmann won the World Cup in Italy. The 30th anniversary of that triumph was fast approaching on 8 July as we went to print and – lockdown permitting – he was hoping to get together with his former team-mates and staff to mark the event.
It’s only in hindsight, he says, that you realise how fleeting those moments of success truly are. “You move on so quickly. You play the next season with your club team and then only years, years, years later, after you finish your career and you travel the world for whatever reasons, people talk to you: ‘Remember 1990, that night in Rome?’ The beauty of football and those special moments is that you share it with everyone and everyone watched it differently.
“Some maybe were at the stadium, some were in a different country at that time, some were at home, some were in a pub, but they lived that moment with you together, even if you played it on the field. That’s what you learn afterwards and that’s when you really appreciate what happened. You feel, ‘Oh my gosh, we all did it, we all felt it, everyone together.’ That makes it so special.”
Visit champions-journal.com to watch footage from this interview