Interview

“There’s always another adventure”

Whether lifting the World Cup, making a splash with Spurs or talking soccer with Barack Obama, Jürgen Klinsmann has lived his sporting life in the spotlight. Here, as he ponders his next move, he discusses life in the States, Zlatan and his Champions League highlights

WORDS Michael Harrold

There is more than the Los Angeles time zone to contend with as Jürgen Klinsmann and I discuss the logistics of a Zoom call. Top of the agenda: master this new lockdown tech. Then, figure out the backdrop for the video. Is there a room where he keeps his trophies, or a wall where he hangs his favourite shirts? His office is uncluttered, with a whiteboard hanging behind his desk the only thing on view (other than the man himself).

He says he’ll have a look and see what he can do. By the time we link up next, he has had a rummage in his garage and unearthed a dazzling set of jerseys based around the 1993/94 Champions League campaign, when Arsène Wenger’s young Monaco side came so close to a place in the final. His Monaco shirt hangs alongside those of two of that season’s toughest opponents: the finalists Barcelona and AC Milan. There are also two of his personal favourites: Inter Milan and Tottenham Hotspur.

“Lockdown gives you time to reflect, to think over a lot of stuff and maybe to clean up certain things as well – such as the garage to find some jerseys,” he says. “You have time to reconnect and organise yourself differently than in all the hectic months before Covid-19.”

Those months were particularly hectic for Klinsmann. His return to coaching at Hertha Berlin after a decade out of club football ended abruptly in February. Discord within the club and disagreement over a long-term contract contributed to his departure after only ten weeks in charge, with Hertha having moved six points clear of the relegation places. But there is a sense that the former Germany and USA coach won’t be out of the game for long. “There’s always another kind of adventure waiting for you,” he says. “When you close one chapter, like I did with Hertha Berlin, then sooner or later down the road will start another chapter, another adventure.” For now, though, “The most important thing is that we get out of this crisis the best we can.”

He is speaking from his home in Newport Beach, 60km south of downtown Los Angeles, where he has spent lockdown with his wife Debbie and daughter Laila. Both have both played a part in this feature, taking a turn with the camera to send us some pictures from home. His son Jonathan, a goalkeeper for Swiss Super League side St Gallen, is in Switzerland. After the media storm that marked Klinsmann’s departure from Berlin, home life – albeit in less than ideal circumstances – has offered some welcome respite.  

“California is a place where people let you be the way you are,” says the 55-year-old. “They are very giving, very tolerant. They are not nosy at all. Even if your neighbours know who you are and what you do, maybe what you did, it’s not coming up in everyday conversation. They just want to make sure that you’re doing OK. I call it a Californian attitude, which in certain ways is very particular.”

Klinsmann holds American and German citizenship and has called California home for 22 years. His interest in the States was piqued early in his playing career. “I played my first two professional years with a small team called Stuttgarter Kickers in the second division in Germany. In my second year we were second from bottom and risked getting relegated. The chairman said, ‘Guys, if you make it up in the top ten by the end of the season, I’m going to get you ten days in Florida, in Miami.’

“For us, Miami… Just to hear the word ‘Miami’, oh my God! I’d never been to America at all. We finished eighth or ninth so he took us all to Fort Lauderdale. That was my first experience with the United States and I was so amazed by that different lifestyle – that different culture, that different way of doing things – that a week later I already had another flight over. I went to New York, Chicago, California – and California was the place where I felt extremely comfortable.”

Klinsmann’s imprint on the game in the States stretches beyond his five years in charge of the national side. While his children’s charity Agapedia celebrates its 25th anniversary in Europe this year, he is also giving back closer to home, having launched the SilverLakes sports complex an hour inland in Norco; it boasts 24 football pitches, as well as five equestrian arenas and a concert venue. For ambitious players, the frequent tournaments that are held here provide an important opportunity to catch the eye.

“A facility like ours gives you the chance to be seen. The college coaches can come in and go from field to field. They know exactly who’s playing where, so they can do their scouting. If we hear then of girls or boys getting picked by specific schools or universities, it’s a thrill for us. Basketball, American football, baseball and ice hockey are in the DNA of America. That’s how they grew up. But soccer gets more and more space in their lives. The chance of maybe going to university through soccer makes it even more interesting to the families.”

His high points with the national side were the 2013 Gold Cup win, the run to the semi-finals of the 2016 Copa América and taking the USA to the last 16 of the 2014 World Cup, where they narrowly lost to Belgium after extra time. “I think the United States in Brazil, in 2014, had the second most fans of all countries around the world. It shows that the people in the United States are very, very passionate about soccer. They love the game. They are knowledgeable. The experience we had in Brazil was unforgettable.

“We won over millions of people – especially millions of people in the United States – with the way we played and represented our country. Barack Obama gave us a call when we were still in São Paulo. The key players and captains were around the table and obviously it was huge to have the president call them and say congratulations."

“We’re now looking down the road towards the 2026 World Cup. That’s the moment when the United States [hosting the tournament alongside Canada and Mexico] can showcase to everyone around the world that the game is there, that the game has a continuous presence and the quality of the game is good. To show the world again how important soccer is for the United States.”

Big-name imports into the MLS, such as Zlatan Ibrahimović during his recent spell at the Los Angeles Galaxy, have also done their bit. “We really, really loved him here in LA. Everybody was sad when he said he was going back to Europe, but he had an outstanding spell. He raised the profile of the MLS like many others before him.

“Zlatan is a character; you can’t wait for the next joke he cracks. But he also showed it on the field. He educated a lot of players here, and not only at the Los Angeles Galaxy and in his own locker room. He also showed a lot of players from other teams, ‘Hey, you know what? This is a real profession. This is a job. Be serious about it.’ He has been a huge role model here.”   

“We won over millions of people with the way we played. Barack Obama gave us a call to say congratulations”
By

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      

Best of the best
Klinsmann’s Best of the best

Klinsmann takes inspiration from his run to the semi-finals with Monaco in 1993/94 for his Champions League highlights

Best team-mate

My best team-mate in that year – and obviously he became a big player and won the World Cup – was Youri Djorkaeff. You could see there was a very, very special player coming through the ranks. He always had an eye for you up front, he connected the dots, but he also could finish himself so easily.  

Best opposition defender

For AC Milan, Franco Baresi. He was an unbelievable player in his day. And then from Barcelona, Ronald Koeman: his charisma, the way he played the game. Also, as a defender, he scored eight goals in that Champions League season. Eight goals! How did he do that? Ronald Koeman has always been an unbelievable player.

Best atmosphere

Unfortunately it was that 3-0 loss to AC Milan at San Siro, because when the crowd at San Siro really gets into it, that’s really something special – even if it was against me a lot of times.

Best goal

The most beautiful goal of that season in my opinion was Dejan Savićević’s chip in the final against Barcelona [see the Classic Final Goal here]. It was a goal full of confidence. You have to have courage to chip the goalkeeper from that type of position. It wasn’t from the front; he came from the side. You have to be, technically, a very, very special player.

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Interview

“There’s always another adventure”

Whether lifting the World Cup, making a splash with Spurs or talking soccer with Barack Obama, Jürgen Klinsmann has lived his sporting life in the spotlight. Here, as he ponders his next move, he discusses life in the States, Zlatan and his Champions League highlights

WORDS Michael Harrold

There is more than the Los Angeles time zone to contend with as Jürgen Klinsmann and I discuss the logistics of a Zoom call. Top of the agenda: master this new lockdown tech. Then, figure out the backdrop for the video. Is there a room where he keeps his trophies, or a wall where he hangs his favourite shirts? His office is uncluttered, with a whiteboard hanging behind his desk the only thing on view (other than the man himself).

He says he’ll have a look and see what he can do. By the time we link up next, he has had a rummage in his garage and unearthed a dazzling set of jerseys based around the 1993/94 Champions League campaign, when Arsène Wenger’s young Monaco side came so close to a place in the final. His Monaco shirt hangs alongside those of two of that season’s toughest opponents: the finalists Barcelona and AC Milan. There are also two of his personal favourites: Inter Milan and Tottenham Hotspur.

“Lockdown gives you time to reflect, to think over a lot of stuff and maybe to clean up certain things as well – such as the garage to find some jerseys,” he says. “You have time to reconnect and organise yourself differently than in all the hectic months before Covid-19.”

Those months were particularly hectic for Klinsmann. His return to coaching at Hertha Berlin after a decade out of club football ended abruptly in February. Discord within the club and disagreement over a long-term contract contributed to his departure after only ten weeks in charge, with Hertha having moved six points clear of the relegation places. But there is a sense that the former Germany and USA coach won’t be out of the game for long. “There’s always another kind of adventure waiting for you,” he says. “When you close one chapter, like I did with Hertha Berlin, then sooner or later down the road will start another chapter, another adventure.” For now, though, “The most important thing is that we get out of this crisis the best we can.”

He is speaking from his home in Newport Beach, 60km south of downtown Los Angeles, where he has spent lockdown with his wife Debbie and daughter Laila. Both have both played a part in this feature, taking a turn with the camera to send us some pictures from home. His son Jonathan, a goalkeeper for Swiss Super League side St Gallen, is in Switzerland. After the media storm that marked Klinsmann’s departure from Berlin, home life – albeit in less than ideal circumstances – has offered some welcome respite.  

“California is a place where people let you be the way you are,” says the 55-year-old. “They are very giving, very tolerant. They are not nosy at all. Even if your neighbours know who you are and what you do, maybe what you did, it’s not coming up in everyday conversation. They just want to make sure that you’re doing OK. I call it a Californian attitude, which in certain ways is very particular.”

Klinsmann holds American and German citizenship and has called California home for 22 years. His interest in the States was piqued early in his playing career. “I played my first two professional years with a small team called Stuttgarter Kickers in the second division in Germany. In my second year we were second from bottom and risked getting relegated. The chairman said, ‘Guys, if you make it up in the top ten by the end of the season, I’m going to get you ten days in Florida, in Miami.’

“For us, Miami… Just to hear the word ‘Miami’, oh my God! I’d never been to America at all. We finished eighth or ninth so he took us all to Fort Lauderdale. That was my first experience with the United States and I was so amazed by that different lifestyle – that different culture, that different way of doing things – that a week later I already had another flight over. I went to New York, Chicago, California – and California was the place where I felt extremely comfortable.”

Klinsmann’s imprint on the game in the States stretches beyond his five years in charge of the national side. While his children’s charity Agapedia celebrates its 25th anniversary in Europe this year, he is also giving back closer to home, having launched the SilverLakes sports complex an hour inland in Norco; it boasts 24 football pitches, as well as five equestrian arenas and a concert venue. For ambitious players, the frequent tournaments that are held here provide an important opportunity to catch the eye.

“A facility like ours gives you the chance to be seen. The college coaches can come in and go from field to field. They know exactly who’s playing where, so they can do their scouting. If we hear then of girls or boys getting picked by specific schools or universities, it’s a thrill for us. Basketball, American football, baseball and ice hockey are in the DNA of America. That’s how they grew up. But soccer gets more and more space in their lives. The chance of maybe going to university through soccer makes it even more interesting to the families.”

His high points with the national side were the 2013 Gold Cup win, the run to the semi-finals of the 2016 Copa América and taking the USA to the last 16 of the 2014 World Cup, where they narrowly lost to Belgium after extra time. “I think the United States in Brazil, in 2014, had the second most fans of all countries around the world. It shows that the people in the United States are very, very passionate about soccer. They love the game. They are knowledgeable. The experience we had in Brazil was unforgettable.

“We won over millions of people – especially millions of people in the United States – with the way we played and represented our country. Barack Obama gave us a call when we were still in São Paulo. The key players and captains were around the table and obviously it was huge to have the president call them and say congratulations."

“We’re now looking down the road towards the 2026 World Cup. That’s the moment when the United States [hosting the tournament alongside Canada and Mexico] can showcase to everyone around the world that the game is there, that the game has a continuous presence and the quality of the game is good. To show the world again how important soccer is for the United States.”

Big-name imports into the MLS, such as Zlatan Ibrahimović during his recent spell at the Los Angeles Galaxy, have also done their bit. “We really, really loved him here in LA. Everybody was sad when he said he was going back to Europe, but he had an outstanding spell. He raised the profile of the MLS like many others before him.

“Zlatan is a character; you can’t wait for the next joke he cracks. But he also showed it on the field. He educated a lot of players here, and not only at the Los Angeles Galaxy and in his own locker room. He also showed a lot of players from other teams, ‘Hey, you know what? This is a real profession. This is a job. Be serious about it.’ He has been a huge role model here.”   

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“We won over millions of people with the way we played. Barack Obama gave us a call to say congratulations”
By

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      

Best of the best
Klinsmann’s Best of the best

Klinsmann takes inspiration from his run to the semi-finals with Monaco in 1993/94 for his Champions League highlights

Best team-mate

My best team-mate in that year – and obviously he became a big player and won the World Cup – was Youri Djorkaeff. You could see there was a very, very special player coming through the ranks. He always had an eye for you up front, he connected the dots, but he also could finish himself so easily.  

Best opposition defender

For AC Milan, Franco Baresi. He was an unbelievable player in his day. And then from Barcelona, Ronald Koeman: his charisma, the way he played the game. Also, as a defender, he scored eight goals in that Champions League season. Eight goals! How did he do that? Ronald Koeman has always been an unbelievable player.

Best atmosphere

Unfortunately it was that 3-0 loss to AC Milan at San Siro, because when the crowd at San Siro really gets into it, that’s really something special – even if it was against me a lot of times.

Best goal

The most beautiful goal of that season in my opinion was Dejan Savićević’s chip in the final against Barcelona [see the Classic Final Goal here]. It was a goal full of confidence. You have to have courage to chip the goalkeeper from that type of position. It wasn’t from the front; he came from the side. You have to be, technically, a very, very special player.

Interview

“There’s always another adventure”

Whether lifting the World Cup, making a splash with Spurs or talking soccer with Barack Obama, Jürgen Klinsmann has lived his sporting life in the spotlight. Here, as he ponders his next move, he discusses life in the States, Zlatan and his Champions League highlights

WORDS Michael Harrold

There is more than the Los Angeles time zone to contend with as Jürgen Klinsmann and I discuss the logistics of a Zoom call. Top of the agenda: master this new lockdown tech. Then, figure out the backdrop for the video. Is there a room where he keeps his trophies, or a wall where he hangs his favourite shirts? His office is uncluttered, with a whiteboard hanging behind his desk the only thing on view (other than the man himself).

He says he’ll have a look and see what he can do. By the time we link up next, he has had a rummage in his garage and unearthed a dazzling set of jerseys based around the 1993/94 Champions League campaign, when Arsène Wenger’s young Monaco side came so close to a place in the final. His Monaco shirt hangs alongside those of two of that season’s toughest opponents: the finalists Barcelona and AC Milan. There are also two of his personal favourites: Inter Milan and Tottenham Hotspur.

“Lockdown gives you time to reflect, to think over a lot of stuff and maybe to clean up certain things as well – such as the garage to find some jerseys,” he says. “You have time to reconnect and organise yourself differently than in all the hectic months before Covid-19.”

Those months were particularly hectic for Klinsmann. His return to coaching at Hertha Berlin after a decade out of club football ended abruptly in February. Discord within the club and disagreement over a long-term contract contributed to his departure after only ten weeks in charge, with Hertha having moved six points clear of the relegation places. But there is a sense that the former Germany and USA coach won’t be out of the game for long. “There’s always another kind of adventure waiting for you,” he says. “When you close one chapter, like I did with Hertha Berlin, then sooner or later down the road will start another chapter, another adventure.” For now, though, “The most important thing is that we get out of this crisis the best we can.”

He is speaking from his home in Newport Beach, 60km south of downtown Los Angeles, where he has spent lockdown with his wife Debbie and daughter Laila. Both have both played a part in this feature, taking a turn with the camera to send us some pictures from home. His son Jonathan, a goalkeeper for Swiss Super League side St Gallen, is in Switzerland. After the media storm that marked Klinsmann’s departure from Berlin, home life – albeit in less than ideal circumstances – has offered some welcome respite.  

“California is a place where people let you be the way you are,” says the 55-year-old. “They are very giving, very tolerant. They are not nosy at all. Even if your neighbours know who you are and what you do, maybe what you did, it’s not coming up in everyday conversation. They just want to make sure that you’re doing OK. I call it a Californian attitude, which in certain ways is very particular.”

Klinsmann holds American and German citizenship and has called California home for 22 years. His interest in the States was piqued early in his playing career. “I played my first two professional years with a small team called Stuttgarter Kickers in the second division in Germany. In my second year we were second from bottom and risked getting relegated. The chairman said, ‘Guys, if you make it up in the top ten by the end of the season, I’m going to get you ten days in Florida, in Miami.’

“For us, Miami… Just to hear the word ‘Miami’, oh my God! I’d never been to America at all. We finished eighth or ninth so he took us all to Fort Lauderdale. That was my first experience with the United States and I was so amazed by that different lifestyle – that different culture, that different way of doing things – that a week later I already had another flight over. I went to New York, Chicago, California – and California was the place where I felt extremely comfortable.”

Klinsmann’s imprint on the game in the States stretches beyond his five years in charge of the national side. While his children’s charity Agapedia celebrates its 25th anniversary in Europe this year, he is also giving back closer to home, having launched the SilverLakes sports complex an hour inland in Norco; it boasts 24 football pitches, as well as five equestrian arenas and a concert venue. For ambitious players, the frequent tournaments that are held here provide an important opportunity to catch the eye.

“A facility like ours gives you the chance to be seen. The college coaches can come in and go from field to field. They know exactly who’s playing where, so they can do their scouting. If we hear then of girls or boys getting picked by specific schools or universities, it’s a thrill for us. Basketball, American football, baseball and ice hockey are in the DNA of America. That’s how they grew up. But soccer gets more and more space in their lives. The chance of maybe going to university through soccer makes it even more interesting to the families.”

His high points with the national side were the 2013 Gold Cup win, the run to the semi-finals of the 2016 Copa América and taking the USA to the last 16 of the 2014 World Cup, where they narrowly lost to Belgium after extra time. “I think the United States in Brazil, in 2014, had the second most fans of all countries around the world. It shows that the people in the United States are very, very passionate about soccer. They love the game. They are knowledgeable. The experience we had in Brazil was unforgettable.

“We won over millions of people – especially millions of people in the United States – with the way we played and represented our country. Barack Obama gave us a call when we were still in São Paulo. The key players and captains were around the table and obviously it was huge to have the president call them and say congratulations."

“We’re now looking down the road towards the 2026 World Cup. That’s the moment when the United States [hosting the tournament alongside Canada and Mexico] can showcase to everyone around the world that the game is there, that the game has a continuous presence and the quality of the game is good. To show the world again how important soccer is for the United States.”

Big-name imports into the MLS, such as Zlatan Ibrahimović during his recent spell at the Los Angeles Galaxy, have also done their bit. “We really, really loved him here in LA. Everybody was sad when he said he was going back to Europe, but he had an outstanding spell. He raised the profile of the MLS like many others before him.

“Zlatan is a character; you can’t wait for the next joke he cracks. But he also showed it on the field. He educated a lot of players here, and not only at the Los Angeles Galaxy and in his own locker room. He also showed a lot of players from other teams, ‘Hey, you know what? This is a real profession. This is a job. Be serious about it.’ He has been a huge role model here.”   

“We won over millions of people with the way we played. Barack Obama gave us a call to say congratulations”
By

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      

Best of the best
Klinsmann’s Best of the best

Klinsmann takes inspiration from his run to the semi-finals with Monaco in 1993/94 for his Champions League highlights

Best team-mate

My best team-mate in that year – and obviously he became a big player and won the World Cup – was Youri Djorkaeff. You could see there was a very, very special player coming through the ranks. He always had an eye for you up front, he connected the dots, but he also could finish himself so easily.  

Best opposition defender

For AC Milan, Franco Baresi. He was an unbelievable player in his day. And then from Barcelona, Ronald Koeman: his charisma, the way he played the game. Also, as a defender, he scored eight goals in that Champions League season. Eight goals! How did he do that? Ronald Koeman has always been an unbelievable player.

Best atmosphere

Unfortunately it was that 3-0 loss to AC Milan at San Siro, because when the crowd at San Siro really gets into it, that’s really something special – even if it was against me a lot of times.

Best goal

The most beautiful goal of that season in my opinion was Dejan Savićević’s chip in the final against Barcelona [see the Classic Final Goal here]. It was a goal full of confidence. You have to have courage to chip the goalkeeper from that type of position. It wasn’t from the front; he came from the side. You have to be, technically, a very, very special player.

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