As a player and coach, Jurgen Klinsmann participated in four World Cups with the German national team, playing in the tournament in the 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cups and managing the team in the 2006 World Cup.
His two best finishes were in 1990, when he was a major part of the team that won the tournament and in 2006, when he managed the Germans to a third place finish.
Now the coach of the United States men’s national team, Klinsmann has set himself up to participate in a fifth World Cup after the U.S. secured qualification to the 2014 World Cup earlier this month.
But will all that World Cup experience matter when the U.S. arrives in Brazil?
Despite Klinsmann’s big name, he is still a relative newbie to the coaching profession. Between coaching the USMNT, the German national team and Bayern Munich, he has 117 games in charge. By contrast, Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas, considered a baby in the coaching profession with only five years’ experience, already has 190 games in charge.
Klinsmann's inexperience has manifested itself in a number of ways as head coach of the USMNT, exemplified by the poor performances of the team coming out of Klinsmann’s longer camps early in his tenure. In the 2011 and 2012 January camps, with weeks to train and prepare, the U.S. struggled to beat a weakened Venezuela side, a young Panamanian side and drew Canada 0-0 this past January. In the summer 2012 camp, the U.S. looked strongest early in the camp with a 5-1 win over Scotland before limping over the finish line with 0-0 draw with Canada, a lethargic 3-1 win over Antigua and a 1-1 draw to Guatemala.
During those times, many criticized Klinsmann's early morning “empty-stomach” runs and two-a-day training sessions as they appeared to be wearing the squad out. This was similar to the criticisms of German national team captain Philip Lahm, who said about Klinsmann, “We were only working on our fitness in training. He didn't care much for tactical stuff.”
Klinsmann managing Germany to a third place finish in 2006 has also open to criticism being that Germany is a traditional world powerhouse and the fact that the host nation often exceeds expectations at a World Cup. When Klinsmann was managing Bayern Munich, he was fired before even completing a single season. After being bounced from the Champions League and in danger of not qualifying for the competition the next year because of their third-place spot in the Bundesliga, Klinsmann was shown the door.
Finally, just six months ago, the U.S. World Cup qualifying campaign looked in shambles. The U.S. had escaped a precarious position in the semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying courtesy of a last-gasp Eddie Johnson header, but many were becoming vocal about Klinsmann’s roster choices and tactics. Then, following a 2-1 defeat to open up the final round of qualifying, a damning article by Brian Straus quoted several USMNT players questioning Klinsmann’s methods. With the possibility of the U.S. missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986, things looked grim.
However, just when things were darkest, the team and Klinsmann turned things around. Despite the brewing internal mutiny, Klinsmann appeared confident before the March qualifiers and the team earned a win, a draw and four important points. Then, reversing his previous struggles with performance in his longer camps, the U.S. won four straight games in June to push themselves atop the CONCACAF standings. Klinsmann then led the team to a Gold Cup victory, a win in Europe over Bosnia and a 2-0 win over Mexico earlier this month to lock up qualification. And all the while, he never flinched, appearing ultimately confident in his roster choices, starting lineups and substitutions even when they were widely questioned.
Looking back at Klinsmann’s experiences in Germany, there is also another side to each story. Lahm’s criticisms of his former manager were snippets pulled out to promote sales of Lahm’s book. Germany’s third place finish in 2006 came amidst a major transition in German football when many did not expect the team to perform well in the World Cup. Finally, at Bayern Munich, Klinsmann was 6-1-3 (win-loss-draw format) in the Champions League with the lone loss coming to a Barcelona side which won the tournament that year and was at the height of their power. Klinsmann also left Bayern with the team only three points out of first place in the Bundesliga with five games to play.
His experiences with Germany, as both a player and a coach, will certainly help Klinsmann, but at this point, he has managed more games with the U.S. (40) than he did with Germany (34). And by the end of this year, he will have managed as many games with the U.S. as he did for Bayern Munich (43).
Perhaps what has been most impressive (and most effectual) about Klinsmann in the last six months is his ability to learn from his mistakes. While that has, at times, occurred slowly, he has made some concessions to the players while managing the USMNT (while still holding the players to a very high standard). He has also made tactical adjustments that have vastly improved the team’s performances. Additionally, Klinsmann has shown, whether as manager of Germany, Bayern Munich or the USMNT, that he cares little for what the press or the fans think and focuses his efforts solely on getting results.
In the end, that will matter far more than his experiences long ago with Germany.
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