Road to Success
Germany has a long and proud history as one of the greatest soccer nations in the world, with three World Cup titles to its credit and five total appearances in the final. However, in the summer of 2004, German soccer had reached one of its lowest points since its founding in 1900. An embarrassing first-round exit from the 2004 European Championships drove head coach Rudi Völler to hand in his resignation. The Germans were then faced with finding a new coach to restore the pride that once drenched the entire nation.
In the early stages of the selection process, former German National Team forward Jurgen Klinsmann was not a front runner. In fact the second all-time leader in goals scored for Germany didn’t appear to be on anyone’s list. It wasn’t until former head coach and National Team teammate Berti Vogts had suggested him to the board that he was considered to take over as Germany’s head man.
Due to the fact it was the first head coaching job of his career and that he had relocated to California after his playing days, Klinsmann’s hire was met with initial surprise.
However, he gained support early on by stating he not only returned home to reform the National Team but also to reform the structures that had been entrenched in the German soccer landscape. In addition to his long-term vision, Klinsmann made one short-term goal upon his appointment: to win the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
To make this goal a reality Klinsmann was innovative on several levels during the early days of his tenure. In his first training session with the team he gave his players a choice, to either retain their old slow-paced and conservative style of play, or adapt to a new style that was fast-paced, offensive and interesting. By giving his players the opportunity to have input on the team’s direction Klinsmann earned their support for his vision and formed the necessary foundation for a successful partnership.
Klinsmann innovations didn’t stop there; he also constructed the German coaching staff in a way never before seen in his home country. He became the first German head coach to employ a psychologist on his staff to help younger players cope with the immense pressure that comes with being a member of the national team. He brought in American fitness specialist Marc Verstegen to help the players reach the peak physical condition necessary to perform their new style at a world-class level. He also invested more time and resources into the club’s scouting department than had been seen in the years leading up to his appointment.
The way he treated his players was even a foreign concept to Klinsmann’s fellow Germans. As a player, he had seen too many times how a coach’s negative comments about a player had a negative effect. Klinsmann never criticized or spoke poorly of his players in a public setting. He didn’t see it as his role to rip his players to the media, his role was to motivate and instill confidence in each of his players. This sentiment was echoed by longtime National Team member Michael Ballack who said he had never known anyone “with such a gift for making people so enthusiastic about something.”
The newfound enthusiasm for the Germans was on display in leaps and bounds during the summer of 2006 as they hosted the FIFA World Cup. Those skeptical of Klinsmann going into the world’s biggest tournament were quick to sing a different tune as the Germans ran away from the competition in the group stage. Germany opened with a 4-2 win against Costa Rica, before keeping clean sheets with a 1-0 win against Poland and a 3-0 win against Ecuador.
Support for Klinsmann and his side was at an all-time high entering the Round of 16 and the team responded, defeating Sweden easily by a score of 2-0 to earn a berth in the quarterfinals. The country was covered in German flags and the German Federal Republic had never seen such strong patriotism from its citizens. The passion and energy surrounding the German team continued to increase heading into the quarterfinal match against heavily favored Argentina.
Klinsmann’s youthful German side may have been overmatched by the powerful Argentines, but the calm, cool, collected demeanor he had instilled in his team would rule the day. Miroslav Klose drew the Germans level in the 80th minute. Jens Lehmann made two saves during the penalty shootout to win it for Germany, sending the nation into a fanatic celebration as if the Germans had just been crowned World Cup Champions.
The team unity Klinsmann had worked so vigorously to instill was on full display as backup goalkeeper Oliver Khan, whose starting spot had been usurped by Lehmann at the start of Klinsmann’s tenure, hugged Lehmann and wished him luck prior to the shootout. Lehmann responded in brilliant fashion and the celebration of one of Germany’s proudest soccer moments ensued.
Eventual World Cup Champion Italy put an end to the Germans magical run, scoring two goals in extra time for the 2-0 victory. Two days later, Germany performed brilliantly yet again to earn a third-place finish with a victory against Portugal. And all the media pundits who were so eager to write Klinsmann off at the start of his tenure rang in the praise louder than all of Germany.
The next day saw 500,000 fans gathered in Berlin covered in signs that read “Thanks, Klinsi,” and the low point of German soccer that Klinsmann inherited seemed much further than just two years removed.
To the disappointment of the fans gathered to thank him for his efforts that day, Klinsmann did not renew his contract despite a public outcry to keep him at his post. Two years as head coach for Germany may have been a hundred years too short to its fans but it was just right for Klinsmann. Those two years served as the launching point to get Germany back to the international power it is today, and looks to be for a very long time.