USA 2 Germany 1

With Friends Like These

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So, Jürgen, you really think you can beat me?

The former partnership of Jürgen Klinsmann and Joachim Löw as head coach and assistant of Germany’s men’s national soccer team has been described in many ways over the years – the master and the apprentice, the motivator and the tactician.

But when it comes to World Cups, maybe one description is missing – the runner-up and the victor.

Mr. Klinsmann, whose U.S. national team unexpectedly beat Germany last night, had the legs to win the World Cup championship as a player but the trophy eluded him during his time as head of the German national team from 2004 to 2006, and as U.S. national team coach since 2011.

Mr. Löw, who became boss of the German team when Mr. Klinsmann stepped aside after the squad’s third-place finish in the 2006 World Cup, won the tournament last year in Brazil.

To be frank, the chances of Mr. Klinsmann winning the World Cup as coach of the U.S. national team are slim, perhaps as likely as Mr. Löw losing a game to American Samoa, famously one of the world’s worst teams following their 31-0 drubbing by Australia.

“American soccer has evolved tremendously over the past few years.”

Joachim Löw,, Trainer of Germany's Men's National Soccer Team

The U.S. team’s surprise 2-1 triumph over the Germans last night in Cologne – the first time the Americans beat Germany on a German pitch – won’t change that. Or even their equally surprising 4-3 win in last week’s friendly against the Netherlands, a team that came third in Brazil.

No one will deny, however, that the Americans have learned how to win games, thanks to Mr. Klinsmann. He has sown the seeds to grow talent in the United States in much the same way he did as Germany’s national coach.

“American soccer has evolved tremendously over the past few years,” Mr. Löw said in a pre-game interview.

Mr. Klinsmann, the son of a baker who grew up near Stuttgart, fought tooth and nail with the German Football Association, the DFB, to make changes in nurturing talent in Germany.

When he was hired in 2004, after Germany suffered a second humiliating early elimination from the European Championships and with a World Cup around the corner, he pushed hard to accelerate the overhaul of the German system.

He convinced the association that the development of more technically proficient homegrown players would be in everyone’s interest. That led to the launch of soccer academies by clubs in the top two divisions. The head coach also raised the bar for physical fitness, bringing in workout experts from the United States and team psychologists.

Mr. Löw has reaped much of the fruit of his master’s work, blessed with a generation of gifted young players, such as Thomas Müller, Mario Götze, Toni Kross and Mesut Özil. And plenty more are coming through from the under-21 squads.

That said, Mr. Löw’s post-World Cup team is still in transition, which often happens after a trophy and international retirements.

Capitain Philipp Lahm, Miroslav Klose and Per Mertesacker all retired after last year’s victory and defender Holger Badstuber, who has been plagued by repeated injuries, may not return.

Like the Netherlands, Germany hasn’t moved from strength to strength – neither team is at the top of their European Championship 2016 qualifying group.

 

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Bobby Wood scored for the USA during their improbable victory against the World Cup winners. Source: Witters

 

Germany, which plays a qualifier game against Gibraltar on Saturday, might not be a favorite at Euro 2016 next summer. But it’s still too early to judge. The national team, which has won the World Cup four times, knows how to focus in tournaments when it really counts.

As Gary Lineker, a star striker on the English national team in the late 1980s, once noted: “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”

As for the U.S. team, 27th in the world rankings, Mr. Klinsmann hopes to use the friendly matches in Europe to prepare for next month’s Gold Cup, the main international competition in North America and the Caribbean.

The Americans won the title in 2013 and, if they win again, would earn a berth in the Confederations Cup, a tournament pitting the champions of the world’s footballing regions.

“In order to grow as a soccer nation, we need more consistency in results against teams that are above us,” Mr. Klinsmann said in a pre-game televised press conference. “That’s why we always try to play teams that are in the top 10 in the world. We want to see where we stand.”

He said his goal is to reach the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.


Video: The U.S team reacts to its win against Germany.

Mr. Klinsmann, 50, looks much the same as he did as the German national coach and even when playing in the German premier league and more than 100 times for the national team: He is trim and tanned and full of smiles.

But appearances are only skin deep. Behind the trade-mark smile is a highly ambitious former professional player, who, in an unforgettable burst of anger, kicked a hole into a can-shaped advertisement after being substituted in a game.

Mr. Klinsmann, who played with Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Tottenham Hotspur, among other top clubs, breaths competition and wants to win, no matter what the odds are. But the odds of him ever taking home the World Cup trophy as U.S. coach can only be a bookmaker’s dream.

 

John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: blau@handelsblatt.com

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