Germany still in Klinsmann's shadow
RIO DE JANEIRO -- It was a key moment for German football, but neither party could have known it at the time. Joachim Low first met Jurgen Klinsmann at the German FA coaching course at Sportschule Hennef in 2000, and something that the former VFB Stuttgart manager said struck a chord with the 1990 World Cup winner.
"I had been a professional player for 18 years. In those 18 years, not one manager was able to explain to me how a back four should move across the pitch," Klinsmann recalled years later. "But it only took one minute with Jogi [for me] to understand how it worked."
When Klinsmann was appointed Germany manager in July 2004, he hired Low as his assistant, but he was much more from the start: a sounding board, a trusted adviser, the man who ensured the details were in place to bring Klinsmann's grand vision of a new, more attacking football to life. "I'm not your boss. We're in this together," the California-based former striker told Low before their work began.
Their ways parted when Klinsmann resigned in 2006, but they have remained close friends. It's what happens after a joint, highly emotional journey past many obstacles and the shared experience of being at the heart of the intoxicating storm that was the World Cup in Germany -- the "summer fairy tale" -- as Germans called it.
But there's also a strong sense of loyalty from Low, who was plucked from the wilderness by Klinsmann and promoted to the top position with his blessing two years later. "Seeing him again in Brazil will be a special moment for Jogi and me," Oliver Bierhoff said after the group stage draw in December. Germany's general manager was the third part of the triumvirate that shook up the Nationalmannschaft.
The Germany management -- and perhaps the ever-optimistic Klinsmann, too -- had secretly hoped their rendezvous in Recife, Brazil, would be purely a friendly occasion, in the football sense of the word. Two tempestuous 2-2 draws by Germany and the U.S. in their respective second games have made sure there's more to it now. Another draw would suit both sides, but neither Low nor Klinsmann want to be accused of collusion. They have vowed to play for the win.
Germany have little to fear in the grand scheme of things; their advance to the next round is all but guaranteed. The U.S. are under more pressure to get at least a draw, especially if Ghana start scoring goals against Portugal in the other Group G game.
There's a special Klinsmann factor as well. The Swabian has a point to prove: Germans never fully bought into his slightly esoteric talk of "energy fields," and his relentless positivity jarred with the more critical disposition of the wider public. Furthermore, the former Inter, Tottenham and Stuttgart striker will be keen to prove to his sceptical home country that he's developed as a coach, to the point at which he can outsmart Low on Thursday.
His former second in command is still widely perceived -- on both sides of the curtain -- to have been the football brains of the 2006 operation. A film documentary about that World Cup portrayed Klinsmann as little more than a changing-room motivator. The USMNT coach later voiced his displeasure with that characterisation, telling 11 Freunde magazine, "I shouldn't have authorised those scenes."
- Muller: Germany must be very cautious
- Vogts: Germany should thank Klinsmann
- Honigstein: Germans have no word for draw
- Carlisle: Bradley at fault, not to blame
- Davis: Heartbroken U.S. must remain positive
- McIntyre: U.S. preps for special match
- How U.S. can qualify for last 16
The U.S. performances at this World Cup so far suggest that the simple 2006 dichotomy -- Klinsmann the heart, Low the mind -- is no longer valid. Bierhoff, too, insisted that the "motivator" tag was outdated. "It doesn't do justice to Jurgen. He's become more of a coach over the years," he said.
Klinsmann's last engagement in Germany, an ill-fated, 10-month stint at Bayern Munich in 2008-09, had left many doubts in that respect, but Klinsmann seems to have learned from his mistakes. This week, the serious German papers were full of pieces praising his decisive part in the revival of Germany's football fortunes. Suddeutsche Zeitung, to name just one, noted that Klinsmann's fitness regime, much derided by the tabloids and traditionalists at the time, have become Bundesliga standard. He introduced better scouting and mental coaching; his organisational reforms have made the national team trips and tournaments more professional. All those advances, too, have found their way into club football. Klinsmann didn't win a trophy with Germany, but it's not hyperbole to say he's left a legacy of better practice.
Most importantly of all, however, Klinsmann changed the way the country thinks about football. Before he took over, young players, by definition, were mistrusted; experience was valued above creativity. Klinsmann promoted (relative) youngsters like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Lukas Podolski and Per Mertesacker to the starting lineup, and their success in 2006 opened the doors for other coaches to follow suit.
"He put his confidence into a very young generation," Mertesacker told Frankfurter Rundschau this week. "He created an environment in which playing young players became the natural thing to do. He's played a big part in freshening up German football. We are still benefitting from that today."
By swapping Oliver Kahn for Jens Lehmann in goal, Klinsmann also showed he was prepared to make unpopular decisions if they were warranted tactically. For example, he needed a keeper who was quicker off his line and better on the ball to mop up behind his back four. Being able to do just that has since become a key criterion for any Bundesliga No. 1.
Captain Lahm, too, praised "the momentum" that Klinsmann had introduced, but he's been less complimentary about the manager's tenure in Munich in the past. "We only did fitness drills in training," Lahm wrote in his autobiography in 2011. "The players had to get together to discuss how we were going to play in each match."
Mats Hummels and Toni Kroos were sold to Dortmund and loaned to Leverkusen, respectively, during Klinsmann's reign at the Allianz Arena, but neither player bears a grudge. One starting XI regular told ESPN FC there's a huge amount of goodwill in the Germany camp toward the U.S. coach.
Portugal and Ghana won't like to hear this but "Jogi versus Klinsi," as Bild framed it, is a bit like the key scene in "The Empire Strikes Back," only without the twist. The Nationalmannschaft coach goes into the battle knowing full well that Klinsmann is the father -- of this side's current success.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.