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Jan 23, 2003

Klinsmann sounds off

When Jurgen Klinsmann talks soccer, it's impossible not to listen intently and write everything down he's saying, even if you don't agree with some of his statements.

After starring for Germany in three World Cups, including Italia '90 where the Germans triumphed, and accomplishing nearly every feat possible en route to becoming one of the world's all-time greatest players, everything he says has some merit.

Speaking to a group of soccer aficionados, many of which were English, and youth coaches from all over the U.S. at the NSCAA Convention in Kansas City last week, Klinsmann started off with a bang.

Asked whether Germany deserved to win its World Cup quarterfinal against the U.S., the lively striker said that he believed they did because they were smarter and wanted it more.

"I was at that game working the German broadcast," said Klinsmann of the epic 1-0 match this past June. "The U.S. played a great game - they had it in their hands. They were winning most of the one-on-one situations in the midfield."

Moments later he added, "But these are games decided by the mind, not the feet."

Case in point, Klinsmann felt that America's 20-year-old star Landon Donovan didn't find the back of the net on any of his dangerous runs because of his confidence level, not his timing or the fact that Germany's world-beating goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, happened to make one of the saves of his life in the first half when Donovan nailed a hard lefty shot to the far post.

"He failed there because he didn't believe in himself," said Klinsmann.

And it wasn't just Donovan, according to the German legend.

"In Europe, we have sixty to seventy high-profile games each season," he said. "That makes a mental difference. You could see that some Americans did not have that competitive edge yet."

Ok, so maybe he didn't start out with any warm-and-fuzzies. But we asked for Klinsmann Unplugged, and that's what he provided for over an hour.

To the naked eye, he doesn't appear any different than he did at any point during his star-studded career, whether it was with the German National Team or with all the prestigious clubs in Europe's best leagues that he suited up for such as Inter Milan, Tottenham Hotspur and Bayern Munich.

Klinsmann still looks match-fit without an ounce of body fat on him. Talking about the game, the same lively eyes that always seemed to be pleading for the ball and that childlike grin reappear as he tells tales from what he calls his "journey" rather than a career.

One of his favorite stories is one that many staunch English Premier League followers in the room know well, but followed along as though they'd never heard it.

It occurred when Klinsmann came to Tottenham in 1994 from AS Monaco in France. By this time, he was already a renowned figure and considered one of the best goal scorers in the world, yet the English media kept making a fuss about his "diving" whenever a defender got his boot anywhere near the ball or his body.

Not understanding the tabloid culture or the way stars are equally built up and burned to the ground by the English press, Klinsmann was deeply hurt by this. He took it as an attack on both his playing ability, as well as his character.

His teammates and coaches talked to him about it and told him he'd have to get over it and either fess up to it or defend himself. Of course, defending himself would have made the situation worse, so he came up with a plan to get the media back on his side.

At a large press conference, Klinsmann faced his detractors, pulled out snorkel equipment, put it on, and asked, "Are there any good diving schools in London?"

Classic.

"From then on, I was accepted," said the "Golden Bomber".

His teammates got in the act before a game against Sheffield Wednesday, whose oh-too-clever fans showed up with signs that read "5.8" and "5.9"

"Teddy Sheringham said to me, When you score your first goal, we're all going to dive. Then it actually became popular with the kids, so for quite awhile every celebration was a dive."

Some of Klinsmann's best quotes came when he was asked about some of his famous teammates and opponents.

On creative players: "One player that I always admired was Maradona. To me, he was an artist on the field. Everything he did was full of creativity and full of fun."

On his boyhood hero and former coach Franz Beckenbauer: "He was always smiling and always in a good mood. He knew what every play needed."

On sometimes-nemesis and longtime teammate Lothar Mattheus: "He was a great captain. From a character point of view, we were very different. We had many arguments and didn't get along too much. But we had our biggest success of our careers together.

On Brazil's World Cup hero Ronaldo: "No one compared to Ronaldo four years ago. Now he appears to only go straight and for the finish. He's lost many skills."

On what Germany needs to win another World Cup: "We're missing players who can change the game around. We have a lack of creativity in our game now. It's a huge challenge."

On his best quality as a player: "I always felt we could win, even if we were down two goals in the ninetieth minute."

On why he stopped training with the L.A. Galaxy to stay in shape: "When I worked out with the Galaxy, it got to a point where they kept asking if I'd play another season or two."

One area that Klinsmann has many opinions on is youth development.

Residing in southern California with his American-born wife, Debbie, for the past four years and playing on an amateur side on Orange County, he has had ample opportunity to see the way American players are taught the game, especially now that his son is six years old and starting to play.

He thinks that having young players go from their recreation team to their club team to their ODP team to their school team is hindering their development as soccer players.

"At the end of the day, it really hurts the kids," he said. "They need consistency. They need to be a part of the same group. Kids are mixed all the time, and I think it is horrible."

This holds true as they get older as well, according to Klinsmann.

"College players play for three months, then they go to their club or the PDL, then pickup, then back to college," he said. "It's difficult to keep changing the environment."

One of the best messages he spoke of was how the difference between players in many other countries and the U.S. is in how much they play on their own away from the practice fields.

Klinsmann said that most of his skills were in place by the time he was 11 years old because of all the work he put in.

"Soccer, in my opinion, is self-teaching," he said. "The more you play, the better you get. You don't see kids play in the park these days. It's only in an organized environment. We are starting to have that similar problem in Europe, as well. Certain things are not teachable. I kicked the ball around three to four hours a day."

Despite what it seems, Klinsmann's tone isn't one of a Euro-snob. In fact, he states right off the bat that the U.S. is "no longer the underdog - they are to be taken very seriously."

He also makes a point of saying how he's met several coaches on the West Coast who know as much, if not more, about the game as their peers in Europe.

However, I wasn't about to let him leave without backing up to talk about Donovan's supposed "lack of confidence," which seems quite far-fetched. After all, we're talking about someone who scored two goals in the World Cup, had another one scored an own goal against Portugal, and even had another called back against Poland. All at the age of 20, too.

Klinsmann's response: "He has plenty of talent, football-wise. But not going to Germany (to play for Bayer Leverkusen) is a sign to me perhaps he's not ready to make the next step."

Ouch.

Donovan will surely have an ample opportunity to show up Klinsmann and any remaining German naysayers in 2006 when the World Cup returns to Deutschland.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at shaketiller10@yahoo.com.