An abrupt fall from grace
Two weeks ago, I expressed my hope that 'the World Cup is primarily fun'. I guess you can already forget about that - at least if you're Jürgen Klinsmann.
Germany will meet the USA on Wednesday, and what was initially supposed to be just another preparation game to help the new, young team gel is suddenly something else entirely. I wouldn't go as far as the writer for the renowned Munich broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung, who told a TV reporter that this friendly has metamorphosed into 'a do-or-die game. If Germany lose again, I won't rule out anything.'
That 'anything' is, believe it or not, the sacking of the national coach - ten weeks before the start of the World Cup on home soil! Like I said, I don't think this option is really at stake on Wednesday, because the German FA (DFB) and even Klinsmann's most vocal critics must realise, upon sober reflection, that such a move would be a folly of spectacular proportions.
On the other hand, sober reflection is not en vogue right now. When Klinsmann invited yards of bad press by not attending the so-called 'workshop' of World Cup coaches in early March, everybody readily assumed this was just another, very misplaced case of the national coach having to prove he is his own man.
Apparently, only one person had the good sense to phone Klinsmann before making a statement to hear if there was a hitherto undisclosed reason for his absence. (This person was Berti Vogts.) 'Emotionality comes before objectivity these days, and that hurts,' Klinsmann lamented.
That's certainly a correct assessment of the situation. But it was Klinsmann himself who invited this emotionality. It has been his forte and his trump card during the first 18 months of his reign. We all - objectively - knew our players are not good enough to win the World Cup, they are - objectively - not even good enough to make the semis. Yet Klinsmann managed to convince the country that those petty details are utterly inconsequential.
His mantra was that zeal and zest, courage and passion, team spirit and belief would do the trick. In other words, emotions. Besides, if you decide to miss an important date because you are taking your mother to the United States so that she will suffer less acutely under the first anniversary of her husband's death, you can't really accuse others of emotionality.
Only eight months ago, the emotions surrounding Germany's good showing at the Confederations' Cup had made Klinsmann everybody's darling and our football's saviour. Now he is, in the words of the political weekly Der Spiegel, 'currently the most-insulted German'.
Neither reaction is healthy, helpful or reasonable - but that's the way things are ahead of a World Cup: everybody's going nuts.
How, then, did Klinsmann fall from grace so abruptly? In part, it's the recent results, especially the 4-1 hammering at the hands of Italy that could easily have been a 6-0. Even Stefan Effenberg, who's not exactly an admirer of Klinsmann as the national coach, says: 'If we beat the USA 5-0 the mood will change drastically. Then we'll be on the brink of winning the World Cup again.' He's right, of course.
The closer we get to the World Cup, the more magnified everything becomes. Losing against Turkey, who couldn't qualify for the summer extravaganza, meant we have no business being at the World Cup; a scoreless draw in Paris meant we're just as good as the Thierry Henrys and the David Trezeguets. Needless to say, both conclusions are rubbish.
The fact is still that, in terms of world football, we have an average side, probably roughly on the level of teams like Mexico, who can beat any top side on a good day but can't really expect to beat three of them in a row - which is what you have got to do at a World Cup. (Unless it's played in Japan and South Korea in 2002.) But try telling that to somebody these days.
Yet it's not just the results that have painted Klinsmann into a tight corner. He's also, almost suicidally so, invited trouble left, right and centre over the past weeks. I take it you're not intimately familiar with the inner workings of the German media, so let me point out that we are talking politics now.
Klinsmann has always, even back when he was a player, refused to kowtow to the tabloids and despises the inside-dope-in-return-for-good-press charade which is such a big part of modern football. What's more, his sidekicks Joachim Löw and, though to a somewhat lesser degree, Oliver Bierhoff, are cut from the same mould.
That's an honourable stance. But it also means that you have got to be very, very careful (or win a lot). In February, the tabloids got wind of Klinsmann's wish to make national field hockey coach Bernhard Peters the DFB's Director of Sports.
This was the opening they had been waiting for.
It took just one week of sarcastic headlines about a non-football man overseeing our football to pressure the DFB into holding an emergency meeting and rashly giving the post to Matthias Sammer instead.
Then Klinsmann did not call up our only healthy and in-form defender for the Italy game, Dortmund's Christian Wörns.
There were, in fact, some solid reasons for this decision. Like Dietmar Hamann, Wörns is a veteran of the awful 1998 and 2004 campaigns, where he was made one of the scapegoats for the national team's backwardness. He is also an old-school defender who's too slow and too limited to help build from the rear, which is essential for the high-tempo, offensive game Klinsmann has in mind.
A similar thing holds true for Wörns's Dortmund team-mate Sebastian Kehl - who's very good at stopping the opposition before they can get to the back four but who has problems distributing the balls which he wins. That's something Torsten Frings does well, which is why Klinsmann prefers him to Kehl, who wasn't called up either.
But the Wörns debate caused the ruckus. Because, make no mistake, there are also many things that spoke in his favour.
For one, our other defenders are not exactly miles ahead of him in terms of modern football. Second, most of them are having a terrible season, were plagued by injuries or are just subs at their clubs. Finally, Klinsmann's timing was way off, as Dortmund's coach Bert van Marwijk had just come to a decision that made the national coach look bad.
Van Marwijk had started to play the 21-year-old Markus Brzenska alongside Wörns. In other words: from the only Bundesliga side that has three German full-backs, Klinsmann called up the one who was sitting on the bench, Christoph Metzelder.
What this amounts to is that Klinsmann should have bowed to politics and at least nominated Wörns, just to make sure he wouldn't miss a potential source of fire.
He didn't, and that was a mistake. Because it's not as if Klinsmann is too proud for such political gestures or too stubborn to make them. He's just come up with one: he called up Kehl after all for the US game. And why did he do that? Because the match will be played in Dortmund.
This location has so far been considered a talisman for the Germany team, as the side is unbeaten when playing in Dortmund. But now the outlook is quite different.
The DFB has already met with Dortmund supporters' groups and will hand out 11,000 shirts in the national colours - just to make sure the anti-Klinsmann and pro-Wörns chants or banners are kept to a minimum.
This promises to become a very interesting evening.
Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.