German legend Jürgen Klinsmann says he doesn't have any regrets over walking away from the U.S. head coaching position that was offered to him in 2006, not long after he'd led Germany to the semifinals of the World Cup. It seemed like an ideal fit: Klinsmann had lived in California with his American wife and their two children since he retired as a player in 1998. He knew the peculiarities of U.S. soccer from spending time around the Los Angeles Galaxy and observing the way the game works here. And he's an innovator who has often departed from the orthodoxies of European managers.
Yet Klinsmann walked away from the negotiating table at the last moment, setting in motion the path that would culminate in Bob Bradley taking over the U.S. job instead.
Bradley now leads the U.S. to the World Cup, which starts on June 11, while Klinsmann will be in South Africa working for ESPN. He and I sat down for a one-on-one interview at the ESPN studios in Bristol, Conn., recently and talked about a number of things, from the reasons he left the U.S. at the altar to Landon Donovan's loan spell under Klinsmann at Bayern Munich to his attendance at the week-long leadership conference run by Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Klinsmann's coaching rep has taken a hit since '06, the result of a tumultuous tenure at Bayern Munich, where the board jettisoned him after less than one season. But Klinsmann is still a managerial commodity who has drawn interest of late from English Premier League teams and might still have a chance to coach the U.S. someday.
Why do I think this? Just call it a hunch. While Klinsmann shied away from answering my questions about someday taking the U.S. job, he is clearly open to managing again, and his family has just recently re-settled back in California from Europe. Klinsmann takes pains to say that he maintains a good relationship with U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, and the feeling is mutual. At this point it's impossible to know if the U.S. job will be open until we see how the team performs at the World Cup. But whatever ends up happening, it could be fascinating to hear Klinsmann the analyst discuss the performance of Bradley and his U.S. team.
Here's my conversation with Klinsmann (edited for length and clarity):
SI.com: You recently said that U.S. soccer has not yet found a style, a philosophy, that marks every big soccer nation. Could you elaborate on that?
Klinsmann: It's a country that is heading more and more toward the most popular sport in the world. Obviously there's a lot going on now, and the World Cup bid [for 2018 or '22] is huge. The U.S. has qualified for the World Cup for the sixth time in a row and is getting more experience on the world stage. The U.S. is known worldwide as a melting pot. Soccer in a certain way transmits the culture of a country. It reflects so much about the people. That's what I meant. It's going to be very interesting to see where U.S. soccer from an identity point of view will head to.
It will be a mixture. You have the Latin influence. You have the cultural backbone of your university system, which is completely different from the rest of the world. You have the fact that it's mostly organized soccer, when we know that the best players in the world come out of unorganized events. I think it's a fascinating topic. It will be defined in the years down the road. You know about Brazil, but even Brazil goes through those discussions every day now with Dunga [as coach]. He has a more European approach that isn't the joga bonito. Argentina is always passing and creating out of nothing. Italy has always been about waiting until the opponent makes a mistake and then we kill you. So every country shows certain characteristics through the game of soccer.
SI.com: Is there a particular kind of style you think the U.S. should develop?
Klinsmann: This is a difficult discussion, because what players do you have available? Where do those players come from? What is they style of play that they fit into? You can't just say I love to play attacking football and a Brazilian type of football if you don't have the players to do that. At the end of the day you need to have success to move this sport forward. I think the U.S. is a nation that wants to always be No. 1 in the world. It's the leader in so many areas, and in a certain way you're almost forced to be proactive in your approach to how you do things. They're not waiting always until the other countries do something. They just do it.
SI.com: You came close to taking the U.S. coaching job in 2006. Would you have any interest in coaching the U.S. in the future?
Klinsmann: It's a question that is absolutely not up in the air because you're not discussing something that you have a very good, highly qualified coach [Bob Bradley] working on and being totally focused on. The soccer world is crazy, you know. Things come up overnight. I never thought I'd take the German national team to the last World Cup. I never thought that two years later I would take over Bayern Munich. So I don't know what happens tomorrow. There were calls coming in the last month [from Europe], but I resisted, because my family moved back in December to California, and we needed to get the kids settled. So you're not jumping on the next thing that becomes available. It might be a couple years down the road. You take things as they come. But you're not discussing something that other people are in charge of.
SI.com: I know you had some interest to coach from teams in the English Premiership. Is there any chance you could take a job over there?
Klinsmann: The coaching side is a role where you really have to fit in with the people that run the environment. This is really important. And the next opportunity that I take on needs to have an environment where I feel really happy. I want to work with people that do it for the right reasons. I want to fit into an environment that kind of shares my philosophy, and my philosophy is an attacking style of football. That's just the way I think, and it's how I built the German team for the 2006 World Cup over two years, which was highly criticized over a long stretch of time, and then they embraced it. It's a style of plays that takes time to implement, and you need the environment that gives you that time. That's why I'm very cautious. It needs to fit.
SI.com: What do you think of the U.S. team's chances at the World Cup?
Klinsmann: There's no easy group. Anything can happen. It will be a World Cup completely different from what we've ever experienced, the first one in Africa. The circumstances are very challenging, from maybe hotels to training fields to playing at 5,000-foot altitudes to sea level to the traveling. It's going to be a very stressful World Cup for all the teams. And the teams that deal the best with that type of environmental stress will go through. There might be some teams that you think are the best, and if they get impatient and don't want to deal with it anymore, for whatever reason, they might go home early. And a team that's highly focused and says we are here to get a job done, they might make it all the way.
If you take the U.S. Olympic basketball team for a seven-week stretch with all these superstars, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and all these guys, when do they run out of patience? After week two, three, four or maybe six? So this is the type of environment where it's really going to be interesting to see how they deal with all that. Also, everybody else is down there. Us too. It's not going to be a nice summer like it was in 2006, when it was sunshine for four weeks and it was a party. It's wintertime [in South Africa]. It's dark at 4:30.
SI.com: If you hang with me it'll be a party.
Klinsmann: We'll leave you in the Kruger National Park [with the lions] (laughs).
SI.com: When you ended up walking away from the U.S. coaching job in '06, the word was that U.S. Soccer wasn't willing to give you the degree of control that you wanted. Is that true?
Klinsmann: Yeah. The timing was just too difficult. Because the Copa América and the Gold Cup were being played [in 2007], and we had discussions about who you can bring down there, and those discussions were not going in my direction. That's when I said it's not the right time for it. We left it totally positive. It was no problem at all.
SI.com: Was there an issue with MLS releasing players for Copa América?
Klinsmann: It was about the organizational issues approaching those tournaments, who you can have and all that stuff. But it was no problem. That's when you say as a coach, 'O.K., it seems we're not there yet.' Maybe now they look at it differently. I think they did great with Bob, because he's a great personality, he's working tremendously hard and he will give everything he has. He has tremendous experience, knowledge, leadership. It's down to the players now to prove their point. Are we able to compete with the best in the world? Are we able to keep our nerves under control when a Frank Lampard or a John Terry walk up?
It's different when you're on the way out to the field and you see those guys in the corridor. You say, 'O.K., I want to play in the Premier League, but maybe not only on a mediocre team. Maybe I want to play in one of the top four teams in the Premier League.' So then you've got to beat those guys. It's really down to the players now, and they have nothing to lose. Play England!
SI.com: Landon Donovan played for you on loan at Bayern. Why do you think he succeeded in his Everton loan in a way that he didn't in his Bayern loan?
Klinsmann: Because he needs total support. Every athlete, no matter the sport, when he's on a certain level -- and Landon proved he can play on the highest level -- he needs absolute support from his total environment. And he didn't get that support in Munich.
SI.com: In what ways?
Klinsmann: Because he came on loan and didn't get the loan prolonged. He needed a little bit more time, which I asked for. [The Bayern directors] didn't give it to him. Or to me either [laughs]. It's very simple. If you don't have the psychological support, if you don't have the feeling that everybody is counting on me, and they give me my chances and I'm here for the right reasons, then it's not meant to be. That's why players perform in certain environments and don't in others. I think this experience in Munich made him even stronger.
It didn't work out the way he hoped, and I felt bad about it. Because I knew: Give him more time. I asked the club: Leave him there for another two months. But others made those decisions. So I was really pleased when he said I'll do those three months with Everton. Good, good for you! There he got the support, he got the playing time. At Bayern it was far too difficult with Luca Toni and Miro Klose and [Lukas] Podolski on the bench. I made [Donovan] the No. 3 ahead of Podolski, which caused huge issues in Germany. But I knew if he was given the time he would break through. He didn't get the time.
SI.com: Switching gears, I heard that you once visited the week-long leadership conference held by Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. Why did you go, and what did you learn?
Klinsmann: You're constantly learning. Coach K is one of the most influential leaders coming from sports here in this country. When I got here I read most of his books, which I found highly interesting. My business partner went to Duke University, so we always had kind of an eye on that. By reading through all that material, I saw there was a lot of stuff you could use for the soccer environment as well. Leadership is about people in every environment. That seminar there was amazing because other business leaders gave presentations and examples of how they solved issues.
It was really impressive. We don't have those types of seminars in Germany. Not at that level, because our university system doesn't have the recognition it has in the United States, and it certainly doesn't have the connection to sports. The American system is completely different. You need to understand America and how it works in order to get that picture, and I have been lucky to live here 11 years and see a lot of places. Coach K is really good stuff for any coach in whatever sport he's in.
SI.com: There is a chance that Germany and the U.S. could face each other in the second round of the World Cup. How do you think the U.S. would match up against this German team?
Klinsmann: I think they can match up with anybody at the right moment. They just need to have the right momentum. They were very close in 2002 [in the World Cup quarterfinals]. I was actually at that game and they could have beaten Germany there. So if it's a possible match-up it would be a very close game. The knockout stage is just fascinating stuff because it's really down to the wire. You can't make a mistake. You can't lose your head emotionally. But that is also something where the Germans might have a little advantage because they know how to deal with this type of environment. They keep their nerves under control and stay focused.