SAO PAULO – For Jurgen Klinsmann, realism does not equate to fear.
The U.S. national team coach reiterated here Wednesday that he does not expect his squad to win the World Cup next month, echoing comments in a recently published story in The New York Times that ruffled some feathers stateside. But that sentiment – the result an honest evaluation of soccer’s progress in a country that’s been taking it seriously for only a quarter century – isn’t defeatist. It does not mean that winning the World Cup is impossible, nor does it mean the U.S. isn’t going to try.
That nuance, according to Klinsmann, is critical when evaluating his team’s progress and prospects and in shaping his players’ outlook heading into next week’s opener against Ghana. He wants his players to enjoy the stage and to rely on the work they’ve done. The burden of extra expectation is unnecessary. Ghana, Portugal and Germany will present sufficient obstacles.
“You have to be realistic,” he said. “I think we are, every year, making another step forward. We’re getting stronger. We always now approach games where we don’t look at ourselves as an underdog even if all of the people want to put us as the underdog. In this very difficult group, we’re not. We’re going to go in there and we’re going to take the game to Ghana. They’ll take it to us … and then we go from there.”
Only eight nations have won a World Cup. For the rest of the planet, and even a couple of those former champions, the quadrennial tournament isn’t a binary, success or failure proposition. Progress is measured in increments and gray areas and results evaluated through the lens of history. It takes a long, long time to build the foundation that produces a world champion. It took Spain 80 years.
Listen, and you’ll hear managers across the globe set the quarterfinals as a goal or claim that their mandate is simply to show well. Mid-major teams don’t enter the NCAA basketball tournament claiming they’re going to win – they take each game as it comes, play to their strengths and hope they’re the next George Mason or Butler.
The U.S. may have progressed beyond mid-major status, but the 13th-ranked Americans haven’t played in a World Cup semifinal since 1930. They’ve won just four World Cup matches since returning to the big stage in 1990. Belief and humility aren’t mutually exclusive. Klinsmann has experienced the other side as a player and then coach of Germany. It’s simply not the same.
“Every situation and every country is so different,” he said. “Brazil is so different. It’s the five-time world champion. They’re born with having football in their blood … and obviously they expect the title. Simple as that. If you coach [three-time winner] Germany, they expect the title. There’s not discussion about how far you can go, saying your goals. It’s very simple.”
Teams in that next tier down take a different approach and with effort, execution and a bit of good fortune, anything is possible. The proof came 10 years ago in the European Championship in Portugal, where unfancied Greece – which entered the competition having appeared in only two major tournaments in its history (without winning a game) -- came from nowhere, defended staunchly and upset the Czech Republic, France and the hosts, each 1-0, to take an improbable title. The team was nicknamed, “pirate ship.”
“Talk about winning a World Cup is just not realistic," Klinsmann said. "If you do it like Greece in 2004, I think that nobody in Greece would have said, ‘We’re going to win the European Championship.’ But they did. Soccer is the beautiful game. It’s unpredictable. You don’t know what happens. Every game is another step toward the next bigger goal. Once you make it through that group we’re in, you’re not shying away from anybody. But first we’ve got to take it through that group, so we keep our feet on the ground … then the sky’s the limit.”
He added, “To say we should win the World Cup is just not realistic. If it’s American or not American, I don’t know. You can correct me however you want.”
U.S. forward Jozy Altidore didn’t feel compelled to correct his coach.
“We haven’t won a World Cup before, so you can’t go into the World Cup saying, ‘Oh, we have to do what we’ve done in the past.’ You come here, obviously, with that dream in the back of your mind. Let’s not be silly,” said Altidore, a veteran of the 2010 tournament. “But at the same time, you have to be realistic and understand there are some teams that maybe are a bit more favored than we are to win the tournament. Saying all that, you try to take it one game at a time and see how far you can go and then as it gets closer, hopefully if you get closer to the end, you start to believe.”
What is American? Embracing and relishing a challenge. Finding comfort and enjoyment on the big stage. Those are the values Klinsmann hopes his players embrace and that he believes will lead to the right results.
“We are very ambitious and hungry and we want to get started on the right foot against Ghana … For us, everybody has the confidence to go into the game and show Ghana the right body language from the first second,” he said. “Personally, I love that, the more difficult it now gets. I enjoy that. I know how tight, really, the margin is between winning and losing … it could be little tiny things that can go against you, but they can also go for you and I’m a believer they will go for us, so this is what we try to do now.”
He said he’ll tell his players, “Go out and enjoy it. Go out and embrace it. Be confident. You built a physical foundation now. You worked hard for four weeks now. They worked hard for their clubs … This is now the moment. This is the stage. That is where you want to be.”
GALLERY: Meet the 23-man U.S. World Cup team