In 2001, German football was at its lowest ebb in decades. Disappointment at the 1998 World Cup and disaster at Euro 2000 had triggered a top-to-bottom overhaul of the country’s footballing identity, which wouldn’t start bearing fruit until 2006.
Miroslav Klose was exactly the sort of player the system had been failing. A Polish immigrant living in a small town, he wasn’t spotted by a Bundesliga team until he was 20 years old. As the restructuring commenced, its mastermind Jörg Daniel promised that the best players would be discovered even if they were “born in a tiny village behind the mountains”. He could almost have been talking about Klose.
If he had broken through five years earlier or five years later, Klose might never have become a Die Mannschaft legend. A dearth of attacking talent meant that a decent – but not brilliant – season for Kaiserslautern was enough to get Klose his first international call-up in 2001. He scored 15 minutes into his debut against Albania, and the rest is legend.
Or rather, it should be. But the tale of Miroslav Klose has been told in statistics, not in the loving tributes reserved for some of his more stylish contemporaries. The adjectives often used to describe him are clinical, lethal, precise. The language of a sniper, not an entertainer.
Yet nobody has defined the World Cup in the 21st century quite like Klose, who has more goals at the tournament than any of his eulogised peers. His trademark somersault celebration has become a regular sight ever since he scored a hat-trick of headers on his World Cup debut against Saudi Arabia in 2002.
Acclaim has been surprisingly hard to come by. Klose has often been labelled a flat-track bully, with most of his World Cup goals coming against weaker opposition. His record at club level has also been criticised. He scored more than 20 league goals in a season just once, otherwise maintaining a steady average of about one goal every three games. Not bad, but not world class.
Klose was World Cup top scorer on home soil in 2006, but Germany’s tournament was remembered not for him but for the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm, the first fruits of the revolution. Klose joined the pair at Bayern Munich in 2007 but never prospered there, scoring just 24 league goals in four seasons.
He was included in the 2010 World Cup squad on reputation alone, but scored more goals at the tournament than he’d managed all season in the Bundesliga. He finally had a rival in the form of Thomas Müller, who outscored him in South Africa. Müller’s success in a modern 4-2-3-1 formation was the herald of a new generation.
Klose didn’t belong to that generation. As Germany moved towards a more fluid Spanish model, often employing a false nine and starting matches with no established striker, he started to seem like the relic of a bygone era.
But no matter how much Germany’s philosophy changed, there was still no-one who could put the ball in the net like Klose. He was a classic centre forward more comparable to Gerd Müller than to any current German player, though Klose himself has always balked at such comparisons.
“It’s an absolute joke to compare myself with him,” he said after joining Müller on 68 Germany goals in 2013. He broke the record on the eve of his final World Cup, but there was significant scepticism about the inclusion of a 36-year-old in Germany’s youthful squad – had Joachim Löw picked him on sentiment alone?
Klose provided the answer in the only way he knew how, equalling Ronaldo’s World Cup goals record less than 120 seconds after coming on against Ghana. He failed to stick the landing on the somersault celebration, but his predatory instincts in front of goal had not been dulled by age.
Ronaldo’s record was one of many to fall in Belo Horizonte on 8 July 2014. Klose made history with the second of Germany’s seven goals against Brazil, but all the headlines the next day were about the enormity of the hosts’ collapse. Hardly a word for the World Cup’s greatest goalscorer.
Again, Klose quickly rubbished comparisons to Ronaldo, despite congratulations from the man himself. “For me, he was the most complete player ever,” said Klose, always magnanimous. At full-time against Brazil, he was one of the first to commiserate with Luiz Felipe Scolari, the disgraced opposition manager.
Klose has always been a model of dignity and fair play. In 2005 he refused a penalty wrongly awarded to Werder Bremen, requesting that the referee overturn his decision. He received an award for his honesty, but it was tinged with irritation that this behaviour was the exception. “For me, it was something you should always do. I would do it again," he said.
Seven years later, the cynicism of modern football had not corrupted his moral compass. He admitted to handball in the build-up to a Lazio goal and the referee shook his hand before chalking it off. “There are many youngsters who watch football on TV and we are role models for them," said Klose, again reluctant to be praised for simply telling the truth.
It is said that cheats never prosper, but in football they often do. Klose’s fair play was rewarded at last in his final game for Germany. Mario Götze’s winning goal against Argentina signalled that this was a group of players to whom Klose could safely pass the torch. He lifted the World Cup, and retired from international football a month later.
He briefly considered moving to the MLS after his last Lazio game in 2016, but his young family convinced him to call it a day. The 2018 World Cup will be the first since 1998 in which Klose will neither play nor score, but he will be in Russia as part of Joachim Löw’s coaching team. It wouldn’t be the World Cup without Miroslav Klose.