By Mike Woitalla
Juergen Klinsmann, the new USA coach, played in his first organized soccer game shortly before his 9th birthday, in Gingen, a German village with a population of 400.
He sat on the bench until, with 10 minutes left, the coach realized he’d better put the youngster on the field before he burst with energetic enthusiasm. That’s how Klinsmann’s biographer, Hans Blickensdoerfer, described it.
But just before Klinsmann charged onto the field, he stopped and said to the coach, “Please sir, I don’t actually know what offside means. Can you quickly run it through with me?”
Once on the field, Klinsmann, inhibited by stage fright and fear of offside, ran around like a headless chicken, writes Blickensdoerfer.
Juergen’s father, Siegfried Klinsmann, was a baker and gymnastics instructor. His son, however, preferred kicking a soccer ball around the gym where his father taught. And Siegfried was fine with that.
“We had four boys, and so I imagined we would end up with a family gymnastics team,” said Siegfried, who died in 2005. “Then suddenly a soccer ball flashed through the midst of this vision, and that was that. … Despite being a gymnast myself, I understood and was happy with the idea that Juergen had more fun with a moving ball than with fixed gymnastic apparatus.
“I took him off the compulsory gymnastics program, and let him run free with the ball.”
Juergen played school and pickup soccer before joining the TB Gingen team. He kicked the ball against the garage door – to let off steam after coming from school, he once said – but it also honed his skills.
And it was only six months after Juergen’s tentative appearance in his first game that the boy gave notice of future stardom: he scored 16 goals in a 40-minute game. And finished the season with 106 goals in 18 games.
(Siegfried had made a record-book for Juergen to note his goals and teams' results throughout his youth career, according to Michael Horeni’s biography of Klinsmann. Siegfried inscribed it with, “Be honest in competition, humble in victory, accept each defeat without envy, and have an attitude of decency.”)
At age 10, in 1974, Juergen joined a bigger, more demanding club in a neighboring town, and commuted to SC Geislingen’s practices by bike. Klinsmann scored bucket loads of goals for Geislingen in outdoor and indoor soccer.
Long before Klinsmann earned real “dough,” Siegfried would often be seen encouraging his son from behind the goal carrying a large basket of pretzels as incentive, writes Blickensdoerfer.
When Juergen was 14, the Klinsmanns moved to Stuttgart when his father bought a bakery, at which his mother, Martha, also worked, in the suburb of Botnang.
Juergen wanted to continue soccer with his friends, writes Horeni, and for a while kept playing for SC Geislingen. A few times a week, the club would pick him up from Stuttgart, 37 miles away, and Juergen would take the train back late in the evening or spend the night with friends.
But Klinsmann was being courted by Stuttgart’s pro clubs, which had noticed him on the Wuerttemberg regional team, and he joined Stuttgart Kickers' youth program in 1978.
In 1980, he received a call up to play for the German U-16 national team, which was coached by Berti Vogts (with whom Klinsmann would celebrate the 1996 European Championship title, six years after winning the 1990 Word Cup under Coach Franz Beckenbauer).
Klinsmann signed a professional contract with Stuttgart Kickers at age 16 in 1981, but also started an apprenticeship at his father’s bakery. Siegfried told him, “If it doesn’t work out in soccer, then at least you’ll have a proper job. It also allows you to train in the afternoons.” (Work at the bakery began at 5 am.)
In the third season of his pro career, Klinsmann scored 19 goals in 35 games for the second division Kickers. In 1984, at age 20, he moved to crosstown rival VfB Stuttgart and became a star in the Bundesliga’s first division, averaging one goal every two games, leading to a long career that included stints with Inter Milan, Monaco, Tottenham Hotspur and Bayern Munich. He scored 47 goals in 108 appearances for Germany.
Klinsmann received his baker’s diploma in 1982 at Berufschule Hoppenlau in Stuttgart, but would never need to fall back on that career option.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)