By Paul Gardner
Maybe we've gotten used to the idea that we have a celebrity character in American soccer who cannot face the idea that he and his team are not the best. David Beckham has -- particularly recently -- given plenty of evidence that he is an utterly poor loser, and his attempts to blame everyone but himself are sad to behold.
One, it would appear, is not enough. Now we have to accept that we have another sore celebrity loser to deal with. Jurgen Klinsmann’s behavior after his team’s recent 4-1 loss to Brazil was so comprehensively unacceptable that he deserves a public censure from USSF President Sunil Gulati.
That won’t happen, of course -- not least because some part of Klinsmann’s self-deception about his team can be put down to Gulati. An hour or two before the Brazil game I listened to Gulati declaiming to the Hall of Fame gathering just how far the game has advanced in this country, which is the truth, and then making the leap to the possibility of actually beating Brazil.
Expectations then, as publicly stated by the USSF president, were high, dangerously high. Based on what? Obviously on the recent 5-1 win over Scotland. On paper, that’s a hell of a result. In fact, it was a result that tells us a great deal more about the decline of Scotland than about the rise of the USA.
Scotland -- once, for sure, a major soccer power -- has sadly slumped to ineptitude. This has not happened suddenly -- the slide to feebleness has been clear for decades, with faltering performances at the World Cup, followed by failure to qualify at all to a situation where one would now find it hard to think of a single Scottish player of world, or even of top-level, caliber.
I say all of that with a heavy heart, because it is sad to see a country with such a glowing history in the game reduced to the sort of performance it put on against the USA. Of course the USA played well -- and scoring five goals in any international game these days is not to be sniffed at.
But was this display -- against an obviously inferior opponent -- one on which to build the massive hopes of being better than Brazil? Even allowing for the fact that Brazil has not been exactly brilliant lately, either.
Well something obviously happened inside the heads of Klinsmann and his players, to say nothing of president Gulati, that transformed sad Scotland into a formidable world power, and diminished Brazil to an eminently beatable opponent.
Yes, you can argue, as Landon Donovan and other players did, that the scoreline was harsh. Maybe so -- and for all I know maybe there were Scots arguing that their 1-5 debacle was a harsh scoreline. What you could not deny was that Brazil was better than the USA, the more skillful, the cannier, the livelier team -- and, in the end, deserved winner.
Yet that was exactly what Klinsmann tried to deny in his quite deplorable post-game press conference. He started off by leveling three complaints against the referee for decisions that went against the Americans. All three of his complaints were wrong. On the early PK call, Klinsmann accepted Oguchi Onyewu’s statement that the ball had hit him in the stomach (wrong -- there was clearly solid hand-ball contact), and then claimed that Onyewu was outside the area anyway (also quite wrong). On Brazil’s fourth goal, Klinsmann said “my information is that the guy was two yards offside,” when replays showed that the guy was being kept onside by Onyewu. That offhand reference to “the guy” also shows disrespect. The guy has a name -- it was Pato, a well-known and highly respected player.
We were listening to Klinsmann making serious accusations against the referee -- and he hadn’t even bothered to look at the TV replays. That was bad enough. Incredibly, it got worse, much worse.
Klinsmann was asked about the play of his designated hatchet man Jermaine Jones. Everyone had seen Jones’s reckless second-half tackle on Neymar. As Jones has a formidable record of dangerous, rough-house play, one can safely assume that the tackle was premeditated. Neymar, one of the most promising young players in the world game, was put in danger of being seriously injured by an undisguised thug, a player who should not even be considered as fit to represent the USA.
The tackle was at midfield, in a situation that presented no danger whatever to the USA. It had only one possible motivation -- the desire of an immature, inadequate player to hurt an opponent -- and quite probably the desire for some notoriety for being the player who put Neymar in his place. And this player, this Jermaine Jones, is the man whom Klinsmann has found suitable to captain the USA on a couple of occasions.
Klinsmann did not criticize Jones -- that was too much to expect. But, by implication, he praised Jones and his dangerous play. These are Klinsmann’s words: “Maybe we're still a little bit too naive, maybe we don't want to hurt people, but that's what you've got to do.”
So hurting people, i.e. injuring - or crippling? - opponents, is what “you’ve got to do.” Is this really Klinsmann’s philosophy of the game? It may be. I recall Klinsmann sitting in as a studio expert during one of ESPN’s 2010 World Cup broadcasts. Brazil had been carving Ivory Coast apart with its tight, close passing -- Klinsmann’s solution to that problem was that Ivory Coast should “do a foul.”
There is no question of any misunderstanding here. Klinsmann means what he says. Get nastier, get rougher, hurt them. His attempt to make what he’s saying more acceptable by calling the U.S. players “naive” is pitiful. It has been brilliantly demolished by Mike Woitalla (see his column: HERE).
Even more pitiful is Klinsmann’s later clarification. Like most official clarifications, this one merely makes matters worse. It thoroughly confirms what is probably the most cynical of journalistic advice -- “Never believe anything until it’s been officially denied.”
Somewhere along the line, Klinsmann realized, or was told, that he had spoken way out of turn. So he compounded the problem with a palpably unbelievable explanation.
Forgetting the words, as we’ll have to, and overlooking just how his players might feel at being dubbed naive, what effect did the episode have on the team’s performance?
Pretty negative, evidently -- against Canada there was no evidence that the USA was prepared to kick opponents up in the air at the slightest provocation. Which was a relief. But there was also little evidence that the team wanted to play -- this was a thoroughly insipid performance, a game for which it should have been impossible to select an MVP (the USSF found one in defender Clarence Goodson), a game the USA probably deserved to lose.
In just nine days the USA slumped from a sparkling 5-1 win over Scotland to a miserable 0-0 tie with Canada. The explanation lies between the games, with that 4-1 drubbing from Brazil. A brutal dose of reality. The fanciful notions of world-power status opened up by the victory over poor Scotland were shattered in that game. The Canada game showed us a USA team trying to deal with its severely dented pride -- and trying to do that while not getting its coach and his “you’ve got to hurt opponents” urgings into further trouble. No wonder the USA looked disorganized and tentative.
The big loser here was Klinsmann -- or a certain part of him. His professionalism. How can an experienced coach go into an important press conference and impute the referee without having seen the easily available TV replays? How can an experienced coach, addressing the media, advise his players to hurt their opponents? Because, after the USA-Brazil game, that is exactly what he did, whatever he later claimed in his lame apologia.
Even so, in considering just how ill-prepared Klinsmann was for his disastrous press conference, one has to ask why that was. Did no one tell him what the replays showed? When Klinsmann says "My information is ..." -- where did that information, which was inaccurate, come from?
Surely, among the copious USSF staff that surrounds Klinsmann there is someone whose responsibility it is to make sure that the coach does not spout whoppers on these occasions? But whoppers were what we got.
Not a resplendent occasion for the USSF. Neither on the field nor in the press conference.