By Paul Gardner
Jurgen Klinsmann has a reputation for being well-organized and disciplined. I suppose, rightly or wrongly, you expect that from a German.
And it sounds exactly what’s wanted for the national team job. So far so good. But Klinsmann’s organization disappears in a frankly spectacular way when it comes to his thoughts on the game. In that part of the Klinsmann soccer personality, incoherence and stale shallowness reign.
For a start: Why is it, considering the criticisms (some of them more than justified) Klinsmann makes of American players, that he does not launch a withering attack on the hopeless inadequacies of college soccer? He finds that Americans have an unsatisfactory attitude on the field. So he brings in all those German-Americans -- players with a career background in the various levels of the pro game. So he has to know what is wrong with the Americans. It is their years in the college game. The connection is clear, but Klinsmann somehow manages to overlook it. Quite a trick, that.
We have much more immediate evidence of Klinsmann’s muddled thinking. It’s nigh on impossible to discern any evidence of careful thought in his statement that MLS referees should protect Clint Dempsey becausehe is a U.S. national team player: “I hope that MLS is having an eye on that. … I hope our players get protection because they need to be healthy going into this World Cup.”
“Our players.” That’s all. Klinsmann could easily have said allplayers, making a plea for MLS to be a league in which there is a low tolerance level for rough play. He didn’t do that. He just wants protection for “our players.”
The implications of that are immense, and -- like Klinsmann’s thinking -- chaotic. It is a demand for decidedly selective refereeing. Foreign national team players in MLS, evidently, should not get the same level of protection as Americans. An official list of Klinsmann selections, officially protected players, would seem to be necessary for the referees.
Should Klinsmann’s appeal result in an overall improvement in MLS refereeing -- I mean, if it results in a crackdown on physical fouls -- well and good. But that is not what Klinsmann has asked for. He just wants an easier ride for “our players.”
A request that exposes the disorder that permeates Klinsmann’s soccer mind. Who on earth is Klinsmann to be requesting that “our players” are not on the end of hurtful tackles? Can this be the same Klinsmann who, two years ago, lectured us on how his team has to learn how to be nastier? That was right after a 4-1 drubbing from Brazil: “Maybe we're a little bit still too naive. Maybe we don't want to hurt people. But that's what we've got to do ... we've got to step on their toes more and get them more frustrated ...”
We -- meaning “our players” -- must learn to play dirty and hurt people. But in MLS, Klinsmann espies players who are playing in that spirit against one of “our players,” and suddenly he’s not so shot in the backside with the idea of “hurting people.” So the referees must ensure that it doesn’t happen to “our players.”
Anyway, why should anyone listen to Klinsmann on this topic? He has utterly compromised his integrity on rough play by his unwavering support for the awful Jermaine Jones, one of his German imports. Jones, before his move to Turkey, had staked a formidable claim to being the dirtiest player in the Bundesliga.
Klinsmann is not only unconcerned about that, he has openly -- and profusely -- praised Jones’s rough house play: “He’s one of those players that no opponent likes to deal with. Just his presence. His hunger. His willingness not to let go. He is always ready for the grind. He grinds you until the 95th minute. ... You play against a player like Jermaine in central midfield, that’s a handful, it’s all about who is intimidating who.”
And so on, reams of vapid praise, never even a suggestion that Jones is a serially dirty player, that he has an unenviable record for collecting yellow cards and for suspensions. That Brazil game featured a merry little incident in the second half when Jones, obviously irritated by the way that Brazil was outplaying the USA, launched himself feet first at Neymar and crunched him to the ground. This, mind you, was right on the touchline, at the halfway line mark. Neymar was hardly presenting an immediate danger from that area.
But this was the aggression and the intimidation so much admired by Klinsmann. The enforcer role -- evidently dear to Klinsmann’s heart. No doubt it was also Jones trying to make an impact in a game where his vaunted leadership (also a role hailed by Klinsmann) had flopped badly. It was also disgusting.
But not to Klinsmann. One has learned to expect coaches to see only good things from their own players, and to find nothing but foul play from their opponents. But Klinsmann, in his support for the violent Jones, in his appeal for referee protection for “our players” is taking things way too far. Try as I might, I cannot find any reasons for excusing his objectionably biased -- not to mention hopelessly disorganized -- thinking in this area. He is a vastly experienced soccer man. He has to know better.