Through Gritted Teeth #10: Jürgen Klinsmann

by Michael Moruzzi

When I was beginning my life long obsession with football the German national team represented the destroyers of dreams. They were too good at winning to make it fun, and Jürgen Klinsmann was too good at scoring goals.

I couldn’t like Klinsmann because of who he played for, even if he seemed to be very good at his job. Then I learned to hate him, because not only was he very good, but he also cheated. By 1994 Klinsmann already had a reputation, but it was his dive against Milan when playing for Monaco in the 1994 European Cup semi-final that seemed to confirm his status as a cheat. I don’t recall the event, I just know that he wasn’t someone I was supposed to like.

It didn’t really matter, though, because Monaco and Milan were playing football in glamorous places far, far away. All I knew of my own side, Watford, was second-tier obscurity, dwindling attendances, and some awful football. And then Jürgen came to town. In a pre-season friendly at Vicarage Road, Klinsmann would make his first appearance in England for his new club, Tottenham Hotspur. Here, in my back yard, a bona fide star of world football.

Watford hadn’t designated the match all-ticket, so it was pay on the day and fans had to turn up early to guarantee entry. As a result, Vicarage Road was full about 40 minutes before kick off. This didn’t happen very often. Most of the players were already on the pitch for their pre-match warm up before Klinsmann made his entrance. A line of press photographers stretched from the tunnel almost to the centre circle, waiting for their man. The sense of anticipation was incredible. Suddenly, a flurry of activity as they started jockeying for position; it seemed to take an age, but finally he emerged, sprinting away from the press pack towards the massed ranks of Spurs fans, who erupted.

Everyone there had eyes for Jürgen, even the opposition. The Watford fans were stunned into a momentary silence, then gathered their collective and nationalist pride to greet the guest of honour the most appropriate way they could think of – a very loud rendition of the Dambusters March. Whilst miming aeroplanes. Welcome to England.

I was too transfixed to heckle or jeer (and I’d never seen The Dam Busters). My dad — who had previously declared Jürgen the ultimate cheat — was more impressed than anyone, giving me a running commentary on Klinsmann’s warm up, as if his little bursts of sprinting were a class above any other physical exercise taking place. To be fair to my dad, fickle though he was, he had a point. Everything about Klinsmann was classy, and he did stand out; his kit seemed an even more brilliant white.

By the time the match kicked off I too was in awe, although my sense of awe was a little more internalised than my dad’s. It seemed inevitable that Klinsmann was going to destroy my humble little team. What actually happened wasn’t quite as expected; a 1-1 draw and he didn’t get the goal. That’s not to say he didn’t pull the Watford defence all over the pitch, but he didn’t score. That was the main thing. You didn’t beat my team, I thought, you’re good, but you’re human, Jürgen.

So, that was all good fun, but it doesn’t end there. A couple of months later, Watford were drawn against Spurs in the Coca-Cola Cup. The first leg was at the Vic and, as before, Watford took the lead with an early goal. This time, however, Jürgen was in a different mood, and he responded with a devastating display. A first-half hat-trick and an assist put Spurs 4-1 up at half-time. Part of me wanted to leave, it was too brutal, too much of a mismatch, but I stayed to witness another 45 minutes of classic Ardiles-era Tottenham. It finished 6-3 to Spurs, and Watford missed a penalty. To this day it’s one of the most enjoyable but tactically inept football matches I’ve ever seen. Despite the hammering, I couldn’t help but enjoy watching Jürgen. I didn’t hate him any more, I admired him. After everything he’d achieved in his career, here he was putting in a performance like this against a team he probably hadn’t known existed until two months earlier. He played that tie like it was the most important game in the world.

There is of course one thing I haven’t addressed, his cheating. Did he dive in his career? Yes, despite what he says, Klinsmann threw himself to ground with the best of them. And, I’m still likely to criticise players that use these methods to win. So, basically, Klinsmann has turned me into a hypocrite. I guess all this shows is that it’s harder to maintain your principles when you see such immense talent and ‘in your face’ passion for scoring goals.

The excellent Surreal Football recently described the bland but misunderstood personalities of goal scorers, and in this regard Klinsmann was no different. He did try his hand at self-deprecating humour during his first UK press conference, when he asked the assembled media if they knew of “any good diving schools?” His one liners didn’t leave Tottenham begging for more, but his goal scoring certainly did. Forget the ‘dive’ celebration, I liked seeing him roaring with joy, pumping his fists and leaping in the air with delight.

He doesn’t seem to be talked about as much as other foreign greats in the Premier League, probably because he only stayed for one year (ignoring his less impressive second spell). But what a player he was, and what a season he had. Germany hasn’t seen the likes of him since. Miroslav Klose might have the better international record, but I don’t think teams fear him like they feared Klinsmann.

So, for your viewing pleasure, here are the highlights of that 6-3 goal fest. I struggle to watch the penalty, the sight of Ian Walker blowing kisses to the Spurs fans still makes me feel a bit ill. How did he not get a red card? Not even a booking? Seriously? Oh, forget it – enjoy the goals.

Michael — the world’s newest FC Köln fan — is the editor of Regista, and has also written for Serie A Weekly. He can be found on Twitter @regista_blog.

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