The former national team coach oversaw a huge period of change during his time in charge, helping to regenerate soccer in the country.A decade ago, the notion that Germany could be among the favorites at a World Cup on South American soil seemed a strange one. With an aging team, Rudi Voller’s side had been knocked out at the group stage in Euro 2004 without winning a match, even against Latvia.
The World Cup, in Germany no less, was two years away and radical action was needed. Voller resigned immediately and Jurgen Klinsmann was installed a month later. He brought with him Joachim Low, a young former Stuttgart coach. The rest is history.
Klinsmann was faced with doubters from the start. In spite of his glittering international career as a player, he had no experience as a coach and had a huge rebuilding job on his hands.
To his credit, he took everything in his stride despite the doubters. Oliver Kahn’s powers were on the wane and Klinsmann took the huge step of stripping him of the captaincy, with Michael Ballack taking the armband.
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It was a controversial move, but one that paid off. Ballack relished the role and became both the poster boy and the leader of a new generation of Germany stars. Kahn, meanwhile, was replaced as first-choice keeper by Jens Lehmann.
The personnel changed drastically too. In Portugal in 2004, Germany had a squad with nine players over 30, playing the same old tired tactics.
Two years later, that figure had shrunk to five and the youngest members of the European Championship squad, Lukas Podolski, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm, were given important roles in a far more attacking team. A new breed of Germany star was arriving.
Podolski was named the best young player of the tournament, Miroslav Klose was top scorer and Germans had a national team they could be proud of once more.
Four years earlier, they had been dragged over the finish line by Ballack’s brilliance and Voller’s knack of uniting his players. It was the last hurrah of the old generation and the Germans had vastly exceeded expectations. This time, there was the sense that there was more to come.
Klinsmann stood down at the conclusion of the tournament, with Low taking up his old post. The legendary striker had won himself a reputation as a coach, re-established Germany as a major force in international soccer and was promptly rewarded with an order of merit from the German government.
His work was done, but not forgotten. “Klinsmann gave us structure, especially in the fitness department, but everything else is thanks to Low,” Thomas Muller said recently.
Oliver Bierhoff, a part of the coaching team of both Low and Klinsmann, credited his old boss with introducing “speed, quick passing, movement” and getting the team to “play the ball forwards and not, like in the past, sideways.”
He may have profited from a reassessment within German soccer after the failure under Berti Vogts, as more of an emphasis was put on youth, but he proved himself to be a capable leader in a period of transition the national team had never seen before.
Since then, Germany has gone from strength to strength, but with Low continuing the work he and Klinsmann had done together, bringing in new, young faces at every juncture, and playing the attractive brand of soccer that defined it in 2006.
A subsequent disastrous spell at Bayern Munich, which lasted less than a year, meant it was something of a gamble when the USA appointed Klinsmann back in 2011, but he has played a key role in the game’s growth stateside, leading the Americans to the 2013 Gold Cup title and qualifying for the World Cup in style.
Like with Germany, he has brought forward a generation of youngsters and instilled a new level of professionalism and fitness in his troops. The average age of the starting XI remains fairly old, but the likes of DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks and Julian Green point to a bright future for the USA.
Perhaps the most striking thing about his work with both Germany and the USA is the real sense of spirit he has instilled in both the players and public.
On Thursday, he meets his old friend Low in a competitive environment for the first time, with neither Germany nor the USA guaranteed qualification for the last 16 of the World Cup. A draw would suit both teams, but Low has been eager to dismiss the notion that his side could take their foot off the pedal.
“This is not the time for friendship,” he said. “This is business time. We aren’t a team who play for a draw. [Klinsmann and I] are having no contact during this tournament, we are too busy with our own teams.”
The message is clear: Both teams will fight for victory. And even if the unthinkable happens and Klinsmann knocks his home nation out of a World Cup it desperately needs to win, Low and Germany are hugely indebted to Klinsmann.