The German-born former striker was 10 years old when his country hosted and won the 1974 World Cup, and says that his development into an international superstar wasn’t dependent on being able to afford expensive fees charged by top youth clubs, nor the ambition to earn a scholarship to a top high school or collegiate program.
Though he did participate in the club structure like many Americans, the financial burden on Klinsmann was small by comparison and his development was more a result of playing the game as much as possible simply because he loved to.
“At that time, when that happened in ’74, all the kids, all they wanted to do all day long was kick the ball around because soccer dominates our country,” Klinsmann told Goal.com in an exclusive interview. “So every kid out there watching the World Cup, and seeing the team in the World Cup, right after the game, they were just running out in the streets and wanting to kick the ball around. Wherever there was a little piece of grass or maybe just in the backyard.”
Now the head coach of the U.S. national team, Klinsmann says the approach to soccer in Germany is a bit more similar to basketball in the United States --- a combination of pickup and playground play as well as organized teams --- than it is to the U.S. soccer culture, which for so long has revolved around structured training and having to pay to play for youth soccer clubs or organizations.
“I grew up just coming home from school and eating, doing homework, and then it was four or five hours just playing soccer,” Klinsmann said. “And it was all unorganized and it was all buddies in the street and in the neighborhood. Then you started to join your local club team and you’d train maybe once or twice a week and you had a game on the weekend, but that was more like a little supplement to all the soccer we were playing on our own.
“So you learned the game really just by playing it in the streets with your buddies. The older you got the more you kind of understood the relegation and promotion system even for youth teams. Then based on your talent you were placed in the right youth team and you would work your way through it and further up.”
Klinsmann also pointed to Germany’s low cost of joining local club teams, as well as sports separation from the school, as major reasons why that country’s system of development is superior to the USA’s.
“[Soccer development] is completely separated from the educational system. You know, sport doesn’t give you, in any other country besides the U.S., such access to the university," Klinsmann explained. "In Germany, organized youth soccer all happens through the local sports clubs and the clubs only charge a small membership fee. Through that membership you can choose the sport you want to play, including soccer, which is the most popular sport in Germany.
“So, in Germany, youth soccer is very inexpensive and that way everybody can play. And my approach today is the more you play the better you get. The more inner drive you have in playing your games, the further you will make it in your career. That’s how I look at it.
Although Klinsmann acknowledges some of the advantages of the system in the U.S., where the sport can help a player to fulfill educational goals, he believes that it makes things a little more difficult on a player aspiring to play beyond the university level.
To hear more of what Klinsmann had to say about finding talent in this country and the problems associated with an expensive pay-to-play system, check back next week for part two of this four-part series.