Review of Soccer without Borders

Kirschbaum, Erik. Soccer without Borders: Jurgen Klinsmann, Coaching the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team and the Quest for the World Cup. New York, NY: Picador Press, 2016. Pp. xxv+358. Author’s Note and Index. $25 hardcover.

Reviewed by Cedrick G. Heraux

Hired in July 2011 to coach the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT), Jurgen Klinsmann represented significant hope American soccer fans. After a rocky beginning, 2012 through 2014 saw the team achieve a greater degree of success. However, his tenure in 2015 and 2016 has been less impressive, and the shine has come off somewhat. Critics charge that Klinsmann spends too much time “tinkering” with lineups and tactical formations, leading to a never-ending assembly line of new players with no consistency.


Picador Press, 2016

Not quite a biography, Soccer without Borders: Jurgen Klinsmann, Coaching the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team and the Quest for the World Cup is journalist Eric Kirschbaum’s attempt to present a more complete portrait of Jurgen Klinsmann, the man tasked with remaking soccer in the United States. A friendship formed between the two over nearly a decade in pursuit of an interview; the two eventually met several times, with this book as the result. Across five sections, Klinsmann is presented as an often-misunderstood genius, whose skill at man-management was honed over his own lengthy playing career, as well as by his stereotypically-stoic German upbringing. In his presentation of Klinsmann’s ten-point plan, Kirschbaum aims to convince the reader that the current USMNT manager has put the US on the path to winning its first World Cup trophy.

Section one, “The Early Years,” details the impact that growing up within the West German soccer system had on Klinsmann. Through the lens of Germany’s soccer and world history, Kirschbaum illuminates the importance of having a national sport in a society that was intimately concerned with how any expressions of nationalism would be perceived by the rest of the world. Arguing that soccer “has even been the country’s raison d’etre since 1954” (pg. 37) when an underdog West German side won its first World Cup, the author invites the reader to understand how the destruction wrought by World War II began to be healed over the next decades by significant soccer victories in major competitions. It is within this context that a ten-year-old Jurgen Klinsmann sees West Germany win its second World Cup trophy in 1974, leading him to envision himself partaking in that tournament one day.

Over the course of the remaining chapters that comprise the first section of the book, Kirschbaum takes pains to point out the distinctly European path that Klinsmann follows in his journey, setting the reader up to understand just how differently soccer has been treated in the United States than abroad. Liberally sprinkling German terms throughout the section (and indeed, the rest of the book), the author details the stark differences between the European, more egalitarian, model of youth soccer and the “pay-for-play” model common in the United States. However, the more interesting theme of the first section is that of Klinsmann taking advantage of the former due to an insatiable desire to continually improve in order to play at the highest level. Espousing a viewpoint similar to the “10,000-Hour Rule” refined by Malcolm Gladwell in the book Outliers, Kirschbaum notes that Klinsmann spent every waking moment focused on soccer, as is common with most European soccer stars who, typically around the age of fifteen, choose the sport over school. This is viewed as a marked contrast to the players that Klinsmann will later encounter at the helm of the USMNT.

After establishing the uniquely European structure, as well as Klinsmann’s stereotypical West German attitude towards soccer, Kirschbaum spends section two, “The Early Years,” describing his protagonist’s meteoric rise as a player. Detailing specific matches and memorable goals in both domestic and international competition, this section provides the reader with an excellent understanding of how pivotal moments can change a player’s trajectory, and in so doing influence the social climate of an entire country. Regarding domestic competition, Kirschbaum does exceedingly well to dig into the peripatetic nature of Klinsmann’s career. Noting that a constant restlessness stemmed from his overwhelming desire to always approach a bigger challenge, the author details Klinsmann’s moves around the major soccer leagues in Germany (VfB Stuttgart and Bayern Munich), Italy (Inter Milan and Sampdoria), France (AS Monaco) and England (Tottenham Hotspur).

Kirschbaum also takes pains to note how Klinsmann seemingly improved with every international tournament, leading Germany to trophies in the 1990 World Cup (with the West German side) and 1996 European Championship (with a unified Germany), as well as to the 1992 European Championship final. The impressive performances in those years are notably contrasted against the failures of German soccer in the 1988 European Championship and 1994 World Cup. Importantly, Kirschbaum argues that in the latter two tournaments Klinsmann still played brilliantly, but was let down by teammates who did not share his total commitment to soccer. The fate of the German side (most notably when playing as West Germany, but also as unified Germany) was matched by that of German society more generally, with (now-acceptable) national pride leading to economic growth following triumphs, and a more somber tone after embarrassing exits.

Section three, “The German Revolution,” concerns itself with the turmoil within the Deutscher Fussball Bund (the DFB, Germany’s governing soccer body) following the national team’s early exit from the 2004 European Championships, and the selection of Klinsmann as manager. Kirschbaum delves into how prior performances, particularly when Klinsmann was a player, had established high expectations within Germany for victories in international tournaments. The author goes on to discuss how once again Klinsmann’s restless nature lured him to the next big challenge: taking on the seemingly “no-win” situation of managing the German national team. Although only in charge for two years, Klinsmann is described as implementing a more aggressive style of play, with increased pressure resulting in more scoring opportunities. Over that period of time, the new manager also went searching for new players in unexpected places, such as those with dual-nationality playing in leagues outside of Germany, while encouraging wholesale changes to fitness and nutrition routines.

Kirschbaum posits that these changes to the traditional style of German soccer, particularly when brought about by a manager who lived in the United States, were simply too much to bear for most of the “old guard” within the DFB and among soccer commentators. In defense of Klinsmann, the author refers to the growing movement to have the manager removed as “uninformed criticisms reflect[ing] not only a troubling impatience . . . lobbed from afar” (pg. 213). This stands out as an unusual point to make, given that some of the criticism was coming from such German soccer legends as Gunter Netzer, Lothar Matthaus, and Franz Beckenbauer. Perhaps, in light of the heavy burden on his shoulders given the expectations, particularly since the 2006 World Cup was held in Germany, it was unwise of Klinsmann to proclaim that he would completely revamp the DFB and produce a World Cup-winning team. Getting knocked out in the semi-finals by Italy (who would go on to win the World Cup) proved to be the end for Klinsmann, who declined to renew his contract, despite pleas from individuals who had once been his most vocal critics. Citing mental and emotional exhaustion from two years of resistance at every turn, the departing manager noted that he was nonetheless pleased with the direction of the national team going forward. Most importantly, Klinsmann declared, he was proud that soccer had changed both internal and external impressions of Germany and its people regarding “this positive patriotism” (pg. 230).

In section four, “A Different View of Bayern Munich,” Kirschbaum takes the reader through what is arguably Klinsmann’s most difficult time as a manager: his brief tenure at Germany’s most famous club, FC Bayern Munich. A mere eighteen months after retiring as national team manager the author describes Klinsmann being once again drawn to a new challenge, this time “to reinvigorate the top German club’s approach and achieve more consistent success internationally in the Champions League” (pg. 243). The new manager attempted to recreate the same atmosphere, with the same emphases, that he had established with national side, but was unceremoniously relieved of his duties with five matches left in the season. Kirschbaum again defends Klinsmann, arguing that he had less time, and was given less control, to achieve what was arguably an equally-difficult goal. However, Klinsmann returned to the United States seemingly unperturbed by what many viewed as a failure, simply viewing his time at Bayern Munich as a learning experience. Kirschbaum notes that attitude as representative of Klinsmann’s general demeanor when presented with a challenge; regardless of the final outcome, there is always learning achieved and an even bigger challenge to tackle.

Covering nearly the final one hundred pages of the book, section five, “A Vision for Soccer in America,” is Kirschbaum’s attempt to weave the narrative of the previous four sections into a coherent discussion of where Klinsmann is taking the USMNT. Thus, he returns to the main themes illuminated throughout: (1) achieving the highest levels of soccer requires a singular intensity, which can be fostered by changing the youth soccer system; (2) a long-term plan requires rethinking tactics both on and off the field; (3) globalization of the game should be embraced and utilized; and (4) take advantage of the positive aspects of what makes soccer in the United States unique. The author takes us through Klinsmann’s insistence that he be made technical director, as well as manager, of the USMNT in order to exert as much control as possible. Cautioning against viewing this as the desire of a power-hungry individual, Kirschbaum instead argues that these dual roles give Klinsmann the ability to transform soccer in the United States at every level, eventually leading to success in achieving the long-term goal of winning the World Cup.

Despite Kirschbaum’s claim that Klinsmann is uniquely-suited to lead the USMNT to new heights of success, the story as told in section five undermines this narrative. Regarding the need to overhaul the youth soccer system and focus on identifying players at a young age, Kirschbaum supports Klinsmann’s assertion that it takes pure devotion to the sport to achieve success. This represents a rehashing of a familiar trope concerning soccer in the United States, namely that we could be successful if only our best athletes focused solely on soccer. Indeed, the reader is treated to a discussion regarding New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., with Klinsmann lamenting the former’s turn away from soccer at the age of fourteen. However, this does a great disservice to the powerful athleticism of players such as Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, DeAndre Yedlin, or Christian Pulisic. There is nothing to suggest that, based on pure athleticism, LeBron James would make an excellent goalkeeper or that Chase Utley could have been a world-class midfielder.

With respect to embracing the globalization of the game, Klinsmann has continued the trend of identifying dual-nationals that he began with the German national team. In addition to a sizable number of German-Americans such as John Brooks, Fabian Johnson, and Julian Green, the USMNT manager has targeted players such as Mix Diskerud and Aron Johansson. However, critics argue his insistence on his players having experience in Europe has resulted in Klinsmann: (1) isolating, marginalizing, or ignoring players without that experience; and (2) fielding too many different starting lineups, leading to a lack of consistent play. While Klinsmann has noted a desire to close that gap by increasing the competitiveness of the domestic league, Major League Soccer (MLS), and aligning it to the FIFA calendar, he lacks the power to implement any such changes.

Soccer without Borders provides the reader with an excellent look at how Jurgen Klinsmann’s personal and professional journey influenced his vision for taking the USMNT to the ultimate goal of winning the World Cup. Weaving personal history with that of post-war Germany, Kirschbaum gives us significant insight into Klinsmann’s thought process and how it frames his view of the globalization of soccer. This is ostensibly useful in allowing the reader to analyze how well that approach might work in the United States, but it is unclear if the author is looking to tie the peculiarities of American history to the previous lack of success for the USMNT. As a foray into sports history, then, the book leaves the reader wanting somewhat. There is enough discussion of the impact of European history to whet the appetite, but no discussion of how American history translates to the unique nature of soccer in the United States.

As with its incomplete discussion of history, the book also seems undecided about its intended audience. If the goal is to convince American soccer fans that Klinsmann is the key to winning the World Cup, Kirschbaum would have been better served to make that argument more explicitly, detailing how significant obstacles can be overcome, particularly when they are out of Klinsmann’s control (as with the MLS calendar). If the intent is to provide the soccer aficionado with an interesting glimpse of Klinsmann’s journey to this point, this is an admirable effort, but that audience may be disillusioned with the occasionally simplistic discussion of the basics of the sport.

There are two more substantive criticisms of the book. First, it is clear that over the course of a decade Kirschbaum and Klinsmann have become close, with that relationship facilitating the numerous interviews that form the basis of this book. However, it appears that this closeness has resulted in Kirschbaum’s reluctance to engage in any criticism of Klinsmann or his tactics. The author lauds the player and manager for his laser-like focus on soccer, yet fails to acknowledge that it is perhaps that very attitude which resulted in Klinsmann denigrating his teammates at numerous times throughout his career. Indeed, even though Kirschbaum includes several examples of Klinsmann accusing his peers of being poor teammates, the former does not consider that by doing so the latter is himself acting poorly.

The second major criticism is that the book is clearly too long, with several unnecessary diversions and inconsistent organization. Despite organizing the book temporally, Kirschbaum mentions players, teams, and moments whose importance are not clear until much later in the book. As an example, consider Landon Donovan, who merits an entire chapter, albeit one consisting of only three pages. Donovan’s brief tenure at FC Bayern Munich while Klinsmann was manager receives a single sentence in the chapter devoted to the club, and there is no mention of his time at the club in the chapter on Donovan. This is an odd exclusion, considering that the decision to bring Donovan to the club was viewed as symptomatic of Klinsmann’s problems there, and it is often seen as being responsible for some of the bad blood between the two men that ultimately resulted in Donovan’s exclusion from the 2014 World Cup selection. Another example is the chapter on Lindsay Vonn and other US skiers who moved to Europe in order to better take advantage of high-level training and competition opportunities. While this is instructive as an analogy, Kirschbaum would have been better served discussing the forays of some of the earliest USMNT players in Europe, such as Brian McBride, Paul Caligiuri, Frankie Hejduk, or Freddy Adu.

Overall, Kirschbaum has the structure of an excellent portrait of Jurgen Klinsmann, how his professional career shaped his views on soccer, and what that means going forward for the USMNT. The book would have been improved by a narrower focus on those aspects of soccer in the United States over which Klinsmann can exert some control, such as emphasizing an attacking style of soccer, or changing the mindset regarding matches against formidable opponents. In the end, the narrative loses its way among the broader discussions of soccer basics and college sports in the United States, without addressing the truly interesting question of whether or not Klinsmann can be successful. It seems as if Kirschbaum allowed Klinsmann to guide the book’s path, which results in a book that is perhaps not quite as objective as the serious sports historian would hope.

Cedrick G. Heraux is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Sociology at Adrian College. His research focuses on the sociology of sport, with a particular emphasis on the moral panic over hooliganism in European football (soccer).

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