After almost every outlet covering soccer seriously called for his firing last week — Yahoo Sports included — United States men’s national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has hit back in a pair of interviews.
On Sunday, he told the New York Times that all the critics were “being disrespectful” and “ignoring the facts,” never mind that the USA lost both its first two World Cup qualifiers in the final round of games that will determine who goes to Russia. And that if you were to actually explore those facts, they would not be kind to Klinsmann or his record.
— Pablo Maurer (@MLSist) November 16, 2016
Earlier in the weekend, Klinsmann said to Reuters that “When things go slightly wrong, there are some people who come out and are ready to chop your head off.”
Klinsmann is, of course, well within his rights to defend himself. It’s just that in the context of his very own utterances and admonishments, his riposte does not just ring hollow but also hypocritical.
Here’s Klinsmann speaking about the need for American soccer culture to hold its national team accountable in 2014:
“If you miss an easy shot in a game, you want the player to go to the supermarket or the butcher shop the next day and have a fan ask them why they missed that shot,” Klinsmann said then at South by Southwest, per USA Today’s For The Win blog. “We’re not there yet. But in the big leagues in Europe and South America, if you miss a shot, you’re held accountable for it. Then you don’t miss it anymore. This is something that will grow over time. The more it grows, the more often fans see [players] in the street and tell them, ‘You were crap yesterday.’ And this is important.”
You can trifle with the psychological underpinnings of this motivational technique, but Klinsmann isn’t necessarily wrong about this. A certain social responsibility has helped drive players and national teams to strive for better. Public culpability can be a valuable tool, especially when you’re representing your country. This is a theme he has harped on again and again, for year after year. It’s just that when he has been criticized when results are slow in coming or altogether absent, Klinsmann seems capable of absorbing no criticism at all. Instead, he’ll invariably argue that his critics don’t understand the sport. And that they’re being “disrespectful.”
“The fact is, we lost two games,” he told the Times. “There is a lot of talk from people who don’t understand soccer or the team.” Ah, another Klinsmann trope: If you think he’s doing a bad job, you know nothing.
America, as Klinsmann seems to be arguing, needs to mature as a soccer nation to the point where the national team is closely scrutinized. But when his own shortcomings and failures are pointed out, they can’t possibly be coming from someone qualified to deliver that assessment. Or so goes his impossible logic.
“A lot of people make conclusions without knowing anything about the inside of the team or the sport,” Klinsmann said to the Times. But then this is true of every team everywhere. And there comes a point – which is now – where what matters “inside the team” doesn’t really matter when the performances on display and the adjoining results are as bad as the USA’s have been.
In both interviews, Klinsmann spoke of the need for patience with a team in transition to find itself. These are odd requests to make, since we’re almost 2½ years into the new cycle, two major tournaments have come and gone since the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the Americans have already played eight qualifiers and Klinsmann has been in charge for well over five years. He’s not exactly been desperate for time.
He also made sure to tell both the Times and Reuters that he’d spoken to President Obama at a German state dinner over the weekend. In the Reuters interview, with the author of the comically one-sided, fawning and uncritical Klinsmann biography “Soccer Without Borders,” the German head coach claims to have received the backing of the outgoing president.
“He said, ‘Coach, it didn’t go well in Costa Rica, but it’s only the start of the World Cup qualifying and you’ll get back on the right track,'” Klinsmann claimed. “He understands that it’s a long qualifying process.”
We’ll just have to take his word for it. Even though his words tend to be meaningless when they no longer serve Klinsmann himself.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.