IN a country where football is as natural and as important as breathing, this World Cup is viewed as an opportunity to make amends. “This might be the most important World Cup ever for Brazil,” their striker, Fred, has been reported saying. “After all, the last time the World Cup was held here we lost. Now we want to exorcise the ghosts of 1950.” That year the hosts made it to the final but, in front of 200,000 fans at the Maracana, they lost to South American rivals Uruguay.
They have won it five times since to become the most successful nation in the world’s greatest football festival and are one of only three countries to have won outwith their own continent but, still, their inability to win it on their own turf rankles.
This is their chance to right those past wrongs. And that is something Fred can relate to. A man who has been capped 33 times and scored 16 goals, he will lead the line for Brazil this summer. But it wasn’t always a gimme. Having come through the personal upset of losing his mother to a heart attack when he was just seven years old, he carved out a career with Brazilian clubs América Mineiro and then Cruzeiro before he was lured to Europe to join Lyon. There he won three Ligue 1 titles and sampled the Champions League, but while his reputation on the pitch was attracting admiring glances from Spain and Italy, he chose to return home, signing for his current club, Fluminense, in Rio.
Even there his coach, during a previous spell at the club, said that he lacked dedication. The suggestion is that while he impressed on the pitch, it wasn’t enough to silence the doubts cast by a growing reputation off it. A player with a dangerous strike, an eye for goal and great ability in the air, he is also lauded as a clever team player with the skills to hold the ball up and play in colleagues.
Selfless on the park, he was less so off it. He is not a fan of squad rotation and found it difficult to countenance not being a regular starter. He was also very good at running up large bar bills and he never hid his disdain for training. While big money transfers were certainly his for the taking, he would have had to make more sacrifices and show more commitment away from the actual matches. Back then he couldn’t be relied on to do that.
But this World Cup may be his second chance. Now 30, he claims he has matured. He has accepted that with age comes more responsibility. Talking about his inclusion in the 2006 World Cup squad, which also boasted the likes of Ronaldinho, Kaka, Ronaldo and Adriano, he says: “I was a 22-year-old kid back then. I didn’t have the same responsibility I have today.”
These days he is pictured on the front cover of sports publications in his homeland promising and delivering goals. In interviews he says he is “dedicated to training sessions” and, having attributed his turnaround to God, he is described by one interviewer as “religious and reserved”.
If God has played a part, so too has Phil Scolari, himself in his second stint as national coach. Fred had not been starting games, playing understudy to 2010 World Cup striker Luis Fabiano, but he brought the forward on as a second-half substitute in his first match in charge, against England last February. Fred scored and has been the first choice No.9 ever since, combining well with the less experienced Neymar, below, occupying defenders and creating the space for the Barcelona striker to attack.
Even a recent spell out injured could not undermine his chances of starring this summer. He worked as hard as ever to get back to full fitness and it is clear he feels he owed not only himself that effort but also his country and his coach.
“Scolari is like a father to us,” he says. “He gives us a hard time, but he’s got a big heart. The players respect his honesty. He gives us tremendous confidence.”
That, along with the self-belief garnered from last year’s 3-0 Confederations Cup victory over Spain, has them believing that they can exorcise those ghosts of 1950. “We are extremely confident,” he has asserted, saying he wants the fact they are hosting this tournament to be an advantage. “Brazilians live and breathe football and that will make a huge difference.”
This is their second chance. Neither the nation nor Fred wants to be looking back with more regrets or what ifs.
IT IS perhaps just as well that Diego Costa has the features and physique of a heavyweight boxer. In the bouts to be played out at the World Cup, the 25-year-old is likely to be an emotional punch bag.
Currently on the brink of a £32 million move to Chelsea from Atletico Madrid, a case could be made for Costa being the best Brazilian striker at the finals. The blow to the solar plexus of his country folk is that he will grace his home stage in Spanish colours. His defection last year from the five-times World Cup winners to the current holders of the World Cup and European Championships has made Costa the man most likely to be mullered by the home supporters. Costa is not willing to countenance that there could even be worse than caterwauling when he enters the pitch for Spain’s Group B opener against Holland on Friday. Picked for two friendlies by Brazil coach Felipe Scolari in early 2013, he was subsequently overlooked for last summer’s Confederations Cup. That alerted Vicente Del Bosque to the fact he could perhaps acquire a battering ram to complement his team of lock-pickers. He did so with gentle persuasion, and now there are suggestions that even Costa’s family, who hail from Sergipe – Brazil’s smallest state that lies on the northeastern coast – could be picked on because of his defection.
“The fans are going to the stadiums to enjoy the games,” said Costa, who takes his Christian name from Argentine great Maradona, just to add to the mix. “I do not believe they are going to damage my family. Brazilians have a lot of passion, but many will go to support Spain.”
Unlikely, but then that term could be applied to many developments in Costa’s career of late. Scolari was said to be furious at losing a player who, with 27 goals, was behind only those twin titans Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in an unforgettable La Liga season. A campaign in which Diego Simeone’s unfancied side held off Real Madrid and Barcelona to snare the title, before losing out to their city rivals in the Champions League final. Despite horse placenta injections, a hamstring tear to his thigh meant the bustling forward was forced out of that decider after only nine minutes.
Costa doesn’t mind talking about why he hitched his wagon to a country that has been his football home for the past six years. “I never imagined it,” he said of switching his international allegiances. “When I heard there was interest from Spain I began to imagine things, to think: ‘Why not?’ It was a privilege that the world champions want you, a privilege to be able to help the great players they have. I felt very important. I valued it a lot. Vicente del Bosque has shown me the type of person he is. I like to speak with people face to face, to feel what is true and what is a lie, and Vicente was very clear. He did not promise me anything. I do not like getting promises from people – I like to win them over.”
Winning over the footballing fraternity hasn’t always come easy to Costa. Starting out his professional journey as a 16-year-old with Portuguese club Braga, later in 2006 he was farmed out to second division Penafiel, before joining Atletico in December of that year. Loaned back to Braga for the rest of the season, temporary stints with Celta and Albacete followed in the next two years before he was sold to Valladolid in 2009, but with a buy-back option.
That was activated a year down the line but his fortunes turned on what seemed like ill-fortune in the summer of 2011. Then, just as he was set to be shipped off to Turkey, he suffered a knee ligament injury in training as Atletico prepared to face Ronny Deila’s Stromsgodset in a Europa League qualifier. “It was very serious,” he said earlier this year. “I believe in God. We have a destiny, good and bad, and everyone plays it out. I had to start again from zero.”
In starting again following a six-month recovery period, he remade himself as a more penetrating and powerful penalty box predator. In a loan spell with Rayo Vallecano, he netted ten times in 16 appearances, and although Atleti coach Diego Simeone still took time to be won over on the striker’s return to the Vicente Calderon, eventually Costa converted him. “The coach told me he didn’t count on me, I understood and I trained,” Costa said. “My life has always been to fight and battle. It’s something I have inside. I fight until I achieve it.”
COLOMBIA have stars in their midst, no doubt about, it but without their injured talisman, Radamel Falcao, the most crucial parts of the job for coach Jose Pekerman will be getting them to gel and ensuring that enough of them transfer their club form to the international stage.
They qualified easily for Brazil 2014, trailing only Argentina in the South American group, and with their best ever haul of 30 points from 16 games. However, a ring-rusty, disjointed performance in their last international, in March, against Tunisia, proved that without Falcao they are undoubtedly a weakened force. But the AS Monaco striker’s knee injury should not take the legs from the rest of the squad, not when they can still boast talent like Falcao’s club-mate James Rodriguez, Porto striker Jackson Martinez, Carlos Bacca of Sevilla and Hertha Berlin’s Adrian Ramos.
Martinez is one of the most lethal strikers in the Portuguese league, where he finished top scorer this season with 29 goals, but has not always taken that scoring talent on to the international stage, allowing Falcao to lead the line. The rest have played a support role for so long that the question is whether they can step up and assume the responsibilities of their absent goalscorer.
Bacca is another who knows his way to goal, with 21 for Sevilla this term, while Hertha’s Adrian Ramos has already signed a pre-contract agreement with Borussia Dortmund to join them after the World Cup after impressing with a scoring ratio of two goals in every three games.
But for all the players who can find the net, there is an ageing defence and the man who will be expected to pull the strings occupies the midfield space between them.
Rodriguez scored Colombia’s only goal against Tunisia and, quickly identified as the main playmaker and threat, he earned very close attention for the remainder of the match. That starved the frontline of the service they needed, and highlighted a major problem for the Group C favourites.
Considered one of the best young players in the world, Rodriguez has been linked with a move to Manchester United as well as several other massive clubs around Europe. He has never hidden the fact that he would like a move to Spain one day, where he says the style of football is more attractive to him.
“It’s different from the English league, which is very physical,” he says. “The game in Spain is more about technique and about getting more touches on the ball. That’s why I like it so much.”
Whether at former club Porto or at Monaco, he is always the player who wants to get on the ball and take responsibility. The 22-year-old regularly delivers a double-digit goal tally for a season, he has a wonderful left foot and is dangerous at set pieces.
As a kid growing up in Colombia, his hero was another No.10, Carlos Valderrama. “At the time he was a top player and I had a lot of admiration for him. I met him once and he is a great person, someone who provided the country with a lot of joy. He was a very intelligent footballer who could create something out of nothing as well as score goals.”
Rodriguez says the depth of talent is as good as anything Colombia have had in the past decade, albeit that Falcao will now prove a big miss. In Pekerman, Rodriguez says they have a coach brimming with positivity and he insists there is hope that they could emulate their best ever World Cup performance by making the last 16.
“The fact that it is being played in Brazil means that more fans will be able to travel from Colombia and be there to support us,” he says.
But with that, and following on from their success in the qualifiers, the level of expectation increases, with Rodriguez having to shoulder the vast majority of that burden. He has handled the pressure well for club and country, in the youth ranks and through into the senior game.
Captain of the victorious Colombia under-20 side at the 2011 Toulon Tournament, he was voted the most valuable player in that competition, and cemented his reputation as a game changer. He shone in Portugal where he had to live up to the label of the next Falcao and even with a ¤45 million price tag around his neck, the youngster has hardly missed a beat since switching to the French league.
In Brazil, he will be subjected to the close attentions of the opposition and the eyes of the world will be on him. But as he proved by excelling in the qualifiers even after they were switched to the middle of the day, he’s not the kind of player who wilts when the heat is on.
ACCORDING to the Liverpool striker’s father, Daniel Sturridge is a mean domino player. Certainly, when making his move for England’s central striking role in Brazil, the 24-year-old is holding the double six.
It would have seemed unthinkable a year ago that Wayne Rooney could be considered a problem rather than a prize player. But Sturridge’s stellar impact for both club and country in the last year now has many observers wondering where best the Manchester United man might be accommodated to prevent him blunting the threat carried by a player who has bagged 27 goals in the past 12 months, three of these scored in five internationals.
England manager Roy Hodgson is considered a conservative coach. But even he isn’t likely to marginalise the impulsive, inventive and explosive Sturridge just so Rooney can have the berth that best suits him. England’s second-highest goalscorer and BBC presenter Gary Lineker set out in unequivocal fashion the other day that Rooney’s reign as his country’s foremost forward is effectively over.
“One thing should be pretty permanent – and that’s that Daniel Sturridge plays up front, in the middle. Sturridge gives us a threat behind the opposition defence, which is really important and that’s something Wayne Rooney doesn’t do so frequently,” he said. “Rooney’s very good at coming off, creating space, turning, hitting shots and bringing other people into the game, working hard. But in terms of a threat behind the opposition’s defence, that’s Sturridge’s territory.”
Recognising how best to harness Sturridge’s talent is precisely what has allowed Anfield manager Brendan Rodgers to derive from him a level of performance many thought would remain forever out of reach. That is especially so of those inside Chelsea, who moved him out to Liverpool for a modest £12m in January 2013, having grown tired of self-centred and self-serving displays that were considered his response to being moved out wide.
A product of the Manchester City youth set-up, Sturridge debuted at 17 in February 2007. Much was expected of the Birmingham youngster who had been marked out as a real prospect from a young age, not least because he came from good footballing stock. His dad, Michael, had been signed by England World Cup-winning manager Alf Ramsey for Birmingham City. Uncles, Dean and Simon, meanwhile, had spells with Derby County and Stoke City respectively.
In the pre-Sheikh days at Manchester City, Sturridge was ripe for a move to a bigger club when allowing his contract to run down. It was in 2009 that he moved to Chelsea under such circumstances, a tribunal later deciding on a fee – required to be paid for any player switching clubs under the age of 24 – that rose to £6.5m with later add-ons.
The discontent and drifting that many feared would fatally undermine his burning desire to reach the top of his profession resulted in Sturridge being packed off on loan to Bolton Wanderers for the second half of the 2010-11 season. Thanks in no small part to gentle coaxing from manager Owen Coyle, it was there he rediscovered his confidence and competence. He netted eight times in 12 league games, scoring in his first four appearances for the Lancashire side.
The devastating partnership he enjoyed with Luis Suarez at Anfield last season has prompted some England watchers to wonder whether his play is shorn of a dimension when he is not dovetailing with the Uruguayan. Yet his scoring record in Liverpool sides without Suarez in the past year stands up to scrutiny – as does the fact he has found the net in four of his past eight England outings.
The dramatic nature of his rise to first-pick status for Hodgson is best illustrated by the fact that he did not make the squad for Euro 2012. Having represented England at every level, Sturridge completed the international set with a senior debut in November 2011 friendly with Sweden. Two summers ago, though, while Hodgson’s men were struggling their way to the quarter-finals of Euro 2012, his first taste of a major tournament came with Team GB at the London Olympics. That experience ended grimly for him courtesy of a penalty shoot-out miss that allowed South Korea to progress to the semi-finals.
If Hodgson, pictured left, holds his nerve and allows the coltish performers in his squad the game time to make the impact, then Sturridge could well do so. For there is not another England player with his sangfroid in front of goal. And that certainly includes Rooney, who hasn’t netted for his country at any of the past four major finals, a sequence now stretching to a decade. It is unlikely we will be saying the same of Sturridge in ten years’ time.
ONLY three years ago Paul Pogba was schlepping about Scotland, part of a Manchester United reserve squad on a pre-season tour of non-league clubs such as Spartans and lower league opposition such as Ayr United.
Over the next few weeks he is expected to prove to everyone exactly why he has been earmarked as one of the players to watch, his rise from football’s backwater to the world stage completed with few delays along the way.
It was that sense of impatience which drove him to leave Old Trafford for Juventus in 2012, his thirst for first-team action at the Premier League side not sated early enough.
There was a sense then that he was not ready but, given the speed of his progress in the period since, it seems Pogba was born ready.
“Pogba is one of those players who leaves you speechless,” Juventus’ veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon said earlier this year. “When he came we didn’t know him but after only three or four training sessions we were impressed by his enormous qualities. My team-mates and me looked at each other as if to say ‘Are they blind in Manchester?’”
United certainly weren’t blind to the young Frenchman’s potential. They once described him as “powerful, skilful and creative with an eye for goal and a penchant for the spectacular”. But perhaps they were too protective, underestimating his readiness for the big stage.
By the end of his first season in Serie A, he had done enough to earn his first senior cap for France and, by the end of 2013, he had been awarded the Golden Boy award, presented to the best under-21 player in Europe.
The rewards could be even more abundant of things go to plan for France in Brazil. This was a football team that imploded four years ago, in South Africa, when players boycotted training after Nicolas Anelka was sent home for abusing then coach Raymond Domenech. The rifts and unrest undermined their whole campaign and they failed to make it beyond the group stages for the first time.
The talk of unrest raised its head again during Euro 2012. But there seems to be peace in the ranks. On Friday it was revealed that Franck Ribery will miss out with a back injury but it is the youngsters in the squad who will demand the attention in Brazil and in Pogba they have someone far removed from the prima donnas and selfishness of the last few years.
Relaxed on and off the ball, he is colourful but confines the drama to what he can deliver on the pitch. He’s a team player who is dedicated, polite and full of all the joy one would expect of a young lad living his dream. In a squad brimming with talent, he is the player many claim will dictate matters in the middle of the pitch. Yet he only has a dozen caps under his belt and fewer than 100 top-flight games at club level. He is raw, he is young but with strength of body and mind, he is capable of breaking down opposition attacks and quickly turning the tables. This is the tournament that will catapult him into the realms of midfield greats. Not bad for a 21-year-old.
“He is the only young player about whom I’m not afraid to say that he is already a great because I know he is not going to get a big head,” said his international team-mate Patrice Evra, “and because he proves it with every match.”
It was Evra who once pleaded with him to be patient at Old Trafford, telling him that he would become a legend there. Few doubt that legendary status will be bestowed on him, with the French team likely to be built around his dominant talent in the years ahead. But it is likely to be in Brazil where that moniker is earned, not England.
Ranked the most valuable midfielder in the world at the moment, his estimated ¤60 million price tag could look like a bargain if he shines as expected. The French fans chanted his name throughout the warm-up matches ahead of this tournament. They know that, after their embarrassment in South Africa, he can help restore pride in Les Bleus in Brazil. He always believed it too. All he wanted was the chance.
LIONEL Messi has scored only once in the finals of a World Cup. That’s the same total as Darren Anderton, one goal fewer than John Wark and two fewer than Gerry Armstrong, the striker whose exploits for Northern Ireland in Spain 32 years ago included a goal that defeated the hosts.
For Barcelona’s all-time top scorer, that is not what you would describe as exalted company. The player who has won three Champions Leagues, six Spanish titles and four Ballons d’Or is unlikely to be claiming any time soon that it is an honour to be mentioned in the same breath as the Scotsman, the Englishman and the lad who spent the peak of his career at Watford.
Goals are a crude measure of greatness, but when you net as many as Messi does, it is hard to ignore his drought on the biggest stage of all. His one and only counter at the World Cup finals was in 2006 when the then 18-year-old came on as a substitute against Serbia and Montenegro to round off the scoring in a 6-0 victory.
It is symptomatic of the one glaring omission on an otherwise spectacular CV, the solitary shortcoming that prohibits any attempt to portray him as the best player that ever lived. Until he wins the World Cup with Argentina, he will always be in the shadow of that other feted No.10, Diego Maradona, who lifted the trophy in 1986.
It is a cruel demand to make of the little magician. The silverware that comes so easily to Messi with Barcelona, the pre-eminent club side of his generation, is much more difficult to acquire at international level. The World Cup finals present themselves only once every four years, and demand from their winners a rare alignment of the stars. Argentina, who have lifted the trophy twice, have not gone beyond the quarter-finals since 1990.
But with Messi’s genius comes expectation. He carried that burden four years ago, when Maradona was Argentina’s coach, and he carries it now, when his need is even greater. These finals are his best opportunity. Not only are they the first to be held in South America since 1978, they come at a time in Messi’s life when he should be at his best. Now 26, he will still be around in 2018, but his position, and his playing style, do not lend themselves to longevity.
The good news is that it is set up for him like never before, thanks mainly to Alejandro Sabella, the Argentina coach who made him captain almost as soon as he took the job in 2011. Since then, Messi has shown more responsibility and maturity in the colours of his country. In Brazil, everything will flow through him, which was not the case four years ago, when Maradona treated him as just another player. By trying not to rely too heavily on the world’s best footballer, the coach somehow contrived to waste his ability.
Since then, Messi has risen to the international challenge. He scored a famous hat-trick against Brazil in 2012, netted ten in the World Cup qualifying campaign and has taken his total in 84 Argentina appearances to 37, three more than Maradona. All that remains for him to do is produce when it matters most.
While it has not been his best season at club level, the energy he conserved during a two-month injury absence can now be put to good use in an Argentina side full of exhilarating attacking options. While there are doubts about the defence, as well as Sergio Romero, their goalkeeper, Messi seems to be thriving in the company of Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, with Angel Di Maria supporting from midfield.
When Messi touched down in Buenos Aires ahead of Argentina’s pre-tournament training camp, there was no mistaking his optimism. “I have arrived with the national team and I am flipping the switch,” he said. “Many times it was the opposite. I would go to Barcelona and play well. This time we hope the reverse is true. When I get together on the pitch with my friends [on the national team] it is going to be a different story.”
Argentina have a favourable draw with which to gather momentum. Their opening match is against World Cup newcomers Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Iran and Nigeria to follow. If, as expected, they finish top of Group F, they are likely to play Ecuador or Switzerland in the next round.
Argentina has a strange relationship with Messi, as the American sportswriter, Wright Thompson, discovered when he went to visit the player’s hometown in 2012. In the area where he was born and the stadium where he first played, there is little evidence of their famous son, save for the house where his family live. The suspicion is that the people have never properly warmed to a player who swapped Argentina for Spain at a young age. If he is holding the trophy aloft on 13 July, surely that will change.
WHAT goes around comes around, as they say in Algiers. Sixteen years after Zinedine Zidane, of Algerian origin, led multi-cultural France to victory in the World Cup, the country in which his parents grew up is fighting back. The only Arab team at this year’s finals are among the main beneficiaries of a FIFA rule change that allows players of any age to switch international allegiances.
There is nothing new about French-born players representing Algeria, but the sheer number of those now returning to their roots, and the quality of their football, is thanks to what was effectively the introduction of an international transfer market five years ago.
It should be no surprise that Mohamed Roauroaua, president of the Algerian Football Association, was behind the move. His proposal, accepted by FIFA, has ensured that it is perfectly legal for players of any age to change associations, provided they are citizens of their new country, and provided they have never won a senior, competitive cap for their old one.
The rule used to be that a player could not do this if he was older than 18. Then the threshold was raised to 21, a change also supported by Roauroaua. Now that there is no age limit, players who have represented their country only in youth matches or friendlies are free to defect if it becomes clear, at any stage in their career, that they have better prospects elsewhere.
It has brought about a sea change in the way national coaches conduct their business. Jurgen Klinsmann’s US squad will have six players who represented other countries at youth level. Diego Costa, the 25-year-old “Spanish” striker, played twice for Brazil in friendlies last year. Africa, though, will benefit more than most, due to the high number of players with dual citizenship. Since 2007, 12 have switched their allegiance from France to Algeria, while Senegal have successfully tapped the same nation. Sixteen of Algeria’s 23-man World Cup squad were born in France. Eight gave service, some of it lengthy, to France’s youth teams.
Take, for instance, Carl Medjani. Born in Lyon, the defender played regularly for France at under-16, under-17, under-18 and under-21 level, before deciding, at the age of 25, to represent Algeria at the 2010 World Cup. Now on loan from Monaco to Valenciennes, he is the captain when Madjid Bougherra, the former Rangers defender, is unavailable.
Sofiane Feghouli is another example. When the French-born midfielder played for that country’s under-21s, some had him down as “the new Zidane”, but a move to Valencia caused him to disappear from the radar. In 2011, he signed for Algeria, and has since become their most influential figure, either flitting in from the right, or probing and prompting behind the main striker. Arsene Wenger once described Feghouli as “exceptional” and “a physical beast”.
Nabil Bentaleb, the 19-year-old midfielder who made his Tottenham Hotspur debut in December, and Leicester City’s Ryad Mahrez are also among the French-born players in a squad that would love nothing better than to play France at some stage of the tournament. The pity is that the two teams cannot meet until the quarter-finals, by which time Algeria are likely to be out.
They are not anyone’s favourites to go far in the competition, or even to progress from a group that also includes Belgium, Russia and South Korea, but they are more enterprising than the stuffy bunch who could not muster a single goal in South Africa four years ago. Their Bosnian coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, sacked by Ivory Coast four months ahead of the 2010 finals, has dispensed with the old guard and replaced them with a handful of promising young players who have the potential to catch their opponents unawares.
It would not be the first time Algeria have caused an upset. This, after all, is the team who beat West Germany in the opening game of the 1982 World Cup, only to be denied a place in the next round by their opponents’ notorious carve-up with Austria in the group’s final match. Four years ago, their solitary point came from a draw with England, whose supporters upset Wayne Rooney by booing his team off the pitch.
Some of the game’s biggest names have an inkling for Algeria. Diego Maradona predicted that they would “cause a surprise”, while Rivaldo described as “abundant” their possibilities of reaching the second round, although it should be pointed out that both were on a promotional tour of the country when they offered their backing.
Algeria’s first match, in Belo Horizonte on 17 June, is against Belgium, whose renaissance is thanks in part to their nation’s changing profile. Many of their most outstanding players have African origins. Marouane Fellaini is of Morrocan descent, as is Nacer Chadli. Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku have Congolese parents. Mousa Dembele has roots in Mali, Axel Witsel in Martinique.
If nothing else, the Group H opener will be a rich and entertaining advert for football’s newfound cultural diversity.
IF JURGEN Klinsmann achieves nothing else this summer, he will have raised the profile of football in his adopted country. His decision to exclude Landon Donovan from his squad has caused such a nationwide debate that it is destined to define his first visit to the World Cup finals as coach of the United States.
If he fails, it will be a monumental blunder. If he succeeds, his courage will be lauded. In a demanding group that also includes Ghana, Portugal and his native Germany, the US will be without their most iconic figure, a revered playmaker who has performed in three World Cup finals and amassed 156 caps.
Eric Wynalda, the former US international, described it as “hands down the biggest decision ever made in US Soccer’s history”, and he knows a thing or two about big decisions. When John Harkes, their captain, was left out of the squad for the 1998 World Cup, confusion reigned until it was revealed that there had been an affair between Harkes and Wynalda’s wife.
There is no suggestion that Klinsmann’s decision was based on anything but football. The German said that four other strikers were marginally ahead of Donovan. Even before the announcement, he was indicating that the 32-year-old LA Galaxy player did not deserve the “untouchable” status bestowed on him by the nation’s press. “The media thinks he has to be in the starting line-up or he has to be in Brazil based on what he did for soccer in the United States over the last 12-14 years, but that’s not how it works,” said Klinsmann.
The German vehemently denies that it is personal, although a tweet by his son did little to reinforce the point. “Hahahahahahah Donavan (sic),” was the gist of the message posted by Jonathan Klinsmann, who has since closed down his account and been asked by his father to apologise.
Social media users have not been kind to Klinsmann since the bombshell. Few Americans expected Donovan to be dropped from the team, never mind the squad. While some would concede that he lacks the dynamism of old, others contrast his exclusion with the selection of 18-year-old Julian Green, a German-reared Bayern Munich winger who has experienced just three minutes of first-team action at club level.
They wonder if a grudge is being held against Donovan, who underachieved during a loan spell with Klinsmann’s Bayern Munich in 2009. They ask if it is payback time for a player who took a three-month sabbatical in Cambodia at the start of last year, citing burnout and mental difficulties.
Donovan, for his part, suggests that Klinsmann must have based his decision on more than just form. He says that, before the provisional squad was cut to 23, his form merited inclusion in the starting line-up. “If I’m being judged solely on what happened in camp, then I absolutely deserved to be going to Brazil.”
Not that the controversy will bother Klinsmann. He happily reports that the furore reflects newfound interest in US soccer. Also the country’s technical director – with a contract that does not expire until 2018 – he can make bold decisions safe in the knowledge that he is protected against failure.
He wants to shake things up, take football in the US out of its comfort zone. His long-term plan is to build a team full of men with more experience than Donovan. It frustrates Klinsmann that his players are not exposed to the Champions League. Two of his most influential individuals, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, recently swapped Europe for Major League Soccer.
He says that a spectacular run in the World Cup finals would lend the US game credibility. It would give the players self-belief and, in turn, persuade the top clubs to take them more seriously. Klinsmann’s ambition is to eclipse their quarter-final appearance of 2002.
“Jurgen Klinsmann wasn’t hired to qualify for the World Cup,” says Alexi Lalas, the former US defender. “Jurgen Klinsmann was hired to make sure that when that moment comes and we reach the rarefied air [of the knockout stages], the players are prepared.”
Realistically, they will do well to progress from Group G this summer. They won a record-breaking 12 consecutive matches last year, but their defence is weak, there is no settled system and Dempsey, partnered by Sunderland’s Jozy Altidore, is not a striker who will intimidate Germany.
That match, on 26 June, is the pick of the group. Klinsmann was Germany’s head coach when they finished third at the 2006 World Cup. He played in West Germany’s 1990 World Cup-winning team. He scored for his country in every major finals from Euro 88 to France 98.
“The last game with Germany is going to eat it up,” says Tim Howard, the US goalkeeper. “But Klinsmann hasn’t spoken about it. He’s not one to talk too much about what went on in the past. He doesn’t like looking back.”
Klinsmann also knows that it could be a dead rubber if they don’t win their first match. With Germany and Portugal the favourites to progress, defeat by Ghana in the group opener would leave the US with an almost impossible task.