From hero to zero - and whipping boy

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This is the 21st century. Showing up at the office in raincoat and tie is so last millennium, writes Simon Kuper. The future is distance working and the future is now. In fact, there is no need ever to meet your colleagues again. (This column, for instance, was written in Miami).

This is certainly the philosophy of Jürgen Klinsmann. The former German striker coaches his country’s national team from his home in Huntington Beach, California. Like Lucy Kellaway’s FT character Martin Lukes, Klinsmann is a human compendium of business jargon who can justify his residence at length. Yet he may soon be forced to move to Germany. Eighty-three days before the Germans host the soccer World Cup, they are starting to worry that Klinsmann’s team will not merely fail but eternally shame the nation.

On March 1 Germany lost 4-1 to Italy in a friendly. Afterwards Klinsmann flew to Huntington Beach instead of attending a workshop for the World Cup’s coaches in Germany. He later explained that he had taken his mother to California to help her deal with the first anniversary of his father’s death. But critics noted that he could have helped her deal with it in Germany. Franz Beckenbauer, organiser of the World Cup and father of the nation, had a grumble. This prompted a national debate on Klinsmann’s place of residence.

It seems unfair. Admittedly Germany are a terrible team – but then they were terrible pre-Klinsmann and will be terrible after him. It’s true they reached the World Cup final in 2002 but they did so without facing a front-rank nation and with a team built around a goalkeeper. That may not happen this year, or indeed ever again.

The defeat to Italy was treated as a failure, whereas perhaps it should have been seen as a success. Germany were never going to win – the last time they beat a front-rank nation was England at Wembley in 2000. At least they limited Italy to four. A couple of years ago Romania beat them 5-1. So did England.

The Germans have slipped to 22nd in football’s world rankings. This may seem disappointing for a country that has won three World Cups and whose Football Association claims to be the world’s largest sports body with 6.3m members. But, again, looking on the bright side, as Klinsmann always does, they remain well ahead of American Samoa in 205th place. And looking back a generation from now, when Germany’s collapsing birth rate will have left it with almost no inhabitants, 22nd place will seem commendable.

In any case, it’s not as if the national team is the sole source of national shame. The television channel ARD recently revealed a second bribery scandal in German football. This time a member of the national team might be implicated. But how to prove it? A German international throwing a match looks awfully like a German international playing his usual game.

Nonetheless, prominent figures in German football and politics are now bashing Klinsmann. Saying horrible things in the media about colleagues is an ancient ritual of German football. The Germans did it even when they were winning World Cups, and they excel at it. Their language, because of its scope for creating words, allows for particularly inventive criticism. Beckenbauer opted instead for self-mockery, another field in which Germany remains supreme. “It’s good that Jürgen is staying in Germany,” he joked, after granting an audience to Klinsmann and chancellor Angela Merkel over rack of lamb. “He’s had enough of the sun.”

The tabloid newspaper Bild particularly dislikes Klinsmann. It greeted one of his visits to Germany with the headline “Here he is again”. The antipathy may be only partly due to his professional deficiencies. Bild has traditionally had a hotline to Germany’s coach, getting the line-up and updates on factional warfare between players before anyone else but “Klinsi” has never helped the newspaper.

The German masses are more sympathetic to Klinsmann. Perhaps this is because so many of them have themselves sought early retirement in sunny new-age environments far from Germany. Perhaps it is because they know that even if he moved his family into the new Munich stadium it wouldn’t help the team. Only 3 per cent of Germans in a recent poll expected victory in the World Cup, yet in another poll only 8 per cent said Klinsmann should be sacked.

He may go anyway. On Wednesday Germany play a friendly international against his adopted homeland the US. The venue is Dortmund, where the natives are angry with Klinsi for overlooking Borussia Dortmund’s 33-year-old defender Christian Wörns. The bizarre fuss over Wörns, never exactly a Hegelian world-historical individual even at his peak, may prompt Dortmunders to festoon their stadium with anti-Klinsmann banners. If Germany lose, which is not altogether unimaginable, Klinsmann may be sacked.

Germany have reached the final seven times in the past 13 World Cups but they won’t this summer. As the football writer David Winner notes, this is the world’s loss. In the narrative that is the World Cup, Germany play the role of villain: the bad guy who kills the good guys, the beautiful teams. “In terms of story the greatest nation in the history of football is Germany,” says Winner. “A World Cup without Germany would be like Star Wars without Darth Vader.”

But we will have to cope without them. All the Germans have left now is their wonderful football culture: a love of the game, a humour about it, a national discussion conducted over excellent beer with little hysteria, and probably more good football books and films appearing than in any other country. It’s not a solid gold trophy 14.5in high but it’s something.

simonkuper-ft@hotmail.com

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