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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Book Review: "SOCCER WITHOUT BORDERS" by Erik Kirschbaum

Image credit:
 Picador and Amazon.com.

An American journalist and author, Erik Kirschbaum, writes a book with a primary focus on the life of US men's national team manager, Jürgen Klinsmann. 
Ancillary themes discuss German football before and after Klinsmann's managerial tenure, globalization/internationalization of world football and soccer in the United States of America. 

Discussion Items:

1. Format

2. Writing Style
3. The Importance of Languages and A Linguistic Primer.
4. Selected Quotes
5. Conclusion
6. About the Author

"Soccer has made it in the United States. It’s mainstream and it’s established. The potential of this great country is unlimited. We’ve got a growing talent pool. We’ve got the resources. We’ve got the know-how. Americans love sports and love to win. There are still challenges ahead, but we’re moving in the right direction. I hope this book will provide more knowledge and insights about the growth of this fantastic and extremely emotional sport." --- Jürgen Klinsmann quoted in the Foreword.

 “ 'Hey, Jürgen, I’m an American who’s lived in Germany for half my life and you’re a German who’s lived in the United States for nearly half of your life. Why not let me try to write a book about where you’re from and what you’re trying to do in the United States'. He smiled and said, 'Okay, I’ll think about it.'

Maybe he appreciated the persistence? Maybe he appreciated that someone looking in from outside the United States might have an interesting perspective? Or maybe he just wanted to get me off his back? A few weeks later he said he wasn’t interested in any kind of an autobiography but he wouldn’t have a problem if I turned our interviews and conversations into a book." 

--- Erik Kirschbaum, "SOCCER WITHOUT BORDERS: Jürgen Klinsmann, Coaching the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team, and the Quest for the World Cup," quoted in the Author's Note section, from his book published by Picador in May 2016 with list prices of $25 (Hardcover) and $11.99 (Kindle), respectively.

An American expat journalist had a road to Damascus transformation about soccer in 2004. Then the veteran journalist landed an elusive target after a decade-long pursuit: Jürgen Klinsmann. 

The German manager of the United States Men's National Team has spent five controversial years on the most scrutinized bench in American soccer. His candid communication style, innovations, personality and roster selections have not always been appreciated or understood by fans, media and his own players. 

This book documents Klinsmann's life and sporting vision from many different angles. Five things stood out to me about the man as chronicled in this book: Klinsmann's self-determination from a young age, the work-ethic instilled by his parents, his motivation to better himself and those around him, the role of culture, and a desire to challenge himself constantly. 

Few adults in their late 40s learn how to fly a helicopter. For Klinsmann, it was the fulfillment of a childhood desire to fly and perhaps a cogent reminder of what makes this man tick. 
A baker's son from a small town in Germany, who left formal education at the age of 15, scaled the levels of world football and became a German legend. Klinsmann's life story reminds me of a quote by the American author, Mark Twain: "I have never let schooling interfere with my education."

Let's take a longer look at this book's content.

1. Format

Jürgen Klinsmann.
Photo credit: 

This book is a long read, (too long in my opinion), at 358 pages although it was reflective of a decade's effort. There are 43 concise chapters divided into five sections with a Foreword by Jürgen Klinsmann. 

Part I: Early Years
Part II: Germany, Italy, Monaco and England
Part III: The German Revolution
Part IV: FC Bayern Munich
Part V: The Rise of Soccer in the United States

An Author's Note section, a lengthy introduction and an Afterword by the author were also included. I was not able to evaluate the index contents and bibliographical references from my review copy.

2. Writing Style

Jürgen Klinsmann in action with
FC Internazionale Milano.

Photo credit: Guerin Sportivo.

The overall presentation style is journalistic in tone given that this book was compiled from dozens of interviews and conversations. The author spent a decade interviewing Klinsmann in various locales both on a formal and informal basis. Despite Klinsmann's stated reluctance to participate in this project, you can sense the rapport, along with the mutual respect, between author and protagonist. 

  • The author's expat living experience in Germany bridged many areas that might have been lost in translation or perspective. Especially the ancillary themes of globalization and internationalization of world football.
  • I reviewed Silvio Berlusconi's autobiography by Alan Freidman and he wrote, "As Steve Jobs said to his biographer, 'I will tell you my story. You will write what you like'." While this book is not a proper autobiography, the protagonist trusted one journalist in a way that he had not done with any others in the past which enabled Kirschbaum to capture a good portrait of Klinsmann on a personal level. 
  • A detailed look into Klinsmann, the man, more than a German football legend and current soccer manager. We learn equal amounts about his roots, youthful focus, people who shaped him, travels abroad, his decision to become a manager, and how his two-year stint with Germany had profound cultural effects that went beyond sport.
  • Match commentaries and specific analyses from Klinsmann's playing career were impressive due to their level of research. Whether it was a discussion of Klinsmann's early professional years with Stuttgart, his lengthy time as a German international, or spells in Italy, France and England, the reader is provided with displays of pertinent detail. One in particular was how the author described Klinsmann's famous bicycle kick versus Bayern Munich in November 1987. 

  • For someone who didn't grow up in a soccer milieu, Kirschbaum became a serious student of the game. Like most converts, his passion is readily discernible. His research for this project was admirable when he focused on the main theme of Klinsmann's life.
  • Discussing how close Klinsmann came to the sack, along with the DFB's chosen successor, a few months before the 2006 World Cup, was an integral addition.
  • A good analysis and presentation of US college soccer that will greatly benefit foreign readers and those not familiar with its structure or importance in the domestic realm.
  • Intriguing ways to weave historical context into the story. The author is a gifted historian and you will learn a great deal about Germany in the last 100 years.
  • Since Klinsmann had not cooperated to this degree for a book project about himself, chapeau to Kirschbaum for his persistence to bring such a project to light.
Areas That Needed Improvement
  • While trying to strike a balance between long-time enthusiasts and more casual fans of soccer, the author veers off his main topic by spending too much time on basic aspects of the game, its laws, history and how soccer differs from other US sports.
  • When quoting third parties, the author had a tendency to excerpt those with the most favorable opinion of Klinsmann.
  • There was not enough critique or a detailed examination about negative facets of Klinsmann's tenure with the German national team, Bayern Munich, and the US Men's national team, respectively. 
  • Regarding Klinsmann's sack at Bayern Munich after less than a full season in his only club job so far, an in-depth analysis from the manager himself was not provided. There was more emphasis placed upon his coaching legacy at the club.
  • There were many quotes about people attributed to other publications. In some cases, this was utilized with Klinsmann being quoted directly and then suddenly by another source. While this aspect provided additional perspectives and information, it was confusing at times.
  • The author introduced the important and controversial topic of Promotion and Relegation with Klinsmann's et al thoughts about it. He then revisited the topic in various parts of the book. A presentation in one chapter would have been more compelling.
  • More direct quotes from members of the USMNT during Klinsmann's tenure would have been beneficial. The author didn't provide an interview with Landon Donovan although a chapter was dedicated to him. 
  • Kirschbaum included an educational interview with the American and world champion skier, Lindsay Vonn, regarding why she went to live and train in Europe early in her career. Readers might have preferred an interview with the US captain, Michael Bradley, who has played professionally in four European leagues. Or a discussion with his father, Bob, a rare American coach to work in foreign leagues and national team programs. Both inclusions would have maintained more of a "soccer without borders" theme.
  • A missed opportunity to explain an important historical topic, CatenaccioThe author focused more on Klinsmann's language learning and cultural impressions about Italy. Kirschbaum tried to explain this difficult concept concisely even if the "dead bolt" era had passed by the time Klinsmann first arrived in Italy (when Arrigo Sacchi's zonal marking innovation began to gain influence.) In retrospect, having Klinsmann provide his own detailed expertise about playing in the most tactically disciplined of the major European leagues would have provided rare insights given the coaching education nature of this book. 

3. The Importance of Languages and A Linguistic Primer

There was a significant emphasis upon Klinsmann's impressions about Italian culture and language learning during his first transfer abroad to Internazionale Milano. Giovanni Trapattoni, his manager at Inter (and years later at Bayern Munich), noted how diligently Klinsmann studied Italian in his own autobiography, "Non Dire Gatto," which I reviewed last year. Culture and language learning were also emphasized during Klinsmann's time at AS Monaco and Tottenham Hotspur, respectively, along with more recent efforts to study Spanish in the United States.

Image credit:

Kirschbaum included several explanations of German words and terminology. This feature provided an excellent linguistic enhancement and reinforced Klinsmann's own notable embrace of foreign languages. 

For example:

"Bundestrainer," the manager of the German national team.
"Deutschland ist Weltmeister!" 'Germany is world champion!' 
"F-Jugend," which represents age group levels from seven to eight years old.
"Kämpfen bis zum Umfallen." 'Fight until you fall.'
"Leistungszentren," which are academies sanctioned by the German Federation.
"Leitwolf," the lead wolf in a wolf pack.
"Meisterbrief," which was the Master's Certificate of proficiency Klinsmann received as a baker.
"Mittagsruhe," which is a rest break after lunch.
"Rekordbuch," a scrapbook of memories. (In Klinsmann's case, each goal that he scored.)
"Schwalbenkönig," an idiomatic term for a diver/simulator.
"Wirtschaftswunder" to explain the post-war economic surge of West Germany.

4. Selected Quotes

On Klinsmann's long-term vision for US Soccer:

"When people in towns with a thousand-year history speak of a long-term horizon, they aren’t talking about weeks or months. When Jürgen Klinsmann talks about a long- term perspective for soccer in the United States, he has his German roots in the back of his mind and is thinking in terms of many years, decades, and even generations." (Starting Out)

Klinsmann's provocative commentary from South Africa in 2010.

On the Importance of Language Learning:

“I was always fascinated by trying to understand people in a different culture. And that can only happen if I speak their language. Language is the key to understanding a country. I studied it before I went because I wanted to be prepared." (Move To Italy)

Image credit:
U.S. Soccer Federation.
Please click the image to
read my book review.

On His Work at SoccerSolutions:

'I learned to think more strategically...' He got to understand the business aspects of soccer in America, in the areas of youth development, training camps, and designing soccer facilities." (Barbecue Barnstorming)

Photo credit: Agapedia.
This is Klinsmann's humanitarian initiative.

On Taking Over the German National Team Job:

"It was important for me to give the team a professional support system from the start. So that’s why we had a co-coach, a general manager, a sports psychologist, a fitness coach, a chief scout, and a specialist for the media. I wanted a professional environment with a group of people I could trust blindly." (No Time To Waste)

On Parental Education in the USA:

“Over time there needs to be more education that soccer is very different from American football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. And the parents need to understand that it’s not the coach who will create the next Messi— but it’s the kid himself.” (American Anomalies)

5. Conclusion

Photo credit: Johannes Fasolt.
The Klinsmann Bakery in the Botnang district of Stuttgart.

Baker's son. Father. Iconic former player. Polyglot. Helicopter pilot. Soccer manager. Magnet for controversy. This book answered many questions about Klinsmann although left others open. With the Copa América Centenario on the horizon, "SOCCER WITHOUT BORDERS" will no doubt prompt another vigorous debate about the manager of the US men's national team, Jürgen Klinsmann, and his vision for soccer in America. 

Please Note

I have received a complimentary review copy of this book from a representative of the publisher, Picador. I was not financially compensated by the author, publisher or any other party. 

6. About the Author

ERIK KIRSCHBAUM is a foreign correspondent based in Germany. Kirschbaum has worked for Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, and other newspapers from Europe since 1989. A native of New York City, he grew up in Connecticut and studied history and German at the University of Wisconsin. He has covered World Cups and Olympics, and is the author of Burning Beethoven: the Eradication of German Culture in the United States during World War I, Rocking the Wall: Bruce Springsteen and The Berlin Concert that Changed The World, and Swim Bike Run: Triathlon − The Sporting Trinity.

The biographical text was courtesy of Picador. 

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Steve Amoia is a freelance writer, journalist and translator based in Washington, D.C. He is the publisher of World Football Commentaries since 2006 and published The Soccer Translator from 2008 to 2015. Steve was a past contributor at Beyond The Pitch, Italian Soccer Serie A.com, Keeper Skool and Soccerlens, respectively.


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