For the veteran duo of Jürgen Klinsmann and Berti Vogts, the World Cup in Brazil is more then just a tournament—it’s a chance for redemption.
Ask any German football fan about Euro 2000, and you’re bound to hear a compound string of bawdry curses. Winless in the group stage, the listless German team was dumped out of the tournament without reaching the knockout stage of the tournament. German media and fans, pregnant with post-Cold War potential, had believed former coach Franz Beckenbauer when he exclaimed that Germany would be “unbeatable for the foreseeable future” after winning the 1990 World Cup. Ten years later, Beckenbauer’s jubilant prediction echoed across empty beer halls and town squares.
In defeat, German football entered a period of panicked reform. Four years after its tepid showing in Belgium and the Netherlands, the German Football Federation hired its prodigal son, Jürgen Klinsmann, to lead the national team. The shaggy-haired starlet of the 1990 World Cup team, Klinsmann had spent his retirement soaking in both the Californian sun and the self-actualizing management philosophy of American athletics. Klinsmann—with no professional management experience—didn’t consider himself to be a serious candidate to coach Germany, but his friend and former national team manager Berti Vogts unexpectedly asked him if he was interested in the job over dinner in Newport Beach. “It’s weird to think none of this would have happened if Berti didn’t call me,” Klinsmann said in a 2005 interview.
Klinsmann became the coach-célèbre of the 2006 World Cup, unleashing a young, technical, and attack-minded team that hardly resembled the dour, plodding German teams of the 1990s. Klinsmann’s career correspondingly ascended, but the same would not be true for his mentor Berti Vogts whose career has dissolved into a puddle of professional humiliation.
Vogts has been spat on in Scotland and publicly ridiculed in Nigeria. When his friend Klinsmann tried to hire him to be Germany’s technical director in 2005, the German Football Federation blocked the move; Vogts was just as unpopular at home as he was abroad. Toiling now with Azerbaijan’s national team, a country that prefers the cold-hearted strategy of chess to the glamorous veneer of global football, popularity continues to elude Vogts: several months into the job, Azerbaijani journalists pelted him with toilet paper, treating the once mighty “Der Terrier”—a nickname Vogts earned for his dogged defending—with the scorn usually reserved for frothy-mouthed stray dogs.
But this past March, 10 years after Vogts helped launch Klinsmann’s coaching career, Klinsmann repaid the favor, hiring Vogts to serve as a “special advisor” to the U.S. Men’s National Team at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. With the corresponding demotion of longtime assistant coach Martin Vasquez, journalists and supporters alike were flummoxed: what did Klinsmann want with a washed-up coach currently collecting a paycheck in the oil-rich Caucasus?
While some observers rightly identified Vogts’s pedigree and recent coaching experience against the United States’s group stage opponents as Klinsmann’s primary motivations, the affinity between Klinsmann and Vogts extends into the fundamentals of their coaching philosophies and friendship. Despite recent failures, Vogts’s resume is littered with failed attempts to remake a nation’s football culture, mirroring Klinsmann’s efforts to reform American football with an unflagging commitment to growth.
As head coach of Germany in the 1990s, Vogts attempted to alter Germany’s outdated 3-5-2 formation, sensing the ascendency of progressive football tactics that France would showcase in the 1998 World Cup. Mario Basler, a German midfielder summarized the experience, “We could not adjust…we were completely confused.” In Scotland, Vogts begged the Scottish government to invest in youth academies instead of bidding on the 2012 Olympic Games, but having earned the epithet “Bungling Berti” in the tabloids, few in Scotland heeded his advice.
Basler’s comments demonstrate that Vogts’s primary flaw is one of style, not substance. Vogts lacks Klinsmann’s infectious positivity, possessing a frown as inspiring as Angela Merkel, looking more like a droopy-eyed schoolmaster than a World Cup winner. Although he’s had excellent ideas throughout his career, his inability to effectively sell them to a team, a boardroom, and a nation has significantly impeded his success.
But together Vogts and Klinsmann have the potential to be the deadliest odd couple since Sandor Clegane and Arya Stark frequented a Lannister tavern.
Working with Klinsmann—a master communicator—Vogts will be free to innovate American tactics and training strategy, leaving Klinsmann to motivate players and address the media. If their symbiotic relationship proves fruitful, both men and their adopted countries could reap major rewards.
For Klinsmann, Vogts offers the fellowship only another change-minded expat can provide and the tactical panache of a latter-day Joachim Löw. As Klinsmann told Sport Bild, Vogts “has been an initiator” of ideas, a trait Klinsmann values above all others. Coupled with scouting reports littered with insights gleaned from playing against Ghana, Portugal, and Germany in recent years, Vogts could provide, in Klinsmann’s words, “an extra push and even more confidence” for the U.S. team in Brazil.
For Vogts, a successful run with the United States could spark a coaching Renaissance, a flicker of redemption at the end of a trying career. But first the unlikely duo must lead their motley band of hyphenated-Americans through the Odyssey of trials that await them in the Group of Death.