Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Erik Kirschbaum Interview

Following on from my review of Soccer Without Borders which I reviewed via NetGalley, I had the pleasure of interviewing the author, Erik Kirschbaum, via a request with his publisher Picador in America:

- What was it about Jurgen Klinsmann that made you think you could write a book about him?
We had dozens of interviews and conversations over the years after I started covering him in 2004 in Germany, mostly for stories for Reuters, and I found his determination and courage to shake things up and take on the status quo fascinating. As a journalist and amateur student of history, I've always been interested in people who aren't afraid to go against the grain and are ready to take on conventional wisdom even at the risk of getting bashed on the head. I started looking around for books in English on Klinsmann and couldn't find any, so I asked if he might be interested in working on a book together with me in about 2007. He said he wasn't interested about 10 times before he finally agreed in 2014, right after the World Cup in Brazil. My argument was: as an American who spent half his life in Germany, I could hopefully explain to an American audience what Klinsmann, who has spent half his life in the United States, a little bit about where he's coming from and what he's trying to do. Compared to most soccer coaches and soccer players, Klinsmann is incredibly open, honest and straight-forward. It's a refreshing change of pace for journalists and soccer fans, but it does sometimes cause tensions and problems with some journalists, players, fans and the special interests who seem to be happy with the status quo and don't like all his moving and shaking. 

- It isn't necessarily a biography but I know more about him now, do you think he is misunderstood?
Yes, I think Klinsmann and what he is trying to do with soccer in the United States is not really understood or not really appreciated in the United States. Contrary to what some in the U.S. might think, he is by no means a mercenary coming in from Europe and trying to change everything in the United States. He has lived in California for nearly 20 years and watched his kids growing up with soccer in the United States. He is much more American than German these days and over the years our conversations have switched to 50-50 German-English to almost all English. And because he is so open, his comments and ideas are sometimes taken out of context and used against him. For example, he gave an interview last September to an experienced soccer writer at a major U.S. newspaper expressing the hope that those who follow and write about soccer in the United States could become more "educated" about the nuances of the game -- for instance that the performance of a team in the World Cup is the absolute gold standard globally and what soccer people around the world will talk about for the next four years...and that friendlies or Gold Cups or Confed Cups, while interesting, aren't really that important in the bigger scheme of things. But instead of taking that as a constructive suggestion, it was used against him and Klinsmann was blasted for being condescending. There are countless other examples of Klinsmann being criticised in the U.S. for things that soccer followers in other countries, like Germany, ask: "So? What's the problem with what he just said? That's the way it is, isn't it?" You can accuse Klinsmann many things -- like maybe being too demanding -- but I think he is anything but condescending. He simply wants to help U.S. soccer take big steps forward and win the World Cup. 

Erik Kirschbaum
Erik Kirschbaum - Author of Soccer Without Borders

- Do you think his tenure as American coach has been a success, is there more to come in next World Cup?
I think Klinsmann's five years in charge have been a tremendous success and I think anyone who honestly looks at the way the team is now playing in the Copa America, or played against really big teams like the Netherlands and Germany last year, would have to agree the style of play, the pace, the aggressiveness, the skill, the fitness and the tactics have improved. They would have to improve because pretty much every other national team in the world has improved in these last five years. The game is faster now than ever before and the game has simply moved on. If the U.S. hadn't improved, the team would probably have fallen from a top 30 FIFA ranking to spot in the top 60. Five years ago the U.S.M.N.T. played friendlies mostly against other teams in the CONCACAF region. Now, Klinsmann has been scheduling friendlies against the world powers in Europe -- and doing surprisingly well. His plan and goal is to get U.S. players accustomed to playing against the game's big names so that when a World Cup semi-final or final rolls around in 2, 6 or 10 years, they won't be intimidated or overly impressed by the big names on opposing team. That's another reason why he wants more top U.S. players in the world's best leagues in Europe, competing on teams in the Champions League, in order to improve their own game but to see that the Messis, the Ronaldos and Rooneys of the world are are not super-human but just ordinary people as well who can be beaten. 

- Does Klinsmann require more from the MLS? Should he convince players to go and play in Europe?
Despite what some of his critics say, Klinsmann is a big fan and supporter of MLS and believes that for some players it's the right environment. I don't think he has ever twisted anyone's arm to play in Europe. But he believes, as do most soccer followers and experts around the world, that the best leagues and best teams are simply in Western Europe. And if a player wants to raise his game, top clubs in Europe are the place they ought to strive for. Most American soccer players understand that too. That's what the best players in South America, Mexico, Asia and the Middle East are doing -- trying to get to a top club in Europe and play in the Champions League. Why is the United States the only country in the world where that idea is so disputed? All the best basketball and football players in the world want to play in the NBA or NFL. I think Klinsmann will obviously be glad to see, one day, when there will be 20 or 30 or 40 ambitious American soccer players making an impact on teams playing in the Champions League -- whether those clubs are in England, Spain, Germany, Italy, France or wherever. But I also think that there will always be some MLS players on the U.S. team as well and I think he hopes the level of play in MLS will keep rising as it has to narrow the gap. 

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Jurgen Klinsmann has exceeded expectations

- What has changed since the World Cup in Brazil? How has he handled the changing of the guard and retirement of Landon Donovan?
Parts of the U.S. soccer public and media seem more critical of Klinsmann now than before the World Cup -- which baffles me and many others who follow soccer in Europe. He helped get the U.S.M.N.T through the "Group of Death", one of the toughest World Cup groups ever, with a win over Ghana and a tie against Portugal. That was a huge step forward and tremendous accomplishment by any measure. Soccer followers around the world took note and said "Wow, the U.S. isn't a door mat anymore". That was a giant step forward. Before the World Cup, major soccer writers in the U.S. were saying Klinsmann would be a "visionary" if he got the team through the Group of Death without Landon Donovan. He did it and yet the criticism only seemed to get louder. Why is that? In any other major soccer country, a national team coach deciding not to nominate a 32-year-old forward who wasn't scoring goals in the league anymore and had taken a sabbatical from the game the year before might be criticised or challenged about that for a few weeks. And if the team then performed better than expected at the World Cup, it would be the end of the story. But in the U.S. there seems to be a lot of sentimentality for Donovan, perhaps because in other sports like football, basketball or baseball a team can carry an ageing veteran into their late 30s. But soccer is different and no major soccer power would ever put a player past his prime on the team or the field for sentimental reasons. It just doesn't happen. Also, Klinsmann had experienced as a player first-hand how important team chemistry at a big tournament is. At the 1994 World Cup Germany was the defending champion and had an even better team than in 1990 but got knocked out in the 1994 quarter-finals because there had been so many distractions on the team. His point of view is that team chemistry for a big tournament is vitally important, everyone needs to row in the same direction, and back-up players need to understand their role as back-up players. I think Klinsmann is trying hard to find and nurture younger players to step into the shoes of the ageing veterans but the talent pool in the United States is not as deep yet as it is elsewhere so it's a great challenge to find the right mixture of old and young. I think the Copa America is showing that he's got a pretty good touch with some hungry young players like Wood, Brooks, Zardes, Pulisic, Nagbe pushing some of the vets such as Dempsey, Bradley and Jones to raise their game. The chemistry seems to be excellent. 

- Can America compete without a marquee player like a Messi, Ronaldo or Bale?
Yes, definitely. Germany rarely has a marquee player yet has won four World Cups and there Euros. To their own great frustration, neither Messi, Ronaldo nor Bale have yet to win a World Cup or Euro. Obviously, it's a team game and the performance of the entire team is what wins big tournaments. But who knows? Maybe in five or 10 years, we can have this conversation again, and see that America has produced such a standout player. 

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Christian Pulisic - the future of USMNT

- What is your writing routine?
I usually try to get cracking as early as possible in the morning. For some reason when I wake up my head is full of ideas about what I'm working on or should be working on, as if the ideas have been swimming around in my brain all night and then settle somewhere just before dawn. So I try to turn on the computer as quickly as I can after waking up and get to it. After a couple of hours, I'll try to go for a walk or run or do kind of physical activity for an hour or so to get the blood and ideas flowing again. Some days I'll write 1,000 words, some days 2,000 or even 3,000. At some point, when I'm getting tired of typing, I'll browse around and try to read newspaper articles, magazines or a good book to find a new spark of energy. Reading good writing by others often gets me inspired to write something really good. That's one of the reasons I always really enjoyed covering the Olympics and World Cups at Reuters -- all the best writers would be there and reading their great stuff invariably inspired me to raise my game another notch or two.

- What has been your opinion of the Euro 2016 tournament?
It's been fun to watch the games and especially the so-called "minnows" of the game like Iceland, Albania, Austria and Hungary doing well. To be honest, getting up in the middle of the night to watch the Copa America has, however, been more fun so far.

- Is the gap closing between CONACAF and CONMEBOL?
I think so. I think it has to close. I think the gaps everywhere are closing and there will be more upsets all around the world in the future. I think Western Europe is still the dominate region for soccer but the gaps are narrowing everywhere as the best and brightest hone their skills in the top club leagues in Europe.

- Who do you read regularly?
I read all kinds of general news and sports articles in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Guardian as well as  Bild newspaper, Der Spiegel and Die Welt -- about half of what I read is English and the other half German. It's a nice mixture for me to keep track of the different points of view. I also enjoy reading books, especially biographies. One of my favourites in the last year or two was Soccernomics as well as a biography of Elon Musk. I'm looking forward to Bruce Springsteen's autobiography due out in September.

My thanks to Erik Kirschbaum for his time, and to Marlena Brown at Picador USA for arranging for my questions to be asked by the author.

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