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True Grit
Alexander Wolff
June 20, 1994
Germany's Jürgen Klinsmann is a down-to-earth superstar
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June 20, 1994

True Grit

Germany's Jürgen Klinsmann is a down-to-earth superstar

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You'd heard all the stories about international soccer stars and their breezy contempt for the press: How Paul Gascoigne of England once belched into a live microphone on Italian TV; how European players will demand as much as $10,000 for the favor of an interview; how four months ago Argentine superstar Diego Maradona strafed journalists camped outside his home with pellets from an air gun. Thus to speak with Jürgen Klinsmann, one of the stars of the German national team that won the World Cup in 1990 and will try to win another beginning this week, you make your approach discreetly. You contact the press attaché for the German Soccer Federation, requesting a few minutes of Herr Klinsmann's time, even though Klinsmann is deep into the French first-division season with his club team, AS Monaco.

Before you can ponder what his response might be—a burp? extortion? gunfire?—a handwritten fax comes over the transom, proposing a meeting. "Hello Alex," it begins. "See you, Jürgen," it ends. Soon comes another fax to set the details: "2 p.m. at the Bar São Brasil next to the Hotel Mirabeau in Monte Carlo. O.K.?"

O.K. But you show up at the appointed time still not certain that this isn't all some too-good-to-be-true trap. That some sinister croupier isn't even now lurking behind that palm tree by the Bar São Brasil, plotting how to relieve you of 10 G's. That this Hotel Mirabeau isn't really a French-fried Hotel California, where you can come by anytime you want, but he will never show. That Klinsmann, if he appears at all, won't turn up in a late-model European sports coupe, tearing around a famously perilous turn in the course of the Grand Prix of Monaco, squealing his tires, scaring you witless.

But Klinsmann pulls up benignly, his blond hair flapping in the Mediterranean breeze. He's piloting neither a Porsche nor a Mercedes but a Volkswagen—and not even the Wolfsburg Edition. It's Herbie the Love Bug gussied up, a cobalt-blue '67 Beetle only three years younger than its driver, with the top down and a Peanuts decal on the dash. Snoopy is in a rowboat, wondering, Ist es noch weit bis Amerika?—Is it much farther to America?

Most soccer superstars are about as approachable as Princess Stephanie, as impenetrable as the Grimaldi Palace and as deep as Philippe Junot. During 90 alfresco minutes that are less an interview than a wide-ranging conversation, you discover how Klinsmann is different. He gives to Greenpeace, visits prisoners in their cells and before games has been known to sing to himself a countercultural hymn from the 1960s, Alle Menschen werden Büdder (All People Will Be Brothers), instead of the German national anthem.

You converse in English. Klinsmann orders in French. Indulging his craving for human contact, he hails a buddy in a passing convertible in German; makes a dinner date with a couple from Como, the lakeside town north of Milan where he owns a home, in Italian; and then charms four vacationers from his native region of Germany by bantering with them in Schwabian dialect. Only when a photographer wonders if Klinsmann might pose at home is he not obliging, for he draws a broad line at his private life.

"I learn everything on the street," he says. "That's how you learn about people and their attitudes. I don't have enough patience to read books, and I can't watch TV. After five minutes I change the channel. After another five minutes I turn it off. I don't do things that involve staying at home. That's why the fax machine is so good for me."

Only Klinsmann's need to make a practice at 4 p.m. ends the conversation. Your penance for having doubted his good faith: You must help him lug two bags of clothes for Bosnian relief from Herbie the Love Bug to AS Monaco's practice compound. In some respects Klinsmann is an unlikely Schwabian, for people from Germany's southwest, where the hills roll green and gentle, are not known for being particularly open-minded. But his longing to be independent and footloose has its roots in his upbringing. Klinsmann grew up watching his parents, Siegfried and Martha, tethered to their bakery in Geislingen, near Stuttgart, where they showed up at five every morning to bake the pretzels for which they were locally famous. Jürgen is trained as an apprentice baker, yet it still gnaws at him that he left high school before earning his Abitur, the degree that allows young Germans to go to a university.

Soccer wrenched him away. As a nine-year-old he scored 16 goals in a game that his youth team won 20-0. Over four seasons as a junior in Geislingen he scored 250 times. Klinsmann, who turned pro at 17 and left school a short time later, played eight pro seasons in the same provincial city, first with the Stuttgart Kickers and then with VfB Stuttgart. When his deal with the latter ran out in 1989, it wasn't a question of whether VfB Stuttgart could come up with the cash to keep him. Klinsmann concluded he had mined his home for all it had to offer him, as an athlete and a person, and chose to sign with the Italian club Inter Milan, for whom he played from 1989 to '91. "Nothing could have kept me from making the switch," he said at the time. "I believe now is the time for me to get to know something new, a new environment, a new task. And I'm not referring to soccer alone. Soccer gave me the unique chance to reach a goal only few attain, especially at my age: to be truly independent."

Even as he nears 30, Klinsmann has remained a sort of European everyteen, the hosteling kind you see with a backpack slung over a shoulder, jamming train stations and museum lobbies. Robbed of a normal youth by a system that indentures soccer prodigies as adolescents, he fills in the gaps whenever he can—and $1.2 million a year can buy quite a variety of rail-pass experiences. "I grew a wish inside me to learn different mentalities, to have different experiences," says Klinsmann, who announced he would retire after the 1992 European Championships and then couldn't bring himself to do so. "You learn your whole life. And though I've already learned a lot of things, if I've realized anything from being abroad for five years, it's that there are so many things I don't know."

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