On the eve of the World Cup, U.S. men’s soccer team coach Jurgen Klinsmann thought it necessary to temper the expectations of American fans holding on to this crazy notion of the United States actually winning.
“You have to be realistic,” Klinsmann said in Sao Paulo, echoing comments he made over the winter to The New York Times Magazine. The U.S., he said in December, “cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet.”
Despite his team’s 5-0-1 record in international friendlies since Feb. 1, Klinsmann remains convinced the chances of the U.S. returning from Brazil with an unprecedented title are, to use the futbol-appropriate word, nil.
“I think for us now, talking about winning a World Cup is just not realistic,” Klinsmann said Wednesday, acknowledging his dour tone might not resonate with fans hard-wired to the premise that when it comes to the U.S., anything is possible.
“If it is American or not,” said the native of Goppingen, Germany, “you can correct me.”
Thanks for the offer, Mr. Klinsmann. I’m usually tolerant of
foreign-born U.S. residents grappling to assimilate American customs, as I’ve been on the flip side: a tourist who has struggled with the simple basics of, say, going to a restaurant. Do I leave a tip? Yes? No? Maybe?
Furthermore, as a sports writer, I respect your candor. You aren’t the only coach who has gone into a tournament with next to no expectations for his team. A zillion others have, too.
Their pregame remarks range from the insipid (“We’ll show up and see what happens”) to the obvious (“They put their pants on one leg at a time, same as we do”) to the defiant (“You want to tell any of those kids they’ve got no chance?”).
The clichés are different, but behind the clichés is a code: You don’t think we can win, and I don’t think we can win, so what the heck, let’s just pretend we have a chance to win.
Once in a while — once every generation or so — the pretending to have a chance to win breeds the confidence and willpower that produces such improbable world champions as the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.
Are you familiar with that story, Mr. Klinsmann? A group of college kids — their average age was 21 — took on a team of NHL-caliber veterans from the Soviet Union. A powerhouse program with an overall 27-1-1 record in Olympic competition since 1960, the Soviets beat the U.S., 10-3, in an exhibition game held a week before the Winter Games.
If anybody had reason to lament the long odds facing his team, it was U.S. coach Herb Brooks. But instead of dwelling on how low the expectations were, he chided and challenged his players to the point they wanted to drop-kick him over Niagara Falls.
“You can’t be common,” Brooks told them. “The common man goes nowhere. You have to be uncommon.”
The rematch, in the semifinal round of medal play, was scored like this: United States 4, Soviet Union 3.
Which brings me back to what you said Wednesday, Mr. Klinsmann.
“You have to be realistic.”
You have to be realistic? Uh, why? What’s the drawback to envisioning dreams that go unfulfilled? Shame?
It wasn’t realistic to presume the 1980 U.S. hockey team could keep the game against the Soviets close, much less win it.
Then again, it wasn’t realistic to presume a collection of ragtag rebels from 13 colonies could stand up to the British army. It wasn’t realistic that Thomas Jefferson could craft the Declaration of Independence — merely the most important document in the history of civilization — in two weeks.
It wasn’t realistic for Abraham Lincoln, born in a one-room log cabin and essentially self-taught, to have ambitions of becoming the president who preserved a fractured nation.
It wasn’t realistic for American soldiers to lead the liberation of Europe from the Nazis while other American soldiers were in a war on the other side of the world.
It wasn’t realistic for a U.S. astronaut to walk on the moon, more than 60 years after the Wright brothers devised their primitive flying machine.
You’re free to speak your mind, Mr. Klinsmann, and your frank assessment of America’s dawdling pursuit of a World Cup championship serves as a sort of holiday-weekend weather alert to casual soccer fans: If you’re headed to the shores, don’t expect any sun.
But can I ask you a favor? As the head coach of a U.S. team preparing to compete on the world stage, please raise the bar and go for it, and forget about the importance of remaining realistic.
Americans don’t think in terms of realistic. Never have, never will.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com