The World Cup begins in less than two months, so I've been cramming. (I know soccer well enough to follow it casually for 47 months every quadrennial, then obsessively for the World Cup month.) I was reading USA TODAY Sports's World Cup preview magazine when I came across an amazing quote from U.S. Soccer coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Before we get to the quote, it's important to remember that how Klinsmann will be judged for his performance as the leader of the U.S. soccer establishment goes far beyond how the team does in the World Cup. (Playing in the Group of Death, no one's going to be all that sore if the team craps out this year.) Klinsmann, who won a World Cup as a player in 1990 and transformed German soccer as coach during the 2006 World Cup (where Germany made it to the semis and begged him to keep coaching the team), is here to remake the sport entirely. The United States is widely considered the sleeping giant of international soccer: The amount of talent potentially on hand is overwhelming, if only we could channel it. That requires a whole reworking of not just the national team, but the whole sporting culture.
Klinsmann wants to win games, of course, but in the long term, he's trying to make soccer into a larger part of American culture than it is. There are signs he's succeeding, from the unprecedented level of support from the American Outlaws fan groups -- the Americans are considered likely to have one of the biggest road fan showings in Brazil -- to the overall raised level of enthusiasm and exposure for the sport in recent years. (Mocking soccer from an American perspective might have felt clever 10 years ago; now you just look like an idiot.) But he still has a long way to go, and the key, as with all major societal changes, is youth.
Youth soccer has increased dramatically in recent decades, though I've always suspected that's less because of the game's popularity and more because it's a way for parents to get their kids exercise without ever having to watch them strike out or miss a free throw or get thrown to the ground on a blitz. (As Chuck Klosterman once wrote, "A normal eleven-year-old can play an entire season without placing toe to sphere and nobody would even notice, assuming he or she does a proper job of running about and avoiding major collisions.") But Klinsmann argues that getting kids to play soccer isn't so much the point as much as it is getting the parents -- and specifically the coaches -- out of their way.
Here's his quote, to USA TODAY Sports's David Leon Moore:
"When you talk to coaches and parents, it's very difficult for them sometimes to understand that the kid in soccer is self-taught. Coaches, different from baseball, basketball and American football, with a lot of timeouts and plays and all that stuff, are really just more the inspiration of the whole thing -- the guide, in a certain way. But he's not the decision maker on the field. This is a very different approach. Parents and coaches think they are making the decisions. I tell them, no, you're not making the decision. The decision is made by the kid on the field. So maybe here and there you should just shut up and let the kid figure it out."
This quote, whether Klinsmann means it to be or not, is basically an indictment of American sports culture. We fetishize the coach in this country. We are obsessed with authority figures, someone arriving to take supposedly lackadaisical, unfocused athletes and infusing them with discipline and purpose. When a player gives maximum effort, we don't credit them with it: We credit the person standing off on the sidelines, with a steely glare. The actual demeanor, or the strategy, of the coach doesn't so much matter. You can be a firebrand like Jim Harbaugh, a wonky technocrat like Brad Stevens, a sarcastic smirker like Gregg Popovich, a terrifying formalist like Nick Saban. All of them are fetishized because they have all tamed the mighty beast of Player. When their teams win, it's because of them.
Klinsmann, really, is indicting this culture, one that doesn't work in soccer and probably wouldn't work in many countries other than this one. Klinsmann, obviously, is not a shrinking violet; he likes to have control too. But what he's saying is not that we pamper our athletes too much, which is the most common kneejerk reaction in our sports culture. (I will never understand why we think the people running around and sweating are loafing while the ones paid to supervise them are the ones working hard.) It's that we don't leave them alone enough. The type of soccer player he wants is one that isn't looking to impress a coach, or follow orders. It's one who is passionate about the game enough to want to know everything about it, one who doesn't need to be prodded, one who doesn't instinctively look to the sidelines all the time to see if he's doing everything the way he's supposed to.
He is, essentially, looking for a non-American. He's looking for us to change.
And I think he's absolutely right. For any athlete to reach the highest level, they don't need a coach to push them: To make it to that point, they must push themselves constantly, every day, every minute. The sacrifices the top-tier athlete makes in his/her life are difficult for us regular people to even comprehend. That's enough. They are whom we should be fetishizing. When Klinsmann says, "So maybe here and there you should just shut up and let the kid figure it out" … he's talking about soccer. But not really. He's talking about America. We should listen to him.