Football: The making of a meister

Tottenham's striking revival is spearheaded by a German who has risen a bove English football's sleaze mentality
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The Independent Online
AND THE HITS just keep on coming in this season of sleaze. For the latest on that, please turn to other pages, for this is a tale of dignified demeanour and the highest of standards. In a piece of revisionism not seen since Seventies pop music became trendy again, English football has reappraised Jurgen Klinsmann; one newspaper columnist even suggested last week that Manchester United should take him on loan, just for an afternoon, to give Eric Cantona a lesson in deportment.

"Really?" says Klinsmann with a quiet laugh. "I think he knows exactly what he did and what he needs to do to get himself better under control. He has to take the first steps in his own improvement."

Klinsmann's star has risen as Cantona's has waned, while other foreign players have encountered the realities of a British winter. Bryan Roy has lacked panache of late; gone is Ilie Dumitrescu; injured are Philippe Albert and Daniel Amokachi; Dan Petrescu and Stefan Schwarz have been dropped.

Cosmopolitan and metropolitan, Klinsmann has found the change comfortable with an open-mindedness off the field and a bounding enthusiasm on it all the more laudable from a player who has nothing left to prove to world football, whose greatest prize he has won.

Last week at freezing, forbidding Roker Park he warmed to the challenge of an FA Cup tie against Sunderland, prompting the Tottenham manager to cite him as a model professional, to be followed by England's new technical co-ordinator Don Howe wondering ifhe might be recruited to coach youngsters. Then came BBC television's flattering, but accurate, profile.

All this from Der Deutscher Diver, who helped break English hearts at Italia '90. To anyone who saw his performance for Germany against Holland in Milan that year, however, his integrity as a player has never been in doubt. His unselfish display after Rudi Voller had been sent off and he was left to carry the burden of attack is an example of the heights a striker can attain.

"I was honestly surprised by this reputation as a diver," he says. "I ask people `tell me a dive'. They say, `Milan v Monaco last year'. But this was a horrible one. Costacurta left three stripes in my calf so long. He had to be sent off immediately.

"I just said to myself when I came to England, if I do my job in the same way as when I went to Italy and France, if I convince the people of my way of playing, always give 100 per cent and score my goals, then I was sure people would see what kind of player I am and they would accept me."

Klinsmann is energetic, mobile, audacious with the goal in sight, generous in distribution to team-mates when it is not. Such is more than acceptable in a brand of football that forgives mistakes but not dishonesty of motive or effort.

It was Gunter Netzer, in the BBC profile, who said that Klinsmann was not technically a brilliant player - the ball can bobble off him and seemingly simple chances be spurned - but one who will always score through industry and persistence.

"It is right the game is quicker here and that provokes more mistakes. But it is a lot of fun for the spectators and the players," he says. It has been well said that Klinsmann has put that less used, more welcome, F-word back into football.

He is, he says, less of a perfectionist than he once was, though he still needs an hour after a game to calm himself. "My team-mates used to wonder what was going on with me. I was in such a state of tension but, no, it didn't happen that I wanted to react like Cantona." He does though, have sympathy for the Frenchman, beyond the apparent support of a coaching programme he helped with last year in which his pronunciation rendered his observation on volleying as: "It's fun hitting wallies."

"If someone offends you very badly, you get a red card that you feel was not one and everybody is against you. I just think the FA should try to get into his mind." He has the same understanding for referees: "I don't know if I would be able to decide ifthis was a penalty or not. With Bosnich at Aston Villa last week, it was only when I saw it on TV that I realised the referee was 40 yards behind it. He didn't see how the goalkeeper actually hit me. Now he has seen it on TV perhaps he would think: `Oh my God, I have to send him off.' "

While Alan Shearer, whom Klinsmann opposes today when Blackburn visit White Hart Lane, is England's nearest to such a complete striker, there remain lessons for him to learn from a man who wears No 18, perhaps because he has been a centre- forward of double value to a Tottenham side in need of an inspirational character as well as a goalscorer. That calm attitude is one quality, as Shearer's remonstration with the referee in midweek illustrated.

As sub-plot today, there is the question, with Terry Venables announcing his England squad tomorrow for the match against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin on Wednesday week, of whether Chris Sutton or Teddy Sheringham would be the best partner for Shearer.

"Shearer has all kinds of abilities," says the meister. "He is always going for goal. You can see that in his movements. When he sees himself in a good position he seems to know exactly what he wants to do." Yes, he could play in Italy, says Klinsmann, who offers once piece of advice: check the quality of the midfield players of any prospective club. "If they serve you well, you do well."

The Premiership leaders will encounter a Tottenham team much changed in attitude if not personnel from the one that subsided to a 2-0 defeat at Ewood Park in the limbo before Gerry Francis replaced Ossie Ardiles. It heralded Klinsmann's only fallow period at a time when he was also unused to the demands of a Christmas and New Year programme.

Now he believes he and the team have completed the transition. "I never have problems in handling different managers," he says. "I liked Ossie and his style; it was just that we made individual mistakes. But maybe there was a problem that he changed the back four after every game. Gerry said: `I will have the same four for a while to try and improve with them.' They had the time to get better organised and more competitive. That improved the whole situation in a couple of weeks."

It is all but impossible to depart Klinsmann's company without a favourable impression, but clearly he is not too nice to be a penalty-box predator. Just as Gary Lineker once said that he swore only the other week, so Klinsmann says: "Yes, I swear a lot.But the advantage is that having played abroad I can choose a different language from the referee's."

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