Is this Britain's favourite German?

Jurgen Klinsmann can expect a warm welcome when he returns to English stadiums. Guy Hodgson on an unlikely case of mutual admiration
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The Independent Online
England would probably have the good sense not to let their most high-profile player loose at such a function, but the mind wandered over what Paul Gascoigne's response would have been had he been asked to send a message to the host city in an important tournament. A belch possibly. Or worse.

Jurgen Klinsmann took it in his measured and elegant stride. "We feel privileged to play in such a magnificent stadium," he said of Old Trafford as Germany launched a goodwill exercise to win over Manchester. The fact that he had been trusted to launch the charm offensive almost single-handedly spoke volumes.

Klinsmann, off the field, is the model of how you would want a football professional to behave. Modest, educated and polite he will probably be the most prominent Continental at Euro 96. Popular, too, after last season's spell with Tottenham Hotspur dispelled several myths. Indeed, take away Alan Sugar's antipathy, and you could say he will be universally welcomed.

The feeling appears to be mutual. There were several strange threads about the German captain's move from White Hart Lane to Bayern Munich - and we are not just talking about his autographed Spurs shirt that popular belief would have is currently buffing up Sugar's motor - but the oddest seems to be the player's genuine affection for the club.

"I do miss playing in the English Premier League," he said. "I was lucky to have players like Teddy Sheringham, Nicky Barmby and Darren Anderton working so hard on my behalf. It was a pleasure to play in that team. I left Tottenham because I wanted to take this chance of playing for a title again. But at Munich I didn't enjoy the team spirit I'd had at Tottenham. I missed that."

Given that Klinsmann could give lessons in tact to a seasoned diplomat, his description of the problems at Bayern imply that the club was close to tearing itself apart as they let Borussia Dortmund overtake them to claim the German title. Even in the build-up to the Uefa Cup final, which they won, beating Bordeaux, Bayern sacked the manager, Otto Rehhagel. To put it mildly, Klinsmann's return to his homeland passed off less than quietly.

As the club captain, Lothar Matthaus, put it: "Too many people put their personal demands first and performance second." Indeed, relations between the two players became so strained that at one point Matthaus suggested they should air out their differences in a television debate. Klinsmann laughed off the suggestion. Recently Matthaus, in a magazine interview, blamed Klinsmann for being dropped from the national team after a record 122 appearances, allegations which both Klinsmann and Berti Vogts, the national coach, rubbish. While Klinsmann is more circumspect, the depth of the problems still seep through.

"There were lots of problems between players," he said, "and lots of problems between players and the manager. In the championship we were never able to concentrate day by day, there was always a new problem to discuss and solve. I was thinking: 'What's going on here, what's it all about?' I told the club and I told the players they should concentrate on the main things: training and games. Not all this crap.

"By the end it was almost impossible to calm things down and the club decided to sack the manager. Franz Beckenbauer, the club president, took over and altered things immediately. From one second to the next the atmosphere changed. Thanks to him we won the Uefa Cup. All season I was saying to myself, 'it's all worth it if there's a title at the end of it', so thank God we won in Europe."

With Rehhagel gone and the Italian, Giovanni Trapattoni, with whom he also won the Uefa Cup with Internazionale in 1991, arriving in his place, Klinsmann has pledged himself to Bayern until 1998. "It's not in my mind to leave," he said. "I've started something and I want to finish it. Also I need to know if I can live in Germany after my career ends. I haven't found the answer to that yet and I don't want to leave with that question unresolved."

By 1998 he will be 33 and possibly too old for a German team which has a strong emphasis on youth. Which means his last chance internationally to add to his World Cup winners' medal of 1990 could be Euro 96 and it is one, given his country's record of two wins and two runners-up places, Germany are quite capable of achieving.

"I think we are among the favourites," he said. "After the last World Cup, in which Germany lost to Bulgaria in the quarter-finals, we were in a difficult situation. We were heavily criticised and so was Berti Vogts. But we've made a lot of changes - I think there are 10 new players in the squad - and we have a blend of youth and more experienced players like myself, Thomas Hassler and Andy Moller.

"For a year and a half we've tried a new tactic, pushing up the defence to put the other teams under pressure. It's been successful in away friendlies against the Netherlands and Portugal and it's better for us strikers, because we get more support from the midfield.

"We have a very strong side because we not only have individual players but we have a good team spirit again. Maybe the team spirit we didn't have in the World Cup."

Klinsmann, the scorer of nine goals in 10 matches during qualification, is suspended for Germany's first match in Euro 96 and that fixture, he believes, will be the most difficult in Group C. "Our record against Italy and Russia is good but we have not done so well against the Czechs. Also Germany tend to get better as a tournament goes on.

"The Czech side do not have outstanding individuals but they are very strong collectively. I cannot play but more importantly neither can Steffan Freund, who is very powerful in midfield. The first game is always important, because everything is built on your start."

Germany's opening has included donating team shirts to the mayor and mayoress of Manchester and to invite Bert Trautmann, the illustrious former Manchester City goalkeeper, to be guest of honour for the tournament. Even our beef has been given approval, and the German team will be eating British steak.

It is a good start and things, you suspect, will only get better. Klinsmann lifting the European Championship trophy is more than feasible, it is highly likely and, if he does, you cannot imagine a more erudite captain if he does.

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