Charles Boehm is covering the USMNT and the World Cup for Gothamist from Brazil for the duration of the tournament. He has covered MLS and the American soccer scene since 2004, contributing to MLSSoccer.com, The Soccer Wire, and USSoccerPlayers.com.
MANAUS, Brazil - The ball had barely stopped rolling in the U.S. national team's 2-2 World Cup draw with Portugal when the collusion questions began to fly at Jurgen Klinsmann.
It started with the first question at the German-American coach's postgame press conference: “The next game against Germany, each of the teams will go through with a draw. Do we expect a next Gijon there?”
Klinsmann patiently and thoroughly answered the query. But it was rephrased again a few minutes later, and yet again further on in the 12-minute conference when it was suggested that Jochim Low, the current Germany coach who was Klinsmann's assistant when he led the three-time world champions during the 2006 World Cup, might call him up and say, “Let's just play a draw” when Germany and the U.S. face off in Recife on Thursday.
Clearly the idea being broached was widespread and deeply held among the multinational congregation of journalists in the windowless room underneath Arena Amazonia.
Klinsmann is German, the logic goes—never mind that he's lived in California for nearly two decades and is paid a princely sum to lead the U.S. program to new heights. He's good friends with Low. Several of the U.S. players play club soccer in Germany. And qualification to the knockout stage is what matters most. So why not agree on a “friendly draw” that suits all parties—though butting out Portugal and Ghana - and perhaps saves a bit of energy for the next round?
“I don’t think that we are made for draws, really, except if it happens like tonight—a late goal in the last seconds,” said Klinsmann, who kept remarkable composure despite the ugly undertone of the topic.
“I think both teams go into this game and they want to win the group. We want to go into this game, recover fast and go at Germany, get three points and have seven points on our side and be in the driver’s seat for the round of 16. That is our goal.”
U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati was markedly less patient when he answered more such questions in the mixed zone following the press conference.
“[Klinsmann] answered it about 35 times upstairs. Let me answer it real quick,” said Gulati, who reminded a foreign reporter that his team staged gutsy late comebacks to end the World Cup hopes of Costa Rica in 2009 and Panama last year, even though the U.S. had already qualified for those tournaments.
“That may have been the mentality of 1982. It's not the mentality of the U.S. team,” he added. “It's not the mentality of the U.S., full stop. We want to win the game to control finishing top of the group. So it's just not going to happen.”
To anyone lacking a deep knowledge of World Cup history, the whole line of questioning might have sounded a bit baffling. But the debate traces back to one of the most infamous chapters in the tournament's 84 years of existence, a group-stage game between West Germany and Austria in Gijon, Spain on June 25, 1982.
Upstarts Algeria had knocked off West Germany in their first game, lost to Austria, then defeated Chile before the Germans and Austrians met in the group's final match. Germany had to win to advance past Algeria, while Austria could get through simply by losing by a small margin.
So after Horst Hrubesch's 12th-minute goal put West Germany up 1-0, the game gradually slowed to a snail's pace, with both sides having clearly realized that this scoreline would suit all parties. A couple of younger players still tried their best to score, but most just lazily stroked passes back to their defenders to kill time.
Catching on quickly to what was happening, the crowd erupted in boos and jeers. Some tried to rush the field afterward and were truncheoned by police. Algerians in attendance waved money at the players, a few even burning the bills in disgust. A German fan burned his own country's flag.
One German television commentator called it “simply shameful,” while one of his English counterparts described it as “one of the most disgraceful international matches I've ever seen.”
While observers of "the German-Austrian non-attacking pact" were scandalized, the participants were unrepentant.
“Naturally today's game was played tactically,” said Austrian official Hans Tschak, before launching a jaw-dropping rant at the aggrieved Algerians. “But if 10,000 'sons of the desert' here in the stadium want to trigger a scandal because of this, it just goes to show that they have too few schools. Some sheikh comes out of an oasis, is allowed to get a sniff of World Cup air after 300 years and thinks he's entitled to open his gob.”
The tawdry incident prompted FIFA to change its scheduling procedures so that the final matches of each World Cup group kicked off at the same time, so no team could be sure of the other game's result before playing their own.
But deep cynicism lingers, as Klinsmann and his players experienced Sunday night.
“You’re talking about a game that is decades away, that is only part of Germany’s history and not the United States',” said Klinsmann. “The United States is known to give everything they have in every single game. If you look at the past, we made things happen, otherwise Mexico wouldn’t be here or that last World Cup when we did the same thing.
“We have that fighting spirit and that energy, that determination to do well in every single game. So, we’re going to go into Recife very ambitious, with a lot of confidence to beat Germany. This is our goal. Then we’ll see what happens on the field.”
By Charles Boehm