GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Ask Mexican soccer fans what they know about Jurgen Klinsmann, and the answer will unavoidably include memories of the Mexico-Germany game at the 1998 World Cup.
El Tri were up 1-0, playing quite beautifully and a quarter-hour from booking a date in the quarterfinals. Then Mexican defender Raúl Lara failed to trap a long ball. Klinsmann, the ultimate predator, swooped and scored. It ended up being the German legend’s last goal at the international level and the rest, as they say, is history — Germany scored a late goal and Mexico were stunningly eliminated.
“It was the worst,” laughed Miguel García, editor of Guadalajara sports daily Récord, in recounting that game to MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. “But you have to recognize a player that had the ability to single-handedly change games.”
Klinsmann’s new post as coach of the US national team opens a new chapter in the US-Mexico rivalry, and there could be no more apt start than a clásico against Mexico next week in Philadelphia.
“Without any doubt, he will be able to do something great with the United States,” Luis Hernández, Mexico’s lone scorer in that fateful ‘98 match, told FutbolMLS.com
South of the Border, the media response to the hiring has been largely positive, with most pundits believing turning to Klinsmann was the right choice.
“Klinsmann is a coach that, from using his experience as a player, can add a lot to the United States,” Guadalajara-based soccer journalist Jesús Hernández told MLSsoccer.com.
Although the overriding opinion of the US appointing Klinsmann has been positive in the Mexican press, respected Milenio columnist Rafael Ocampo bucked that trend.
“The Americans decided to break their super-conservative method that was based on giving opportunities to home-grown coaches,” wrote Ocampo on last week. “But they’ve resorted to a person that has no championships and two failures as a coach.”
He added: “I believe that Mexico — right now — is one step ahead.”
Klinsmann has also been on Mexico’s radar since that 1998 match, most noticeably as one of the potential coaches of the country’s national team.
“He was one of the first names mentioned after [Ricardo] La Volpe,” García recalled of the aftermath of the 2006 World Cup, in which Klinsmann made a star turn in guiding the invigorated host nation to a third-place finish. “It came out that he had one of the profiles [the Mexican federation] liked. Chivas even considered him.”
Mexico eventually went with another foreigner, Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson, in 2008. The choice ended up being an unmitigated disaster because of — so said the conventional wisdom — vast differences in the soccer culture between Europe and Mexico.
“It won’t be the same [with Klinsmann],” said García. “The US protect their people well. He won’t be alone.”
Added Hernández, “Klinsmann has been an advisor with LA Galaxy and Toronto FC. And he's lived a long time in California, so I don't think it'll be the same as with Eriksson.”
Klinsmann’s comments on Monday that the Mexican national team is currently superior to the US have also been taken with a pinch of salt down south. After their crushing triumph in this summer’s Gold Cup, Mexico rose to No. 9 in the FIFA rankings at the end of June, up from No. 28 in May where they were surprisingly six places behind the United States.
“Mexico has won two [Gold Cup] finals, but they are just two games,” stated García, “and in the first [in 2009], the US played with a depleted squad. People are quick to forget that in the Confederations Cup, the US beat Spain and were very close to beating Brazil in the final.”
At Monday’s press conference in New York City introducing the 47-year-old Klinsmann, the naturalized American living in Southern California also said he would be looking to attract Latinos to the US national team, many of whom could also play for other countries.
“We want to dig into the Latin community and we want to get those kids,” he said in an interview with CNN, “and we don't want them to go back to their home countries. We want them to become real American players.”
The 22-man squad Klinsmann named on Thursday certainly suggests he’s not afraid to go after that element, with the inclusion of Mexican-schooled US internationals like José Francisco Torres, Michael Orozco Fiscal and Edgar Castillo.
All three had flirted with suiting up for the Mexican national team — Castillo actually did play for El Tri before switching eligibilities — and that’s a fight Klinsmann ostensibly intends to assume head on with other players coming down the pipeline.
Reports from South of the Border indicate Mexican clubs are increasingly interested in tapping dual-national talent from their northern neighbor. Mexican passport-holders born in the United States are not considered foreigners by the Mexican federation and are thus extremely attractive.
Last month, US veteran and current Estudiantes Tecos striker Herculez Gomez told MLSsoccer.com of his fears that Latinos are “falling through the cracks” in the US system. Club Tijuana this week came out with their plan to become a “regional” club, explicitly stating that their region includes Southern California. Tijuana already have soccer coaching schools north of the border, as do many Mexican clubs.
“A new coach means a new beginning,” 19-year-old Tigres UANL youth product Moisés Orozco told MLSsoccer.com this week, "and I have a great feeling that things are going to go well.”
The promising US U-20 international Orozco, born just north of Los Angeles, is one of more than 10 youth players at Tigres with American passports and is part of the demographic to which Klinsmann is keen to reach out. Klinsmann’s status as a legend of the game and stated desire, at his first opportunity, to incorporate more Latinos in the US youth system can only be a positive thing, and Orozco’s comment highlights the pull “Klinsi” may have.
The rivalry over dual nationals is only one aspect of the US-Mexico rivalry. Next week’s game is the next chapter. It’s billed as a friendly, but is, of course, anything but. That it’s Klinsmann’s first game in charge only adds to the importance of the match. Try telling Mexico the result is meaningless.
“We hope he has a bad debut,” said Tri legend Hernández with a smirk.
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter: @mexicoworldcup