SAN FRANCISCO – Berti Vogts gazed skyward on Sunday at the top deck of Candlestick Park, mulling the fate of the soon-to-be demolished former cathedral of American sports.
“The history,” he said, professing, without being prompted, his appreciation for Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers. “The history.”
The German legend is also known for history. He won both a World Cup and a European Championship as a pit-bull defender, then coached Germany to the Euro 1996 title on the back of a veteran striker named Jurgen Klinsmann.
But his current role is about the immediate future: helping to prepare the US national team for its World Cup run in Brazil. The 67-year-old Vogts is serving as a special advisor to Klinsmann, helping the former student-turned-master in his preparation for coaching the Americans in one of the most difficult groups at the tournament.
And for the first time since his hiring was announced in late March – the same day former USMNT assistant coach Martin Vasquez's reassignment was announced – US Soccer's International Man of Mystery spoke to American media about his role with the federation.
“I’m not a coach,” Vogts was quick to point out. “Maybe Jurgen [has] some questions for me about special things. I give him a clear answer. That is my part.”
Vogts’ appeal to the US camp is clear. He has a history with Klinsmann dating back to the early 1980s, when the now-USMNT coach was a youth international in the West German set-up. But for the past seven years, he’s been the head coach of Azerbaijan, whom the US will face in their first send-off friendly here on Tuesday (10 pm ET, ESPN2/UniMas).
In that role, he has first-hand knowledge of the three teams the US will face in Group G play in Brazil. Both Portugal and Germany were in Azerbaijan’s group in their ultimately futile 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. Vogts also coached Nigeria for two years, and has seen Ghana up close and personal.
His role with the US Soccer federation calls for him to do even more extensive advance scouting of the USMNT's World Cup foes. And Klinsmann is putting his former coach to work as the tournament nears.
Following Tuesday’s match, Vogts will return to Germany, then drive to Rotterdam to watch Ghana face the Netherlands on Saturday. On Sunday, he’ll head back to Germany to watch Die Mannschaft face Cameroon in Mönchengladbach. Then it’s back to the States to scout Portugal’s match vs. Mexico at Gillette Stadium on June 6.
Then he’ll meet up with Klinsmann & Co. in Jacksonville for the US’ final send-off match vs. Nigeria a day later. Following that, he’ll stay in Florida for another two days to again see Ghana play South Korea on June 9 at Miami’s SunLife Stadium.
The Nigeria match, in particular, will make for interesting viewing, said Vogts. In his view, the Super Eagles play a fast and physical style similar to Ghana’s, and the game will serve as excellent preparation for the USMNT’s opener in Natal on June 16. Like many observers, Vogts sees the Group G opener as paramount for the US side.
"The most important thing is this match against Ghana,” he said. "That’s the most important thing. But first, the USA has to play against Azerbaijan."
And that makes for an odd scenario on Tuesday, one that some might see as a conflict of interest: two old friends making a convenient arrangement; a coach leading his team into a friendly against a team coached by the other, then switching sides immediately afterward.
Vogts acknowledged he was doing Klinsmann a favor and that it might be unorthodox, but said he had the full support of the Azerbaijani federation for the trip to California.
"It's a friendly,” he said. “It's a natural match. It's not a match about two friends. It's a match of Azerbaijan-USA. Azerbaijan inhabitants [are] about 8 million, and maybe 4 million are waiting for the match against the big USA."
It also serves his own purposes: Vogts noted he’ll be in Brazil to see Italy and Croatia as well, two of the teams Azerbaijan will face in Euro 2016 qualifying. The former Soviet republic has never qualified for a World Cup or a European Championship.
As for Tuesday, Vogts said he would not line up his Azerbaijan team according to any tactical requests from Klinsmann.
“First, I'm the national coach for Azerbaijan,” he said. “We’re very proud to play here against the United States. Azerbaijan is a very, very small country. All of Azerbaijan is looking forward for this match. It's a huge match for Azerbaijan, and I hope the match also will help the United States."
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.