In June 1994, Andrew Anthony of The Guardian wrote an article titled ‘Why I Hate Jürgen Klinsmann.’ A few months later he wrote a follow-up article, called ‘Why I Love Jürgen Klinsmann.’ This alone neatly summarises the German striker’s impact on English football. Put plainly, no other foreign player had as immense an impact, in such a short period of time, as Jürgen Klinsmann did.
There were others who existed concurrently that would go on to carve their own legendary status for British clubs, players like Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel, but Klinsmann was the first superstar signing of the Premier League era from the continent. Here was a player who had already won trophies, leagues, and even a World Cup. He was the scorer of 168 goals in 388 appearances in three different countries, for heavyweight teams such as Monaco and Internazionale. He may already have turned 30 years old, and only arrived for a modest £2 million, but this was a huge signing for both Tottenham and the Premier League.
There was a bit of a problem, however. Much to the distaste of the British media, Klinsmann possessed a perceived tendency for diving. There were a number of high-profile incidents; one in the European Cup semi-final, where an admittedly wild challenge from Milan’s Alessandro Costacurta didn’t actually touch Klinsmann and, more infamously, there was what took place in the 1990 World Cup final between West Germany and Argentina.
A notably ugly game of football saw Pedro Monzón become the first player in World Cup history to be sent off in a final after a dangerous, lunging tackle on Klinsmann. The salmon-esque leap into the air with impressive hang-time by the German striker was undeniably dramatic but earning him a reputation of being “beyond dispute the most notorious con-artist the game has ever known” was a slightly dramatic reaction to the incident. It was always a charge Klinsmann refuted: ‘If he didn’t make contact with me. How come I had a 15-centimetre gash in my shin?”
That World Cup in Italy played a significant part in why the British tabloids were already so against Klinsmann, prior to his arrival at White Hart Lane in 1994. There was the diving, which no self-respecting Englishman could tolerate, but there was also the role Jürgen played in knocking the most beloved of England teams out at the semi-final stage. Although he didn’t score against the Three Lions, his part in that West German side meant the odds of succeeding in England were stacked against him. It had been only been four years after all; the nation was still in mourning. Whatever happened during his time in North London, he was always going to be disliked by many. But, as it turned out, all the Golden Bomber needed was 90 minutes and a joke to win over the British public.
Klinsmann was a combative, all-action striker; a whirlwind of era-appropriate hair — it was the 90s after all — who was capable of scoring sensational volleys, calculated finishes and powerful headers. His signature sloping run masked a surprising pace and he wasn’t afraid to get stuck in and battle with defenders. He was a consistent assist-provider for his striking partners and expertly clinical inside the 18-yard box. He brought all that and more for his debut at Hillsborough; scoring the winning goal, a stunning header at the back post, a typical goal of this prolific forward’s. The cross by Anderton was good, if a little behind his teammate, meaning Klinsmann had to contort and use his neck muscles to power the ball past the Wednesday keeper. For any aficionado of headed goals, this was a particularly pleasing effort.
But if that was good, then his celebration was iconic. Turning away from the rippled net with his arms aloft, he ran towards the side of the pitch, stoking the crowd before throwing himself to the floor in mock simulation. “And the German opens his account, with a dive!” roared the commentator. Klinsmann wouldn’t complete his first 90 minutes in a Tottenham shirt, that day. Not one to shy away from rough challenges, he left the pitch after a clash of heads with a Sheffield Wednesday defender, thus completing the holy trifecta of football in the eyes an English football fan of winning over the English: goals, humour, and getting stuck in.
That dive at Hillsborough was a continuation of humility by Klinsmann. Aware of how the media viewed him through critical eyes, the former Stuttgart man used his press unveiling to make light of his reputation. “To begin with, I have a question for you… is there a diving school in London?” Well, this was terrible news for the assembled journalists. Time to extinguish the torches and hide the pitchforks because, as it goes, the new bloke they were intent on hating actually seems pretty alright.
The idea for the celebration came from Teddy Sheringham and was the start of the unlikeliest of lethal partnerships between the two strikers. Sheringham: famously a fan of Page Three Girls, Ferraris and boozy nights out in Essex. On the other hand, Jürgen liked Volkswagen Beetles and sampling espressos in Hampstead. Nevertheless, the pair formed a prolific forward partnership for Ardiles’ side, plundering 53 goals between them.
They were two cogs forming a famous five; an assorted mish-mash of talent assembled by Spurs legend Ossie Ardiles. Completing the quintet were Nick Barmby, Darren Anderton and Ilie Dumitrescu. On their day, Tottenham could be breathtaking. But Ardiles was far too naïve a manager and struggled to match his managerial capabilities to his playing days at the club. He didn’t make it to November. His successor, Gerry Francis, overhauled the team’s tactics. Klinsmann didn’t stop scoring, but Spurs still remained frustratingly inconsistent finishing in a disappointing seventh place in the Premier League and crashing out in the semi-finals of the FA Cup. This wasn’t enough for a notoriously ambitious Jürgen Klinsmann.
That ambition often meant he was a misunderstood figure. A reputation as a diver in England but regarded as arrogant in Germany. “One of the reasons he wasn’t so revered and loved is that he travelled a lot — he played in Italy and England and so on, and he was always very much his own man.” According to German journalist Uli Hesse, “Someone like [Rudi] Völler is a regular guy, whereas I wouldn’t say Klinsmann was aloof, but he was a bit of an intellectual, a bit of a free thinker. People tend to view such people with suspicion.”
You can’t really blame the World Cup winner; it was clear he was unlikely to win any trophies at White Hart Lane with his ambitious nature leading to the former baker insisting on a one-year get-out clause during his negotiations with a pre-Sir Alan Sugar, then chairman of his boyhood club. Klinsmann was very vocal about his love for England, Tottenham Hotspur and in particular English fans: “In England, you run 20 mph automatically because of the crowd. You have a lot more drive from them to give it all you have got.” But that wasn’t enough for him.
Recognising that his Spurs side were in need but unlikely to get the necessary reinforcements to challenge for the title, he announced his departure for Bayern Munich with one month left of the season, devastating fans and prompting a furious Alan Sugar to throw a signed Klinsmann shirt at a devious reporter, claiming he wouldn’t wash his car with it. It was a bittersweet end to a passionate love affair, but a single season and 29 goals would ensure Jürgen Klinsmann’s place in Tottenham’s and the Premier League’s Hall of Fame.
The Spurs hero would grace the hallowed turf in North London again, in the 1997/98 season, but persistent injuries meant it wasn’t quite the same. His return brought goals, helping to save Tottenham from relegation, and included a stunning afternoon at Selhurst Park made memorable by a four-goal haul against Wimbledon in a 6-2 win. It was Klinsmann’s final stint at the top level of European football; a romantic swansong before retirement.
Klinsmann was a landmark signing in the Premier League and even he himself recognised this: “When I came to England, there was Cantona but there really were few foreigners. I don’t know if I was a pioneer, but word spread out and soon you had Gullit, Zola, Bergkamp, Vialli. It was an exciting time. I played with some of those guys and I was able to tell them ‘this is cool, this is special’ and soon they came.”
Soon they did come. Compare the modern-day incarnation of the Premier League to its 1992 debut and it is almost unrecognisable. Much like Klinsmann did then, the Premier League now has a bit of a reputation. Notorious for offering monstrous transfer fees and paying enormous wages to the brightest and best talent from across the footballing globe, the blonde-haired assassin from Stuttgart was the first in a long line of foreign superstars to grace England’s top league.
Stigma and unfair reputations about players from overseas still exist but pale in comparison to what it once was. Klinsmann’s arrival at Tottenham helped alter false perceptions and shatter stereotypes, helping shape football in this country for decades to come. It was a brief but unforgettable lesson in changing attitudes and no player will ever have an impact in the Premier League like Jürgen Klinsmann did.
By Matthew Gibbs @MatthewIeuan