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True Grit

Germany's Jürgen Klinsmann is a down-to-earth superstar

You'd heard all the stories about international soccer stars and their breezy contempt for the press: How Paul Gascoigne of England once belched into a live microphone on Italian TV; how European players will demand as much as $10,000 for the favor of an interview; how four months ago Argentine superstar Diego Maradona strafed journalists camped outside his home with pellets from an air gun. Thus to speak with Jürgen Klinsmann, one of the stars of the German national team that won the World Cup in 1990 and will try to win another beginning this week, you make your approach discreetly. You contact the press attachè for the German Soccer Federation, requesting a few minutes of Herr Klinsmann's time, even though Klinsmann is deep into the French first-division season with his club team, AS Monaco.

Before you can ponder what his response might be—a burp? extortion? gunfire?—a handwritten fax comes over the transom, proposing a meeting. "Hello Alex," it begins. "See you, Jürgen," it ends. Soon comes another fax to set the details: "2 p.m. at the Bar S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Brasil next to the Hotel Mirabeau in Monte Carlo. O.K.?"

O.K. But you show up at the appointed time still not certain that this isn't all some too-good-to-be-true trap. That some sinister croupier isn't even now lurking behind that palm tree by the Bar S√£o Brasil, plotting how to relieve you of 10 G's. That this Hotel Mirabeau isn't really a French-fried Hotel California, where you can come by anytime you want, but he will never show. That Klinsmann, if he appears at all, won't turn up in a late-model European sports coupe, tearing around a famously perilous turn in the course of the Grand Prix of Monaco, squealing his tires, scaring you witless.

But Klinsmann pulls up benignly, his blond hair flapping in the Mediterranean breeze. He's piloting neither a Porsche nor a Mercedes but a Volkswagen—and not even the Wolfsburg Edition. It's Herbie the Love Bug gussied up, a cobalt-blue '67 Beetle only three years younger than its driver, with the top down and a Peanuts decal on the dash. Snoopy is in a rowboat, wondering, Ist es noch weit bis Amerika?—Is it much farther to America?

Most soccer superstars are about as approachable as Princess Stephanie, as impenetrable as the Grimaldi Palace and as deep as Philippe Junot. During 90 alfresco minutes that are less an interview than a wide-ranging conversation, you discover how Klinsmann is different. He gives to Greenpeace, visits prisoners in their cells and before games has been known to sing to himself a countercultural hymn from the 1960s, Alle Menschen werden Büdder (All People Will Be Brothers), instead of the German national anthem.

You converse in English. Klinsmann orders in French. Indulging his craving for human contact, he hails a buddy in a passing convertible in German; makes a dinner date with a couple from Como, the lakeside town north of Milan where he owns a home, in Italian; and then charms four vacationers from his native region of Germany by bantering with them in Schwabian dialect. Only when a photographer wonders if Klinsmann might pose at home is he not obliging, for he draws a broad line at his private life.

"I learn everything on the street," he says. "That's how you learn about people and their attitudes. I don't have enough patience to read books, and I can't watch TV. After five minutes I change the channel. After another five minutes I turn it off. I don't do things that involve staying at home. That's why the fax machine is so good for me."

Only Klinsmann's need to make a practice at 4 p.m. ends the conversation. Your penance for having doubted his good faith: You must help him lug two bags of clothes for Bosnian relief from Herbie the Love Bug to AS Monaco's practice compound. In some respects Klinsmann is an unlikely Schwabian, for people from Germany's southwest, where the hills roll green and gentle, are not known for being particularly open-minded. But his longing to be independent and footloose has its roots in his upbringing. Klinsmann grew up watching his parents, Siegfried and Martha, tethered to their bakery in Geislingen, near Stuttgart, where they showed up at five every morning to bake the pretzels for which they were locally famous. Jürgen is trained as an apprentice baker, yet it still gnaws at him that he left high school before earning his Abitur, the degree that allows young Germans to go to a university.

Soccer wrenched him away. As a nine-year-old he scored 16 goals in a game that his youth team won 20-0. Over four seasons as a junior in Geislingen he scored 250 times. Klinsmann, who turned pro at 17 and left school a short time later, played eight pro seasons in the same provincial city, first with the Stuttgart Kickers and then with VfB Stuttgart. When his deal with the latter ran out in 1989, it wasn't a question of whether VfB Stuttgart could come up with the cash to keep him. Klinsmann concluded he had mined his home for all it had to offer him, as an athlete and a person, and chose to sign with the Italian club Inter Milan, for whom he played from 1989 to '91. "Nothing could have kept me from making the switch," he said at the time. "I believe now is the time for me to get to know something new, a new environment, a new task. And I'm not referring to soccer alone. Soccer gave me the unique chance to reach a goal only few attain, especially at my age: to be truly independent."

Even as he nears 30, Klinsmann has remained a sort of European everyteen, the hosteling kind you see with a backpack slung over a shoulder, jamming train stations and museum lobbies. Robbed of a normal youth by a system that indentures soccer prodigies as adolescents, he fills in the gaps whenever he can—and $1.2 million a year can buy quite a variety of rail-pass experiences. "I grew a wish inside me to learn different mentalities, to have different experiences," says Klinsmann, who announced he would retire after the 1992 European Championships and then couldn't bring himself to do so. "You learn your whole life. And though I've already learned a lot of things, if I've realized anything from being abroad for five years, it's that there are so many things I don't know."

He picked up English with the help of a tutor. Italy's all-encompassing soccer culture left him no choice but to learn Italian. In Monte Carlo, where he has played for the last four years, he has been taking French classes. He had read about South Africa and Namibia in the newspapers, but in 1991 he went to both those troubled places because he wanted to see them for himself.

"I wouldn't go to America to watch soccer," Klinsmann was widely quoted as saying after the U.S. successfully bid on the World Cup. "I'd go to get away from it." Which he has done; at 19 he spent a month's vacation in the States. After winning the Cup in 1990 he went to California, where he has friends from San Francisco to San Diego, to chill. On visits to Chicago, where Germany will play its first '94 World Cup game on June 17 against Bolivia, he has caught the Bulls and the White Sox in blissful anonymity.

They are his teachers, each of these places he visits and cultures he immerses himself in, professors at the university he missed out on. In Italy he learned how to revel in the moment, at the same time acquiring an appreciation for the discipline and punctuality for which his native land is known. In Monte Carlo he hasn't looked for an escape from taxes or anything else but for a chance to meet and hang out with the workaday people who make the city run—the shopkeepers and craftsmen and waiters "who do things with their hearts," he says, "not with something in the back of their minds."

The perspective he gets from all these peregrinations shows up again and again, on and around the pitch. In 1987, during a club match between VfB Stuttgart and Bayern München, the referee tossed out a Bayern player after he fouled Klinsmann. When Klinsmann interceded on his opponent's behalf, insisting that the Bayern player had done nothing meriting expulsion, the ref reversed his call. Following Germany's bloody 2-1 defeat of Holland in the '90 World Cup, a match marred by fighting, spitting and ejections from each side, Klinsmann sought out Ruud Gullit, Holland's deadlocked star, to fix him with a hug. After neo-Nazis threatened to disrupt an exhibition between Germany and England scheduled for April 20, Hitler's birthday, Klinsmann spoke out stridently when organizers called it off. "Giving in to bully boys and political extremists is always wrong," he said. "Don't people ever learn the lessons of history?"

"In Holland people hate Germans and German soccer," says Mart Smeets, a broadcaster with Dutch national TV. "And we have a saying here: There's only one good German—Jürgen Klinsmann."

Yet for someone who so clearly sees a world beyond soccer, the game is remarkably important. Klinsmann lets go with Latin exuberance after scoring a goal. He's unable to talk to anyone for at least 30 minutes following a match. AS Monaco practices at a mountaintop training center in La Turbie, just over the border in France; when his Teutonic perfectionism outstrips his skill, Klinsmann sometimes blows off his frustration with a big kick, sending the ball spilling down the hillside, a souvenir in search of some young fan. Arsene Wenger, the AS Monaco coach, laughs at the notion that Klinsmann is a dilettante too worldly to throw himself fully into a game.

This isn't to say Klinsmann is an angel. German players are notorious for trying to draw a foul by going down with Sturm und Drang, only to motor merrily along moments later. On April 27, in a European Cup semifinal in Milan, Klinsmann took a dive to frame an AC Milan defender who wound up being ejected. The Times of London likened his performance to "the death scene from Camille" and called on authorities to fine and suspend him for so shamelessly hoodwinking the referee. Yet to Klinsmann there was a sort of justice to it all, for as Monaco's only scoring threat he had been kicked, tripped and gouged throughout the game his team lost 3-0. "These sorts of fouls only happen when someone is scared," he would say. "If not, they wouldn't do it. It's a kind of weakness, you know?"

Yet there is a kind of innocence to the way Klinsmann roots around the field. Children are drawn to him, perhaps because his style of play is so childlike: explosive, impetuous, with an air of discovery. He might score by using his speed to dash up the touchline or by contorting himself in front of the goal into a shape his parents might bake. In Italy he's known as Kataklinsmann, for the consequences that seem to ensue every time he and the ball meet. "I live a lot by my instincts on the field," he says. "I never know what I'll do the next moment. But the other team doesn't know either."

In March, Klinsmann scored both goals, each sensationally, in a 2-1 exhibition victory over Italy that confirmed Germany's role as the World Cup favorite. He was named MVP of last summer's U.S. Cup, which Germany also won, and his inspired play over the past year led one German newspaper to declare recently that Klinsmann has "fallen in love with soccer for the second time."

If you were looking for someone to induce America to fall in love with soccer or to make Germany more lovable to the world, Klinsmann would be a perfect choice. But he rarely does anyone else's bidding. He negotiates his own contracts, a quirk that caused one Italian agent to harrumph that the German star signs deals shortchanging himself by 80%.

Klinsmann's contract with AS Monaco is up, and he doesn't rule out returning to Italy. According to press reports, Sampdoria of Genoa has offered him $4.5 million for next season. "I will play the next two years in Europe, through the 1996 European Championships," he says. "After that, anything is possible."

Yet Italy is a course he has already taken and passed. Among the soccer subjects he hasn't yet studied are England and Spain; and there's Japan, too, where the game is booming and the culture would fascinate him. Of course there's also that destination Snoopy is so determinedly headed to. By 1995, Major League Soccer is supposed to be off the flowcharts and spreadsheets and running in the U.S. A 32- or 33-year-old Klinsmann could give the fledgling league a goose for a few seasons, in the same way aging internationals like Pelè and Giorgio Chinaglia took the North American Soccer League in the '70s to a height it ultimately fell from.

After that, he says, "I'd like to work with people, work with my languages. And I'd have a lot of fun working with kids. If you know something like that, please tell me."

With Klinsmann, always a conversation, never an interview.






Klinsmann's heady play of late led to talk that he had "fallen in love with soccer for the second time."



Klinsmann motors around Monaco in a Beetle whose beagle hints of new continents to conquer.



Though he has lived in ritzy Monte Carlo for four years, Klinsmann has kept his feet on the ground.