What Klinsmann brings to S. Korea as new head coach: cachet, pedigree, question marks

February 27, 2023

When reports out of Germany and South Korea claimed last week that Jurgen Klinsmann, a German football icon and World Cup champion, was close to being named South Korean men’s head coach, dedicated supporters of the Taegeuk Warriors dug up some old dirt on the former striker.

In an autobiography published in 2011, Bayern Munich captain Phillip Lahm criticized Klinsmann, who’d coached the Bundesliga club from 2008 to 2009, for his uninspiring tenure. Lahm wrote that Klinsmann offered precious little technical instruction while overemphasizing fitness. The players were forced to hold their own pre-match meetings to discuss strategies, Lahm claimed.

Klinsmann’s detractors pointed to that bit of his past history, and the fact that he hasn’t coached a national team for over six years, to argue the 58-year-old wasn’t fit for the South Korean job.

Those naysayers will have to live with Klinsmann being on the South Korean bench for a while, after the Korea Football Association (KFA) announced Klinsmann’s appointment on Monday. Klinsmann is signed through the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

There’s no disputing Klinsmann’s credentials as a player. He is regarded as one of the all-time greats, having led West Germany to the 1990 FIFA World Cup title. He is the first player to score at least three goals at three consecutive World Cups. Klinsmann is easily the biggest name to ever take the South Korean reins.

As a coach, however, he has had decidedly mixed results.

He coached hosts Germany to third place at the 2006 World Cup and won the CONCACAF Gold Cup with the United States in 2013. But the U.S. got knocked out of the round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup, and Klinsmann was sacked in November 2016 with the Americans sitting at the bottom of their regional qualification table. They ultimately failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Klinsmann has had even less success coaching clubs. He didn’t even last a year with Bayern Munich. In November 2019, Klinsmann became the new coach for Hertha BSC but resigned just 10 weeks later after apparent power struggles with the club’s management.

Tactical acumen will be one of the question marks Klinsmann will have to answer during his tenure here. He will get two early cracks at it next month, as South Korea will host Colombia on March 24 and Uruguay on March 28 in friendly matches during the next FIFA window.

The Taegeuk Warriors have had their share of foreign nationals in charge, including Klinsmann’s predecessor from Portugal, Paulo Bento, and the majority of them didn’t leave on good terms.

Bento is one of just two foreign head coaches to guide South Korea to the knockouts at a FIFA World Cup, with Guus Hiddink from the 2002 tournament being the other.

Under Bento, South Korea defied odds to reach the round of 16 in Qatar in December. He was also the longest-serving head coach in South Korean men’s football history, having spent the entire World Cup cycle in charge. Bento was largely credited with instilling a sense of stability and structure, something that had been sorely lacking in the national team program at previous World Cups.

Given his recent history, Klinsmann’s name isn’t exactly associated with stability. Perhaps the South Korean job will be his opportunity to change the narrative surrounding him.

The first step toward that will be to surround himself with competent lieutenants. It’s not a stretch to imagine Cha Du-ri, a former South Korea international and son of Bundesliga legend Cha Bum-kun, serving on Klinsmann’s staff.

The junior Cha, born in Frankfurt while his father was carving out a successful club career, is fluent in German. Du-ri and Klinsmann both served on FIFA’s Technical Study Group during last year’s World Cup. German media reports suggested Cha might have played a role in bringing Klinsmann and the KFA together.

The early portion of Klinsmann’s Bundesliga career at VfB Stuttgart overlapped with late years of Cha Bum-kun’s German days with Bayer Leverkusen, and the two have remained friends since.

Klinsmann faced South Korea both as a player and a coach.

At the 1994 World Cup, Klinsmann grabbed a brace in Germany’s 3-2 win over South Korea in Group C.

In December 2004, Klinsmann coached Germany in a friendly against South Korea, who prevailed 3-1 for their first win over the European country.

About a decade later in February 2014, Klinsmann saw his U.S. team shut down South Korea 2-0 in a friendly match in Los Angeles.