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World Cup Rivalries: Germany vs. USA

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It really should come as no surprise when one states that a team is a rival with Germany. But this one between Deutschland and the United States came into existence in probably the most unique of circumstances, much of it off the field. Tomorrow, that all comes onto the pitch with Germany and the USA playing for their spot in the knockout rounds.

Kevin C. Cox

In 1990, West Germany found itself facing history. They were locked in a battle with Argentina to join Italy and Brazil as the most successful international team up to that time. Germany would end up winning that match thanks to a late penalty kick. It would be Germany that would lift the world's greatest trophy for the third time. Contemporary audiences will be most likely to remember two names from that squad - Lothar Matthäus, and Jürgen Klinsmann. The 25 year old Klinsmann would make his history across Europe as a sought-after mercenary, and a goal-poaching German hero. By the time he retired in 1998, Klinsmann had scored over 200 goals in clubs spread between 4 nations. He cemented his name in German lore with 47 goals, the second to only Gerd Muller at the time, over 108 caps, second only to the afore-mentioned Mathaus at the time. Then, Klinsmann turned to America and his two nations, the one of his birth and his adopted one, have become intertwined.

After retiring, Klinsmann settled down in California and married a Asian American model. His kids would be born on American soil as American citizens. Klinsmann even played in a handful of matches in the US fourth division under a pseudonym.

Meanwhile, in Germany, results turned sour. In the 1998 World Cup in France, Germany were bounced out of the tournament in the quarterfinals to the tune of 3-0 by little Croatia, a nation that was so new, they were not even eligible to try and get into the tournament four years previous. In the following two European Championships (2000 and 2004), Germany were forced out in the group stage, despite having won the whole thing in just 1996. The 2002 World Cup was their only break from the blight, finishing second after losing to Brazil in the final. However, even that moment of greatness was marred by dour play and contentious moments. A controversial quarterfinal clash between the Germans and the US would sow the first true seeds for the rivalry. After having largely been outplayed by the Americans, it is arguable that Germany should have seen yet another quarterfinal departure. However, they got a goal against the run of play and held on against the surprising Americans. The lone goal would end up being the final score, but only because the Germans received a great deal of help from the referee. In the closing moments of the game, the US took a corner, which eventually met an American head that turned it towards goal. From there, Torsten Frings took fate into his own hands. Literally. He cleared the ball off the line with his arm, straight into the waiting arms of keeper Oliver Kahn. The referee called nothing, and the Americans went home, denied the chance to join hosts South Korea as the first nation outside Europe and South America to make it to the semifinals since the first edition of the World Cup.

After the failure at the European Championships in 2004, the German's looked for a way to completely overhaul their system to bring success back. The team was handed to Jurgen Klinsmann who made it his mission to overhaul the youth system, bring new players into the national side, rediscover success, and transform the German style from an organized, but incredibly boring, system, to one that championed tantalizing offensive power. With the German nation incredibly desperate for success with their country hosting in 2006, Klinsmann brought exactly what was needed. The team played with power and flair, with exciting and young new players, effectively blitzing their way to the semifinals. There, Germany succumbed to eventual champions, Italy, losing only after conceding two goals in the very last moments before penalty kicks in what many (including myself) hold as the game of the tournament.

However, success did not come without controversy. Leading up to the World Cup, there was a great deal of criticism for Klinsmann. It was often said that Klinsmann was making the German game "too American." Klinsmann worked from his home in the US, communicating via teleconference when the national side was not assembled for training or a game. He brought in American trainers and utilized American training and exercises. Instead of championing German organization, he demanded American traits like entrepreneurship. His teams took a huge focus on fitness. Klinsmann brought in psychologists and motivational speakers, to the scorn of the press. While he eventually proved doubters wrong, Klinsmann found the constant criticism too much and stepped down after the tournament and just two years in charge. His assistant and protégée, Joachim Löw, became his successor and remains the manager.

Thanks to his success with the national team, Klinsmann became the hottest German coaching option. This culminated with a move to the largest and most decorated club, Bayern Munich in 2008. The Bavarians had historically fielded a number of players who played on the German national team, including Lukas Podolski, Philip Lahm, and Bastian Schweinsteiger. However, instead of excelling, Bayern Munich lived up to their nickname, FC Hollywood. Klinsmann brought sweeping changes, and with them, more criticism that he was making the team too "American". After the Buddha statues came in, the players revolted. The club's performances suffered and Klinsmann was axed before the season ended. Tensions between Klinsmann and the players remained after his departure, with German captain Phillip Lahm ripping into his former coach in a sensationalist autobiography.

''All the players knew after about eight weeks that it was not going to work out with Klinsmann. The remainder of that campaign was nothing but limiting the damage."

After the Bayern debacle, Klinsmann was blasted as tactically inefficient and naive. He stepped out of the game and returned to his home in California. Klinsmann would not take another coaching position until he was hired by the United States Soccer Federation in 2011. Since then, he has taken a US side in transition and revitalized them. While he has come under criticism, including claims that Klinsmann is making the team too "German", Klinsmann is largely accepted as the man for the job. With the likes of Phillip Lahm set to play against his side, you can expect Klinsmann to want to go after a victory. It's hard to expect anything different from his former players and assistant.

There remains one more component to the Germany - USA rivalry: the players. Specifically, the German players. Or, should I say, the German players on the US side.

Dual nationals have emerged as a huge component of the United States national team, specifically German Americans. While Klinsmann did not start the trend of recruiting players who grew up in Germany but had American eligibility, he did expand the practice. Most, though not all, of these German Americans are the sons of American servicemen who were stationed in the US military base in Germany. Jermaine Jones was the first to join the Yanks in 2009 despite having been capped 3 times by Germany. Jones felt that he was not being offered a real chance with the German side and defected in order to get the chance to play at the World Cup. However, he missed out in 2010 due to an injury. In 2014, he has come back and is playing fantastically. He has been morphed into a two-way player by Klinsmann, combining great defensive prowess with some decent attacking nous to, rather surprisingly, become the United State's best and most important player in this World Cup. He scored this screamer against Portugal in the USA's last World Cup game. Along with Jones, Fabian Johnson is expected to start against Germany. On the bench is John Anthony Brooks, the scorer of the winner against Ghana, and Timothy Chandler. German Americans who did not make the squad include Danny Williams and Alfredo Morales. However, the most controversial German American is Bayern Munich's next teenage prospect, Julian Green. Highly sought after by both the German and American federations, Green announced in this past spring that he would side with the Americans, despite having grown up in Germany with his German mother. Green has been included by Klinsmann in the squad. And Green hardly looks to be the last player the US and Germany will fight over. Arsenal youth starlet, Gedion Zelalem, a German who, somewhat ironically, grew up in the US, looks set to spark a race over his name. Right now, he's not even technically eligible for the US, but, at the moment, that doesn't sound like it's going to stop the Americans from winning his loyalty.

When the Americans and the Germans step out on to the field, all they will each have to play for to insure advancement to the next round is a draw. But I wouldn't expect a tepid exercise in collusion. With so much to play for - revenge for a past injustice, a chance to prove your loyalty, a chance to hit back at the team that said you weren't good enough, a chance to show that prospects should always pick you, and a chance to take a stab at your unpopular former coach - I think it's fair to expect both teams to come out to play. Unlike other rivalries, these sides won't play with animosity, but intensity and the drive to prove a point.