July 31, 2017

Miroslav Klose: how a World Cup legend came to be

How the Polish-born striker started from the bottom and ended his career on top of the world


Miroslav Klose should be viewed as one of the great goal poachers and big-game players in the post war-era.

The Polish born striker played at four World Cups finishing 2nd, 3rd, 3rd and then as a winner on his final appearance in 2014. He ended his career as the competition’s all-time scorer with 16 goals, collecting a golden boot in 2006 and as his country’s leading goal scorer. Not bad for a man who was still a carpentry apprentice at the age of 20.

Born in Opole, a southern Polish city bordering the Czech Republic, a young Klose was bound to contain some athletic prowess. His father Josef played professionally for Auxerre as well as local side Odra Opole, who competed in the Polish top flight until the early 1980s, before suffering back to back relegations to the third their where they would remain until 1997. His mother, Barbara was a handball player who had a steady career including 61 appearances for the Polish national team before she settled down to nurture her family.

A turn towards more stringent communist rule in Poland saw Miroslav leave his roots behind him at a young age when the family left for France, before settling in Germany when he was eight. It was here that Klose, now showing a definite interest in the beautiful game would go on to forge his route to the top of German football. He joined local club SG Blaubach-Diedelkopf in the 7th tier of the German league system and spent his formative years from 1987-97 ascending through their youth team before lining out and scoring goals for Diedelkopf’s first team. Simultaneously to his promotion to the first team, he began an apprenticeship as a carpenter and this would continue into his final year with the club in 1997.

His youth team coach Dieter Schmolke still remembers a young Klose who because of his size, never found life easy in the German systems:

He was relatively thin, and therefore physically subdued by many others at this age, but he was able to compensate very well with his technique and his already very prominent head-ball game.

Sadly, only five days after Klose became the leading scorer in World Cup history during Germany’s semi-final triumph over Brazil in 2014, it came to light that SG Blaubach-Diedelkopf was to cease existence. They finally succumbed to the harsh financial reality blighting regional German football. Life in the modern game is unsustainable for principality clubs like SG. Low attendances, poor quality lifestyle and little room for expansion meant that after 65 years of operations, the club who groomed one of the greats of German football became insolvent and is now consigned to the history books.

Back in 1998 however, close ties between coaches Erich Berndt and Peter Rubeck saw Klose make the jump to FC Homburg 08 in the district leagues, initially for their “B” team where he scored 10 goals in 15 appearances.
Rubeck was then appointed manager of first team affairs and duly promoted Klose for the rest of the season. He managed only one strike in 18 appearances but the experience of playing in the tough and rugged style of lower tier German football that would allow him to make one of the biggest transformations in football, from lower league nobody, to World Cup finalist in 2002 in just four short years. Rubeck recalls of Klose:

Miro had great deficits and tactically still a few problems, but the speed, the headball game and the dynamics were already there.

Ironically Klose’s mentor during his brief stint in the Regionalliga West was goalkeeper Conny Kuchenbrod who spoke of Klose as a young man still eagerly learning the art of being a centre forward.

Miro was a very sensitive and self-centered guy who had to be built up a bit, but he did not know about Blaubach’s head, That one must also use the elbows in a team.

Due to financial difficulties at Homburg 08, the opportunity arose for Klose to shed the title of carpentry apprentice and take his chance as a professional with a move to FC Kaiserslaurtern. The Red Devils under legendary coach Otto Rehhagel were only one season removed from winning their first Bundesliga and had enjoyed good exposure in the Champions League during the 98/99 season.

The decision was a no-brainer for the now 21-year-old striker. Continue to prove himself for their reserve team in the district leagues and the path to the Bundesliga was clear. Klose duly obliged and went on to score 11 goals in 36 appearances. This was enough to catch the eye of Rehhagel who handed him his Bundesliga debut in April 2000. He would fail to score and only make one other appearance that year, but this was the beginning of a roller-coaster eighteen months which would propel the young man from Opole onto the world stage.

The cogs of Klose’s career truly began to turn following some stunning form during 2001 where he bagged himself 16 goals in the Bundesliga, only two shy of the top scorer. He had a burgeoning reputation as a predator inside the box combined with elite heading ability. Miroslav had become the prototype German striker around the turn of the millennium. It wasn’t long before then head coach Rudi Völler took notice.

Despite the best efforts of Jerzy Engel, then Poland’s manager including a personal visit to Klose’s home, he couldn’t persuade him to line out for the country of his birth. “I have a German passport,” he proclaimed. The lure of playing under Völler was too big a carrot to allow patriotism to interfere.

Thus, history was written and only 15 minutes after making his debut against Albania in a World Cup Qualifier, “salto-Klose” as he became known due to his front-flipping celebration, had his first goal for Die Mannschaft. He would go on to score another important qualifying goal against Greece on his second cap, and suddenly this unassuming, softly spoken boy was becoming the darling of German football heading towards a World Cup in Japan and South Korea that summer.

Japan and South Korea turned out to be the beginning of a legend. A stunning headed hat-trick in an 8-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia sent scouts worldwide scrambling to find out this German poacher’s background. He followed up with consecutive headers against Ireland and Cameroon, leading the line as Germany reached the final against Brazil. He would end the tournament as joint top scorer with Rivaldo. All this not even three full seasons on from his days in fifth tier football.

These goals served to propel Klose into the hearts of millions of Germans, and he was now a household name. He went on to score a total of 19 goals in his final two seasons at Kaiserslaurtern, earning him a move to the revolutional powerhouse Werder Bremen, heading into Euro 2004 with the national team. Another disappointing Euros performance from Die Mannschaft saw them eliminated at the group stages and with it, Rudi Völler departed.

It is always hard for players to lose the coach who gave them a chance. It can lead to doubt, self-pity and a lack of drive to impress the new management structure.

Miroslav could easily have walked this path. His playing style was all based off intelligence, instinct and cunning. There was none of the domineering physical attributes of pace and power that the budding generation of German stars were bringing to the international stage. Klose was a dinosaur wandering through the defining transformation in German football. Yet he found a way to endure and had the most prolific period of his career off the back of it.

The next World Cup cycle saw 40 goals scored in 58 appearances for Bremen as the nation built towards hosting the tournament among a growing desire to show the world that Germany was once again a unified and stable nation after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Jürgen Klinsmann would take a youthful team to a third-place finish but it was again Klose who grabbed the headlines. Braces against Costa Rica and Ecuador as well as a crucial equalizer in a quarter-final against Argentina saw Klose take his World Cup tally to 10 in 14 appearances and meant 2006 was his most prolific year in a German shirt, netting 13 times in the calendar year.

Once again, he had proved himself on the biggest stage of all and was slowly writing himself into the annals of German football. This status as a top international combined with another solid season for Bremen following the World Cup saw the elite of Germany come calling. Bayern Munich signed Klose in the summer of 2007 and Klose’s journey from the trough to the peak of club football in his adopted homeland was complete. Unfortunately, persistent injuries along with a lack of adaptation to his playing style meant this would turn out to be the most barren period of his club career.

A paltry 28 goals in 98 appearances including a solitary goal in his final season at the club where he was continually rotated with Ivica Olić served to damage his reputation at club level where he has become under-appreciated and oft maligned because of this spell. He did win trophies at Bayern and Lazio but he didn’t contribute in any meaningful sense, leaving a chasm in the minds of many.

Despite this turmoil at Bayern, Klose did regain fitness and his place in Joachim Löw’s team for the World Cup in South Africa. Classic poaching against Australia and England accompanied another brace against Argentina drew him level with Gerd Müller’s record of 14 World Cup goals. Ultimately his side would come up short once more but this individual achievement cemented his legacy in the eyes of many as a legendary World Cup marksman.

There was to be one more stop on the international stage for a then 35-year-old Klose. Three years in an underwhelming Serie A allowed him to refresh lost confidence and despite carrying an injury and with Germany’s golden generation snapping at his heels, “salto-Klose” continued to defied the odds. He still brought an unparalleled finishing ability within the current squad and Joachim Löw knew this would be vital through the competition.

While not as prolific during his final hurrah in Brazil, goals against Ghana and the hosts in the semi-final meant that not only would Klose achieve his life ambition of being a World Cup champion. He could now stand alone at the top of the individual mountain. Surpassing Gerd Müller’s German scoring record with 71. Surpassing Ronaldo’s World Cup scoring record with 16.

Klose’s historical impact is much more significant than he is ever given credit for. The sum of his achievements was greater than his individual ability but his acts of sportsmanship and his quiet demeanour through his cycle lie in stark contrast of the modern social media hungry brand of professional footballer.

The name Miroslav Klose conjures visions of childhood summer memories, goals and most of all World Cup moments. Pride in international football is currently at an all-time low. If anyone thinks that this medium of football is dying among the capitalism and corruption of the club game, they need look no further than the career of this German legend to remind themselves that every four years the world stops and legends are written.

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