As U.S. Men’s National Team coach, Jürgen Klinsmann is famous for spinning negatives into positives. He’s a master of the art, and there’s no better example of it than Klinsmann’s debut for Tottenham Hotspur on Aug. 20, 1994—a full 20 years ago today.
Klinsmann had signed for Tottenham that summer, becoming one of the first big-name foreign players in the Premier League. Maybe the biggest to that point. He’d just scored five goals in the 1994 World Cup, and was recognized as one of the world’s greatest strikers. But he also arrived with a reputation for diving, a reputation which meant he was greeted with hostility by English media and fans. Most famously, he’d made sure Argentina’s Pedro Monzon was sent off during the 1990 World Cup final with this gymnastic masterpiece, which was usually played on the news alongside the report of Klinsmann’s signing:
Klinsmann is coming, and he’s going to ruin our honest English game with his cheating, was the reductive reasoning. English football was ready to revile him. English football was not ready for Klinsmann’s charm offensive.
It began in Klinsmann’s first press conference, when he asked the gathered reporters, “Are there any good diving schools in London?” But the moment that changed Klinsmann’s reputation, and perhaps forever altered English perceptions of foreign players, was Klinsmann’s celebration after scoring against Sheffield Wednesday on his Spurs debut. Once his perfectly timed header was safely in the back of the net, Klinsmann ran boldly toward the fans and flung himself forward, arms out, landing like a plane and skidding across the turf.
Klinsmann was definitely a diver, but now everybody loved him for it. He had taken the source of his unpopularity and made it his biggest public-relations asset.
Apparently it was all Teddy Sherringham’s idea, conceived after seeing Sheffield Wednesday fans holding Olympic-style diving scorecards. Klinsmann repeated the celebration the following week on his home debut against Everton:
And a national sensation was born. There are two barometers to measure the effect of Klinsmann’s dive. The first is the writing of The Guardian’s Andrew Anthony. In June 1994, he wrote an article titled “Why I Hate Jürgen Klinsmann.” By August 1994, he was writing an article titled “Why I Love Jürgen Klinsmann.” Those two headlines alone suggest that Klinsmann’s charm offensive may be the most successful in the history of English football.
More importantly, for weeks afterward, kids around the country were attempting “a Klinsmann” every time they scored. Twenty years later, some of them are still doing it …