US guru whips German players into shape

Only Brazil has more World Cup soccer titles. So why did Germany turn to an American for help?

Imagine India's top basketball coach flying to Miami to teach Shaquille O'Neal how to shoot free throws. You can guess the incredulous reaction of everyone from the ESPN pundits to your local 7-Eleven cashier.

That's how German fans reacted when national soccer team coach Jürgen Klinsmann brought in US fitness guru Mark Verstegen to whip his team into shape before Germany hosts the World Cup this summer.

"It would happen, even if the guy were Italian," says Andrei Markovits, an expert on German soccer culture at the University of Michigan. "But the very fact that the guy is American is just inexcusable."

It would be hard to overstate the national pride associated with the German team. In the 17 tournaments held since 1930, only seven countries have won the championship. Brazil has five World Cup titles; next, with three each, are Italy and Germany, who last won in 1990.

US titles? None.

"Some innovation never hurts," allows Falk Neuhof, sitting in a Berlin bar watching Germany beat the US 4-1 last week. "But it just won't bring much. The players have been used to doing things differently for years."

Soccer practice in Germany has long meant a serious run through the woods, accompanied by tactical drills and lots of ball-handling work. That worked fine when the game moved slower, and German national team coaches favored a deliberate style of play that paced their teams through matches. But the game has sped up and Klinsmann has changed the German approach to match it. He's looking for an aggressive, attacking style of play, which requires greater endurance.

Enter Mr. Verstegen. His clients have ranged from NFL quarterback Brett Favre and Red Sox ace Curt Schilling to the Indian national field hockey team. His company, Athlete's Performance, has training centers in Tempe, Ariz., and Los Angeles. It was there that the German coach, a full-time Los Angeles resident, got to know him.

"Jürgen has always been very forward-thinking on the fitness and performance side," says Verstegen, in a telephone interview from Arizona. Soon after Klinsmann was appointed national team coach in the summer of 2004, he asked Verstegen to run the players through fitness tests. Shortly after that, Verstegen had the team heaving medicine balls and running sprints with large elastic bands tied around their waists to hold them back to build strength and improve speed. He also devised individual training regimes for some players. And he's also introduced yoga to improve their focus and flexibility.

The conditioning drills are designed to build strength and endurance, but also to teach players to take responsibility for their own fitness - a concept widespread in the US but completely foreign to German soccer players.

Not to mention Germany's encrusted soccer establishment. Though the initial jabs at Verstegen in the German press have disappeared, some soccer officials still disagree. Klinsmann has made several other controversial moves as well.

The coach - who scored many memorable goals for teams in Germany, Italy, and England and was national team captain - also ruffled feathers with his outsourcing of motivational training to a US sports psychologist.

And he's reaped criticism for his decision to manage the team via e-mail and cell-phone from Los Angeles, part-time. The German team's inconsistent performances have only increased the flak.

"The proof is in the pudding," says Professor Markovits. "If Germany wins the World Cup, there will be statues built of [Klinsmann] and the American strength coach will be a god."

Verstegen himself has accepted all the criticism with a patient smile. After all, players have overwhelmingly embraced his conditioning drills. Some have even begun including them during practices with their club teams.

"After the first day, they understood what we were after," he says. "They began to see instantaneous results, or it began making sense to them."

Will it make sense to German soccer fans? Ask again in mid-June, when the World Cup is in full swing and the German team is - hopefully - still competing.

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