It is frightening the rate at which our childhood heroes are retiring from football – slowly descending away from the turf, slipping out from the present and into a deep-sea of nostalgia that is as lucid as it is warm in our abiding memories of them.
The past three seasons have seen all of Thierry Henry, Alessandro Del Piero, Luca Toni, and Antonio Di Natale leave the game to an eclipse of tributes and praise. They were in many ways stalwarts of the noughties era of football, when globalisation further developed the game into the money-soaked commercial entity it is today.
But we note them adjacent from this not only because of their achievements and the silverware garnered throughout their careers, but also due to the fact that they played into their mid-to-late 30s, because they are strikers and, sometimes, because of their legacy at international tournaments.
• • • •
Miroslav Klose is a paradox of a footballer. May 15, 2016, marked the final time he would play in top-flight European football as he eyes a potential move to Major League Soccer amid failed contract negotiations at Lazio in order to see out the final years of his career at the ripe old age of 37.
In that 4-2 loss to Fiorentina, Klose packed away his 54th goal for the Biancocelesti – bizarrely the player’s first penalty in Serie A during his five-year stay. Before kick-off, the Stadio Olimpico had erupted in a frenzy of kindred tributes in recognition of the German, responding to each rendition of the announcer’s ‘Miroslav’ with a jovial ‘Klose’ as the player made his way through a guard of honour featuring teammates clad in Lazio jerseys emblazoned with his name across the front.
The warmly bland, completely modest, Klose we have come to know over the last decade-and-a-half would say it was all too much for a player undeserving of such a send-off. But it was indeed justified for a player often only praised every two years come World Cups and European Championships, but likewise too often overlooked on a grander scale of world football’s top strikers.
Klose is a case study in not only why we warm to quiet, shy footballers that are so far apart from the outspoken and self-assured bravo of players like Zlatan Ibrahimović and Cristiano Ronaldo, but also in why we love the communal frenzy of international tournaments, which can cement a person’s legacy forever in time amid good feeling, warm weather and shared enjoyment of a game loved by many.
Born and raised in Poland until the age of eight, he too represents the multiculturalism of Germany’s success story in winning the 2014 World Cup, and likewise why we love to love footballers that play beyond the standardised cut-off point of 35 years; but rather ignore the constraints of their body’s biology that tells that to slow down, and keeps on keeping on when the results are not of the same prolific heights of youth.
Emblematic of his career, football was a humble beginning for Klose who, three years before announcing himself spectacularly on the world stage via a hat-trick of headers versus Saudi Arabia in Germany’s opening game of the 2002 World Cup, had been playing regional league football for FC 08 Homburg in the fifth tier of German football.
Klose had not grown up playing football at youth level, turning out for his local village club Blaubach-Diedelkopf after he had followed his father to Blaubach, West Germany, in 1986 having fled the Communist regime in Poland.
His father, of German descent, had played football in Poland’s third division, the Trzecia Liga, while his Polish mother had played volleyball, representing her country 62 times. It was here that the teenaged Klose would later train as an apprentice carpenter before his football career began to flourish, amid a household of split nationality and language, but shared passion for athleticism.
The cogs in Klose’s own career began to turn when, at 21 and still playing in the fifth tier of German football, he was spotted on the off-chance by a scout representing FC Kaiserslautern on an irregular visit to the isolated village community. Playing first for their amateur team, he would make his Bundesliga debut for the club in April 2000, going on to score 16 goals in the 2001-02 Bundesliga campaign – just two shy of the top goalscorer.
This changed everything for Klose – and German football alike – as he was drafted into the national team for the first time in 2001, notwithstanding the efforts of then-Poland manager Jerzy Engel, who flew to Germany in order to convince the 23-year-old to play for his country of origin.
“I have a German passport,” Klose said at the time. “And if things are still running this way, I have a chance to play for Rudi Völler.”
The awe in those words were clear even at the beginning of his international career. It would take the striker no less than 15 minutes into his debut for Die Mannschaft to register what would come to be the first of 71 goals for Germany in a desperate 1-1 draw with Albania; this presenting the world with the first instance of his infamous backflip celebration – something so creative and un-renowned at the time that it stood in stark contrast to the striker’s formulaic and deadly style of finishing in front of goal.
Unknown during that World Cup qualifier, Klose would later eclipse every one of German football’s tapestry of great goal-poachers, including Gerd Müller, Uwe Seeler, Jürgen Klinsmann, Oliver Bierhoff as well as his own manager, Rudi Völler, standing on the touchline on that March evening in 2001.
Those 16 goals in his debut season complied Klose toward the backwardly conservative criteria of a German national team player at the beginning of the millennium, which was to be a recognised performer within the Bundesliga, going on to score seven more goals for the national team prior to the 2002 World Cup, including hat-tricks against Israel and Austria.
This combination of form for both club and country meant that Klose would spearhead the German attack in Japan and South Korea. A stunning hat-trick of headers sent reverberations the world over as to who this striker was – beginning his World Cup tally as he would mean to continue as it were – against Saudi Arabia in Germany’s opening 8-0 win, before two more against Ireland and Cameroon.
• • • •
This meant that the forward finished second top-scorer in his first major international tournament with five goals, three years on from his fifth division FC 08 Homburg days, and in the process becoming the first player in the history of the World Cup to score five headers in one competition, as Germany would later go on to lose the final to Brazil.
Nineteen goals in his next 58 Bundesliga performances earned Klose a move to Bundesliga champions Werder Bremen in 2004 where, after winning a historic double the year previous, Bremen finished third with Klose having scored a respectable 15 goals for the holders.
Klose’s form built towards a defining crescendo in 2005-06 when he scored 31 goals in 40 appearances on the cusp of Germany hosting the 2006 World Cup. This was to be the tournament for Die Mannschaft; a chance to show the world how it had grown into a unified being, West and East, since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 in a celebration of culture, diversity and sporting prowess that should and would culminate in a victory on home soil for the hosts.
This was just the surface, however. What the world had not seen was the rigid underbelly of transformation that had taken place within German football following its dismal performances at Euro 2000 and 2004, which saw the three-time world champions fail to qualify from their group on both occasions, resulting in the departure of Rudi Völler as manager.
A process of exhaustive research, development and internal restructuring within both the national team and the Bundesliga put a focus on grassroots football which offered its first shoots in the form of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm, led by the dynamic and inspiring management duo of Jürgen Klinsmann and his assistant Joachim Löw.
Klose fired Germany into the semi-finals via braces against Costa Rica and Ecuador in the group stages on top of an 80th minute equaliser against Argentina in the quarter-finals, meaning he finished the tournament’s top goalscorer this time around with five – his personal tally now standing at ten in 14 games played.
Despite the bitter comedown of a semi-final exit to Italy, Klose was now regarded as a stalwart of the national team throughout Germany. This, as in the past, present and forever for the top Bundesliga players, earned him a move to Bayern Munich in the summer of 2007, where a horrid mixture of the player’s lack of form, combined with persistent injuries and a lack of chemistry with his Bayern teammates, resulted in a disappointing term at the Allianz Arena.
One goal in 20 appearances ended his final season at the club, which did in fact feature two Bundesliga titles, two DFB Pokals and a UEFA Champions League final throughout, but Klose’s role in these successes was not at the prolific heights he played at Werder Bremen, frequently displaced by the underwhelming Ivica Olić throughout the 2010-11 season.
Parallels of the careers of two current Bayern forwards – Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski – offer a window into what could and many thought should have been for that of Klose in Munich. It cannot be escaped that the likewise Polish-born Lewandowski’s form in 2015-16 with 42 goals was what Karl-Heinz-Rummenigge saw within the reach of Klose off the back of the 2006 World Cup when he signed him a year later.
Similarly, Müller’s own World Cup tally of ten goals and his similar meteoric rise for the national team, scoring five goals in South Africa in 2010 to Klose’s five in 2002, and Müller’s five in 2014 to Klose’s five in 2010, represents another contrasting parallel whereby Müller could confidently balance both club and national performances with graceful ease, something which Klose could not manage post-2006.
Oftentimes this can justify why Klose is omitted from conversations surrounding this generation’s top strikers. Others who have left the European game in recent years, such as Henry, Drogba, Eto’o and Del Piero, pulled their clubs toward domestic and European glory on the back of their own ability, resulting in league titles, European Cups, doubles and trebles for the world’s top sides.
Klose could not do this due to injuries and the lapse of a late-blooming career that began at 21, where others had been playing across Europe’s top clubs since the age of 18. Research has shown these lapsing years as crucial to a top professional’s development, something which Klose had to catch up on, and ultimately teach himself.
This lends itself to his style of play; predatory, live, based on nothing but instinct and positional sense within the box. His play is intelligently primal – headed goals, slow movement and as few touches as possible inside the box, in order to upend the ball into the net by any knee, head, shin or toe possible.
And yet, Klose’s form for his country never waned. South Africa in 2010 presented four more goals, against Australia, England and a brace against Diego Maradona’s Argentina. Like in 2002, 2006 and even Euro 2008, Germany again fell short, ranking Klose’s personal trophy case with the national team to solely individual awards eclipsing two semi-final defeats and two final losses.
But this changed in 2014 when an elderly 35-year-old Klose was chosen as Joachim Löw’s only recognised striker going into the tournament in Brazil. Klose was among a growing group of injured German players picked for Löw’s squad despite the manager stating in months previous that he would only select those in top physical condition.
The absence of Marco Reus meant that what little of Klose’s game he had left – felt useless by most to the untrained eye – was sought as goldust to Löw and co. Klose’s basic instincts to score inside seven yards could not be found among the girth of talent among the German squad and was therefore essential.
None of Mesut Özil, Mario Götze, Lukas Podolski nor Andre Schürrle could put the ball into the net in as basic and repeatedly successful a pattern as Klose. As such the striker matched Ronaldo’s record of 15 World Cup goals versus Ghana before claiming it his own in the 7-1 demolition of Brazil in the semi-finals.
• • • •
Klose reflected a number of years ago that he would, in fact, have been happy to take the call from Poland and represent his country of origin. One wonders at the tricks and trades he could have passed on to a young Robert Lewandowski and perhaps what the Bayern Munich star could have taught an old veteran in these later years.
Klose represents so much more than the sum of his parts and did what he could with what he had. Though he was not graced with lightening speed or the technical ability that Germany’s network of coaches now breeds into its young hopefuls, Klose still managed to capture the hearts of a nation he is proud to call his own.
Rarely outspoken, his actions represent more eloquently that which words could ever express; in a game for Werder Bremen in 2005 refusing a penalty given to him he thought was not deserved, and in September 2012 admitting having scored a goal for Lazio with his hand to the referee.
In a beautiful game plagued by money, greed, corruption and wealth, Klose represents one of football’s good guys that will forever rekindle memories of long summers of football, long summers of goals – forever cast in a youthful humanity that defies even time itself.