German Legend Jens Lehmann on his life, Klinsmann, and the modern game

IMAGE, WIKIPEDIA

by ANTHONY J. MERCED
Staff Writer

When you walk into a room with legendary german goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, there are a few points that stick out immediately.

The first is the confidence he exudes before ever saying a word. It is as if he is ready to face any question with the same tenacity and fervor in which he played the game for teams like Schalke and Arsenal.

Beneath that rough exterior, there is also a sense of understanding and wisdom. As a man who has played the professional game across three decades in Germany, Italy and England, he stands as a historical orator for the fast changing nature of soccer. There was no cable television broadcasting the games worldwide nor the omnipresent world of the internet tracking footballers’ every move during his heyday, but there certainly was the pressure to perform.

Resilience Through Conflict and Disappointment

“I had many disappointments as a footballer, as a goalkeeper,” Lehmann began. “When I became successful, I still had disappointments. I had the desire to show I could come back. I always knew as a goalkeeper that I had a really technical perfection which always could carry me through different periods.”

That resilience could also be attributed to his upbringing. Raised in the Rhine-Ruhr region of Germany, one of the most populated metropolitan areas in the country, Lehmann learned the value of hard work through a working-class mindset.

“People particularly after the World War worked hard to rebuild the whole of Germany and that was my mentality. It wasn’t an easy upcoming,” he explained. That bullish nature found him playing locally in the town of Essen before finding his way to Schalke before the age of 20. “We were training everyday on hard grounds. It was very tough,” said Lehmann when discussing his early days of training. “It gave me the nod to fight and to always force myself.”

That fight was necessary to keep Lehmann in the starting lineup for so many years. As a key player for Arsenal and the German national team, Lehmann was constantly embroiled in competition over the starting job. Whether it was Manuel Almunia or Oliver Kahn, Lehmann rarely had time to be comfortable in his position.

“Every player deserves to make a mistake,” says Lehmann when speaking about the quick nature of turnover on high profile teams. “On the top level, every player deserves to be substituted after a second mistake. It’s the nature of the game. The higher you want to play, the more you have to accept criticism.”

Lehmann on the World Stage

For years Lehmann battled Oliver Kahn for the right to be the starting goalkeeper on the German National Team. That chance didn’t come until a young manager by the name of Jurgen Klinsmann took charge. Under him, not only did Lehmann earn the starting job in the 2006 World Cup, but also had a career defining moment during penalty kicks in the quarter finals against Argentina.

“Jurgen was always a strong character,” said Lehmann when speaking about his former international manager. “He wouldn’t give in for the sake of being everyone’s darling. As a team coach, he had shown us this personality from the start on. Everybody’s got a chance. He had been criticized heavily ahead of the World Cup when we had some poor performances and we had been perceived as an embarrassment for our whole nation. But he stood firm.”

Lehmann also had a first hand view of the politics that sometimes embroil the game. Klinsmann, who would later go on to coach at the club level and then the U.S. Men’s National Team, battled the political game to get Lehmann his starting position.

“He (Klinsmann) was the only guy who made these hard decisions in the whole association and every player respected him for that,” said Lehmann. “I respected him for picking me because I didn’t really have to fight Oliver (Kahn) in terms of performance or quality, but more about the lobbying. It was the Bayern Munich style. The club is very powerful in Germany, they supported him. But Jurgen at the end of the day made a decision and based [it] on the quality of the player.”

Words of Advice to the Future

When asked who he liked to watch in today’s game, Lehmann was a bit hesitant. However he was very forthright with handing out some very interesting words of wisdom.

“They all have to try to seek perfection in their games,” says Lehmann. “Manuel Neuer is a fantastic goalkeeper. In the last two years in the Champions League, he has conceded 8 or 10 goals in the semi-finals. That is sometimes a fact that is neglected when evaluating or judging him.”

His observations don’t stop there. With the 2015-2016 Bundesliga season getting underway, Lehmann doesn’t agree with the perception that Bayern Munich will runaway with the league.

“I think this time is going to be more exciting,” he begins. “Bayern Munich is in the beginning of a transitional process. Other clubs like Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach will be there to probably tighten the gap.”

Lehmann is currently on the Bundesliga legends tour. The 2015-16 Bundesliga season started this weekend, available in the United States for the first time on Fox Sports.