Top strikers all have that egotistical streak, consumed as they are by chasing that rush, again and again. It’s like the more you score, the more insatiable you get. Let me tell you: it’s an addiction.
But as it turns out, Miroslav Klose is different in that respect. So different, in fact, that he doesn’t even consider himself a proper centre-forward at all.
“I never felt like a real No 9,” he tells me in a Zoom call from Munich. That’s not the line I expected to hear from the man who’s scored more goals — 16! — than anyone else at the World Cup.
“I’d finish in the box, often from small distances and most of all, from crosses. I did score goals, yes,” the 44-year-old explains, “but I wasn’t really that classic No 9. I was more of an assist-giver. My strengths lay in making goals for others because in those moments, I had a photographic memory and knew exactly where my team-mates were positioned. That’s why I positioned myself in a way that it made possible to play them in. I enjoyed that very much.”
It’s not a mindset you come across often with players at this level. But perhaps this unselfish concern for the greater good accounted for Klose’s extraordinary longevity in international football.
Leading the line in his own rather quiet, unassuming way, his goals brought Germany close in 2002 (runners-up), 2006 (third place) and 2010 (third again) before finally helping them over the line in 2014, at the age of 36. No other player had played in four World Cup semi-finals before, but Klose says he had no idea of that achievement until a letter from the Guinness Book of Records arrived sometime after that triumph in Brazil.
“I didn’t realise I had broken Ronaldo’s record (of 15 World Cup goals) in the 7-1 win over Brazil (in the semi-final) either,” he adds with a smile, thinking back to a point-blank finish that gave his side a 2-0 lead that crazy night in Belo Horizonte. “I was too wrapped up in the game. It only dawned on me a few minutes later.”
This is how Klose scored his 16 goals — all of them coming from inside the penalty area:
A late bloomer who still played fifth-division (amateur) football at the age of 20, Klose never dreamt about scoring in a World Cup, let alone winning the Golden Boot at one or being the most prolific striker in history at that level.
“All I thought about was making it as a Bundesliga player. Once I managed that, my aim was to get into the national team. Then to the World Cup. Then winning it, like my idol Fritz Walter (West Germany’s captain in 1954) had done. There was always a next step for me, a concrete target I wanted to achieve.”
Scoring the most goals in a tournament, as he did on home soil in 2006 (five) after coming joint-second to the Brazilian Ronaldo with the same number four years earlier, wasn’t one of those targets, he says. “I didn’t think about that at the time, not at all. After tasting blood in 2002, all I cared about was getting another shot at winning the World Cup, I desperately wanted to hold that trophy in my hands.”
When I ask him to name his favourite goal from 2006, he mentions his late equaliser against Argentina in the quarter-final (Germany won on penalties after a 1-1 draw), a header from a short distance, but not because it was particularly brilliant. “I had made the mistake for Argentina’s goal, a header from Roberto Ayala after a corner. I didn’t mark him properly. I felt I had to score (to make up for it). When I did, I was very happy.”
Did winning the Golden Boot change his life? “No, not at all,” he shoots back. It feels to me as if goals were only ever a means to an end for Klose, simply the best way to get ahead in his career and bring success to his teams.
He won club silverware with Werder Bremen, Bayern Munich and Italy’s Lazio but his most memorable moments all came for Germany. “The national team was my best club, for 13 years,” he laughs. “I like to live in images: sometimes when I feel a little down, I take out some photos from the 2014 World Cup and instantly feel better again. We had so many near-misses as a team, which is why it’s the most fantastic feeling of all to know that we got there. We won that thing.”
That’s not to say that Klose isn’t proud of scoring the most goals in World Cup history, especially since his time coincided with three all-time greats.
“When you play against Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ronaldo ‘the Phenomenon’, and you stay in first position, you have to be grateful,” he says, before quickly adding that he couldn’t have done it without the help of his team-mates: “My compliments to them.”
Klose had finished an apprenticeship as a carpenter before establishing himself at Kaiserslautern — he was the only player in that victorious 2014 squad who hadn’t come through Germany’s academy system.
He now manages Rheindorf Altach in the Austrian Bundesliga, but as a former youth coach and assistant coach at Bayern, he’s well-placed to tell me why Germany has seemingly produced relatively few top centre-forwards as of late. Robert Lewandowski, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Erling Haaland, Christopher Nkunku… all the best strikers in their league have been foreigners in recent years.
“We have good forwards but we’ve neglected a little to develop the more classic centre-forward types,” he says. “Everybody wanted their forwards to be very technical, good in link-up play outside the box. But fortunately, things are changing. We’re going back a little.”
Taking into account his own career trajectory, Klose believes strikers are taught, not born, which is why he’s hopeful that more goalscoring specialists will soon emerge and is excited by new hero Niclas Fullkrug, whose goal earned Germany a huge point against Spain here in Qatar on Sunday.
“I’ve followed him for quite a while now. He first came to my attention when I was still a player and played a test game against the under-20s with the national team. There was something special about him. He’s just wonderfully down to earth.”
At 29 already, Fullkrug is unlikely to be a long-term answer for Germany, but Klose is hopeful others can.
“As a player, I always tried to learn new things and work on my game. I’m a massive believer in development. At the beginning of my career, all I could do is run fast and jump high. I had to learn to play combination football at Bremen — I couldn’t do it at all in the beginning — and I became more of a combination footballer in the process. But without losing my original strengths.
“Now I tell my players that they need every tool in the box, to be able to play against any side. The next generation need to be as complete as Lewandowski. He has no weaknesses.”
The now-Barcelona forward won’t break Klose’s record at this World Cup but he thinks that a fellow countryman might have a shot.
“Thomas Muller is on 10 — it’s a possibility,” he says. “I don’t know if someone will ever break my record but if they do, I want it to be another German.”
I’m no longer surprised to hear Klose say that. He’s still a team player, even in retirement.
(Main graphic — photos: Getty Images/design: Eamonn Dalton)
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