Jürgen Klinsmann, of course, was wrong. The former United States manager was wrong when he suggested, during Iran’s victory against Wales, that stretching rules and blurring boundaries was part of Iran’s soccer “culture.” He was wrong when he implied that the Guatemalan referee had tolerated it because it was his culture, too.
He cannot, really, have been surprised by the reaction in Iran, which has ranged from outright fury — Iran’s manager, Carlos Queiroz, inviting Klinsmann to visit Iran’s training camp to learn more about the country’s players, fans and culture, but only on the condition that he resign his position on FIFA’s technical committee — to the hilarious.
The Iranian soccer federation’s drive-by on Klinsmann was, to be frank, immaculate: suggesting that German soccer culture should not be judged by the 1982 World Cup match known as the Shame of Gijón, or that Klinsmann’s legacy as a player should extend beyond his “dramatic dives.” Whoever composed that particular missive should have signed it with a chef’s kiss.
The only problem is that, if we are all completely honest, Klinsmann was right. Pushing the limits is part of Iranian soccer culture, and Guatemalan soccer culture, and German soccer culture, and South American soccer culture, and everyone else’s soccer culture, including the English, who really don’t like it if you point that out.
It might be called different things in different places — viveza or picardía in South America, being “streetwise” or indulging in “gamesmanship” in English, furbizia in Italian — but its meaning is the same. And most of the time, crucially, it is not said with clucking disapproval (unless the opposition is doing it). It is not a slur. If anything, it is said with a furtive admiration.
It is impossible to know exactly what Klinsmann meant — who are we to judge the intent of a man’s soul? — but there’s a good chance that, should he keep his promise to explain his statement to Queiroz, he will point out that his error was in clumsily implying that Guatemala and Iran are somehow unique cases, the only places in the world where players will do whatever they can to win. That would be wrong. Trying to gain an advantage however you can is one of those things that unites players from across continents, and so it should. This is a professional sport, not a hobby. They are there to win.