SAO PAULO – On Thursday, when both of his national anthems play, Jermaine Jones will close his eyes and take it all in. And then, when the United States plays Germany in its final World Cup group stage game, he will, as he puts it “try to make the game.”
Jones, the American midfield enforcer, isn’t the only player on this World Cup team with ties to Germany. Four teammates play in the German Bundesliga; he and two more of them played there in the past – Jones transferred to Besiktas in Turkey last January. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is German and so is his “special advisor” Berti Vogts. Assistant coach Andy Herzog is Austrian but spent the bulk of his career in Germany. And fitness coach Masa Sakihana worked for the German national team before joining Klinsmann’s staff.
But of all the “Germericans” on the field, Jones is the most prominent. He was born and raised in the tough neighborhood of Bonames, by Frankfurt, after his American serviceman father was deported home for his role in a drug ring when he was six. They didn’t reconnect until 20 years later. At that time, Jones was still a prospect for the German national team. He played in three friendlies but was one of the last men cut for Die Mannschaft’s Euro 2008 squad.
“It’s always hard,” Jones recalled on Tuesday, his short dreadlocks held back by a string, “when you’re so close to go to a big tournament and you feel that you’re in that team and at this point the coach already told me I would be part of the team. And then he skipped back and said he will change it. Of course I was, you can say, upset.”
That’s when then-US head coach Bob Bradley convinced Jones to join the US program, leveraging his American passport and the fact he never played an official game for Germany. He was able to make the one-time switch late in 2009, but an injury kept him from playing in the 2010 World Cup. Now, under Klinsmann, the 32-year-old has grown into one of the team’s foundational players. In the USA’s World Cup opener against Ghana, he assisted Clint Dempsey on his goal 30 seconds into the game. On Sunday against Portugal, Jones scorer a rare goal with a screamer from some 28 yards. But for the most part, he does the dirty stuff – covering ground, playing the short passes, and marking the opponent’s most dangerous midfielders.
That’s ugly and physical work. And for a time, Jones was controversial. “It’s always funny, when if you go on the pitch and you make your work, sometimes not the right feedback comes back,” he said. “The people talk, ‘You always kick the guys. You’re the bad boy.’ Sometimes it’s crazy. But for me it was always the point. I was saying, ‘Okay, I have to work. I have to work. I will show the people.’”
And show them he did. Nobody questions his place in the team anymore. “Right now, they give me a lot back,” said Jones. “They tweet a lot, they text me.” And as he pointed out, US women’s national team star Alex Morgan – who shares his number 13 – wears his jersey around.
“It has been obvious for us that he’s just fully bought into it,” said fellow midfielder Graham Zusi. “I think that might’ve been the question before. It’s obvious to us and I think it’s obvious to everyone now that he is fully involved. He has got his head into this. His style of play, it’s different, but it’s something that we need as a team. He’s that kind of that work horse guy who’s not afraid to get into a tackle.”
Following Jones’s successful conversion to the American team, plenty of others have followed in his wake. Starting right back Fabian Johnson was also born in Germany to a serviceman father and raised there. Defenders Timmy Chandler and John Brooks and the 19-year-old winger-cum-prodigy Julian Green share that story. Several players who didn’t make the final roster did, too.
This sudden influx of quasi-foreigners hasn’t been detrimental to chemistry, according to Zusi. “The guys have integrated very well,” he said. “This team has really connected and bonded and there are no cliques, there’s no segregation by any means.”
If anything, it has helped that so much of the team is sourced from the Bundesliga now. “When you watch the football, it is at a high level there,” said Jones. “I think for me it’s the best league in the world.”
But this trend will make for a strange game with Germany. Klinsmann led Germany to a World Cup title in 1990 and managed the team from 2004 through 2006. Now he faces his own country. “It’s very special, it’s something that doesn’t happen every year and probably not anymore in my lifetime, so you try to enjoy this moment,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing all of them. The staff is pretty much the same as I left it, when I stepped out in 2006. It’s going to be emotional, there’s no doubt about it.”
“Of course, Germany is a special game,” said Jones. “I always say that I’m proud of both countries. I grew up in Germany; my mother is German. They gave me a lot. I played for Germany. I don’t say bad stuff about Germany. But I try to win and I try to bring America to the next round. This is the point. We have to come to the next round. We want to go there and we want to go show the people that we can battle and we can beat them the German teams.”
Certainly, a tie sees both teams through to the round of 16 – a win, however, probably helps either team avoid Belgium in the next round. There is no talk of a truce, or as German reporters called it, “a peaceful draw.”
“I will give them big hugs before the game and then leave that to the side,” said Klinsmann. “We’re going to get the job done and we’re going to give a farewell hug again after the game.”