Football players are often described as ‘box-to-box players’, those that can run up and down the pitch continually for the 90 minute and who have ‘a good engine’ (the physical attributes of strength and endurance that come from having big heart and lung capacities developed through genetic predisposition and training). This cliché is rooted in the fact that football is an anaerobic activity – short bursts of running and jumping, punctuated with pauses, and the fittest players are able to sprint repeatedly with a short recovery time.
Michael Klein was one such player. As an attacking defender, he had a role to play in both boxes and was required to “get up and down” continually. He had the physical and mental attributes of speed, endurance, agility and reactive ability, which made him such an asset to teams.
Before joining Bayer Uerdingen in 1990, Klein played for Romanian clubs Corvinul Hunedoara (1977-88), captaining them, making 313 appearances and scoring 37 goals and Dinamo Bucureşti (1988-90), making 40 appearances and scoring two goals.
His European club competition appearances include four matches and one goal in the 1982-83 season UEFA Cup with Corvinul Hunedoara, two matches in the 1988-89 season Cup-Winners-Cup with , and seven matches and one goal in the 1989-90 season Cup-Winners-Cup with Dinamo Bucureşti.
Klein also played 90 times for the Romanian national team, scoring five goals. Not bad for a defender. He played for Romania at both the Euro 84, where they succumbed at the group stage and the Italia90 FIFA World Cup, where they went out on penalties in the second round to Jack Charlton’s Ireland.
Klein’s first club, Corvinul Hunedoara were an involuntary and reluctant feeder club for Dinamo, and had already lost four of their best players to them. Pressure was being exerted in order to get Klein and Mircea Lucescu as well. Generals and Colonels from the Romanian Army and security services paid Corvinul Hunedoara Club President Gelu Simoc a visit to expedite the transfer, whether the players wanted to move or not.
Dinamo were the leading club in Romania at the time and the best players from other clubs had a habit of turning up there. A mixture of coercion and promises of being allowed to leave Communist Romania for countries like Germany and England were used to “incentivise” top players into transferring to Bucureşti.
Michael Klein had been promised that he could leave for Germany, his preferred destination as he was of German extraction, if he played for a year at Dinamo. The original deal that Gelu Simoc was privy to was that Klein would leave at the end of the 1989 season, but it was pushed forward as Dinamo wanted Klein right away.
Simoc states that representatives from the military took him to dinner and suggested that Klein might like to join Dinamo sooner rather than later, due to their European Cup involvement. Colonel Lucian Văceanu , Head of Security in Hunedoara County, ate with Simoc and then told him to go to Hunedoara Security Headquaters to continue discussions there. Simoc was unconcerned at this point as he was used to visiting Security HQ because a lot of club business took place within the building.
Văceanu took Simoc into an empty office and told him to sit there until Văceanu and other officers returned. Simoc was then locked in the office and left to think about things for a few hours, until Văceanu eventually came back and told Simoc to agree to Klein leaving.
He was put on the phone to local steel mill Director General, Sabin Faur, who had been “arrested and processed” during the time Simoc had been locked up. Faur told Simoc that they would be jailed on trumped up charges of fraud if they didn’t acquiesce to Văceanu’s demands.
Simoc and Faur were incarcerated overnight in the security headquarters, and then Văceanu put transfer papers in front of Simoc in the morning with an instruction to sign it. Simoc signed his consent for the players to leave.
Klein duly transferred in the spring, and did his time with Dinamo, playing 40 games for them, before getting his wish and moving to Germany in 1990 to Bayer Uerdingen.
Uerdingen is an industrial district of the city of Krefeld, North Rhine-Westphalia, dominated by the massive Bayer AG chemical factory, the second largest Bayer plant in Germany that gave Bayer Uerdingen their original name.
Bayer AG is a massive employer in the area, and they produce synthetics, pigments, and chemical feedstock there. The Bayer workers sports and social club, Werkssportgruppe Bayer AG Uerdingen, merged with the FC Uerdingen 05 football club in 1953 to form Bayer Uerdingen.
Bayer withdrew its sponsorship from the team in 1995, focussing on Leverkusen instead, and the club renamed itself Krefelder Fußball-Club Uerdingen 05. Bayer continues to support the non-footballing departments of the club, however, as Sport-Club Bayer 05 Uerdingen, but KFC Uerdingen 05 has suffered chronic financial difficulties ever since.
The onetime Bundesliga side enjoyed its greatest successes in the 1980s. They returned to the Bundesliga in 1983 and earned a best-ever third place finish in the league in 1986. Uerdingen also won the DFB-Pokal in 1985 with a 2-1 victory over Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich in Berlin’s Olympiastadion.
The team spent the first half of the 1990s as a “yoyo team” bouncing up and down between the Bundesliga and 2 Bundesliga, before the withdrawal of the Bayer sponsorship led to the club’s decline and drop through the divisions.
Strapped for cash, the club’s innovative efforts at revenue generation to ensure their survival included auctioning off the right to coach the squad for one match on ebay, and in an unusual move inviting Pete Doherty of The Libertines to a league match. Doherty spent part of his childhood growing up on a British army base near the city of Krefeld where he developed an ‘affection’ for the German club.
Michael Klein played his last Bundesliga game for Uerdingen in December 1992, by which time he had made 37 Bundesliga appearances and nine DFB-Pokal (German Cup) appearances.
He suffered a heart attack during the training session with Uerdingen on February the 2nd, 1993, soon after the Bundesliga returned from its annual winter break. The intensive training session was no doubt aimed at testing the condition of the players following the winter hiatus, and it seems as if Klein literally ran until his heart burst.
It’s not known whether the high intensity of that fateful training session on February the 2nd, 1993 was solely responsible for Klein’s heart attack, or if other lifestyle, congenital or medical factors were involved in combination with the high level of physical exertion.
The training session took place soon after the enforced Bundesliga winter break of six weeks, mid-December through to the end of January, and, although the players would have trained during that time, the coaches would have pushed them hard in order to get them back to full match fitness and readiness. We also don’t know exactly how hard Klein was pushed on that fateful day, or how hard he pushed himself, but we can assume that it was too hard, given the outcome, which was him suffering a fatal cardiac arrest.
Athletes and football players are often physically sick after high-intensity training sessions but deaths as a result of them are on the increase.
Top Norwegian cardiologist Dr Per Ivar Hoff of Haukeland University Hospital in Bergen believes that “maximum top athletic exercises are not necessarily healthy” and that a high degree of training can disturb the rhythm of the heart. “We can’t rule out that it can influence other forms of heart disease”, he has also stated.
Another Norwegian cardiologist, Dr Thor Edvarsen, has stated that athletes may have inherited a genetic heart defect without knowing it. Both Edvardsen and Hoff have said that cardiac arrests in the under-35s, with no prior warning or signs of heart trouble, are often tied to undetected and undiagnosed genetic causes. Intense athletic training and activity stresses the defective heart and triggers the cardiac arrest, Edvardsen said, adding that “it can happen suddenly and brutally even if you’ve been examined by a heart specialist beforehand.”
Michael Klein is still remembered and revered in his native Romania by those that knew him and saw him play. The town of Hunedoara attended his funeral en masse and it is still talked about today.
Mircea Lucescu, the current manager of Ukrainian Premier League side Shakhtar Donetsk, has said that Klein fully deserved to be captain for all those years, and that he was an asset to the Romanian national side because of his drive and movement on the pitch.
Gelu Simoc, the Hunedoara president, said that Klein “was very hard-working, but also had talent… He had tremendous physical ability; he could cover half the pitch and drag others after him.”
FC Hunedoara’s 16,500 capacity stadium in Hunedoara was renamed as the Michael Klein Stadium as tribute to the man and the player.