the people’s vote
Jürgen Klopp has engaged not only Liverpool fans but the wider British public since he arrived at Anfield
Jürgen Klopp has engaged not only Liverpool fans but the wider British public since he arrived at Anfield
It was on an otherwise drab early October day in 2015 when Jürgen Klopp’s wise-cracking, bear-hugging, fist-pumping brand of football management was introduced to the English public.
Since that memorable press conference, confirming Klopp as the new coach of slumbering Premier League giants Liverpool FC, the German’s full-throttle approach to the job and life in general has generated an unparalleled measure of goodwill.
The plane carrying Klopp from Dortmund to Liverpool was tracked by 35,000 people
Few who encounter him, in person, in TV interviews, or pitchside in a maniacal, celebratory charge along the touchline, fail to be charmed. The club’s supporters, of course, but also neutrals, the media, people who don’t like football, fellow managers, even rival fans – “Hate Liverpool. Love Jürgen Klopp” is a common Twitter refrain. And all without him winning a thing in 36 months.
Not that he hasn’t come close. The man tasked with restoring Liverpool’s place at the top of English football has fought and lost three finals with them already, including May’s Champions League encounter with Real Madrid. They followed defeats in three finals with previous club Borussia Dortmund, a statistic he good-naturedly beats himself with.
Despite those reverses, the German’s exploits with Mainz, taking them to a history-making promotion, and with Dortmund, briefly knocking Bundesliga rich kids Bayern Munich off their pedestal, assured his legend at home.
His participation in the global enterprise that is the Premier League ramped it up again. The plane carrying Klopp from Dortmund to Liverpool to succeed sacked manager Brendan Rogers was tracked by 35,000 people. Yet the man touted as a sporting messiah and future German president longs to be anonymous.
At that first press conference, Klopp was reminded of Manchester United boss Jose “I am the special one” Mourinho’s famous pronouncement on first coming to England. “I am the normal one,” Klopp countered. A good line, but he meant it too, the irony being that “The Normal One” became an instantly marketable slogan with which to further build his profile.
“You should live my life for a day,” he says now, downing coffee between commitments at Liverpool’s famous old Anfield stadium, three years this week since touching UK soil.
He’s not complaining. Other than walks on the beach close to home on the Sefton coast with wife Ulla and their dog, “a collie mix”, and occasional pub lunches, “I cannot go out much; my face is not made for that, but that’s no problem – I’m used to it.”
However, he adds, recalling the amiable mobbing he received in trying to reach the stage at a meet-the-fans event: “I don’t want to be the person they all want to touch. I’m a really normal guy. I don’t walk through there and make like this…” He raises his arms in the manner of a boxing champion milking his triumph. For a man who’s claimed he can’t act, he’s got a heck of a range.
Herein lies the Klopp paradox. He wants to be treated like anyone else, but it is his very ordinariness, his dislike of show and guff, his liking for smoking and drinking and plain speaking and plates of sausage and chips, that people like.
When he left Dortmund, Klopp recorded a message to the crowd at his last game because, biographer Raphael Honigstein says, he did not trust himself not to break down. According to former striker Norbert Dickel: “75,000 people were crying.”
How does Klopp explain this bond with supporters?
“I have no idea. But the thing is, I believe in relationships. I really think if you spend a lot of time with people and don’t create a relationship, life is a complete waste of time.
“In different things it’s family, it’s friends, it’s people you work with, and, in this case, one hundred per cent of course, the fans. But I never go out there and say ‘look, I am this or that’ and ‘please like me’. It’s about respecting them.”
Of his time in England, he says: “I love living here. It’s a wonderful country and everyone knows if the weather was better the whole world would make a holiday here.”
As a foreign guest, he says he tries to keep out of UK politics, but with little prompting brings up the subject of anti-immigrant feeling in Germany. “It’s always when things change in a way you don’t like, you don’t have a job, then you immediately have to blame somebody. That happens here, that happens in my country.”
Typical of Klopp’s mindset is his attitude towards the far right AfD party’s 13 per cent polling in the last German election. “Everybody thought, wow, what a big number. I took it really positively – 87 per cent didn’t vote for them. I can live with that. And I think it’s a bit similar here.”
Local journalists in Mainz are said to have scoffed when veteran defender Klopp, with no coaching experience and no qualifications, was appointed as their manager to his and everybody else’s surprise. Seventeen years on, Klopp says he shared none of those doubts. “It was never a problem for me to lead a group. I never thought about it. On Sunday I was a player, on Monday I was a coach.”
You sense the natural born leader the moment he enters the room. The photographer assures him it will take only a few minutes. “No,” Klopp corrects him. “A few seconds.” He’s joking. And he’s not.
Klopp’s will to succeed occasionally gets the better of him. Honigstein tells how, as a player, he screamed in the face of a team-mate for half a minute for conceding a corner. As a manager, he holds the record for fines in German football.
That zeal was nurtured by a father, Norbert, who, Klopp says, “was an unbelievable talent in sports. He learned the backhand of Stefan Edberg watching television – exactly the same backhand.
“He was not the most patient person so when I wasn’t as good as he wanted, it was quite uncomfortable. He was a natural coach, a hard one, rather a drill sergeant.”
A regular Sunday training routine, when Klopp was “five or six, on the football ground in my home village”, involved racing his father from the touchline to the halfway line.
“If your father’s not in a wheelchair you have no chance, but he didn’t give a little bit. He was ‘voop!’ and I was: ‘Why are we doing this?’ And we did it until I beat him.”
How long did that take?
“Six years. Only six years.” He laughs heartily. “One of my biggest strengths as a player was speed. He made me a quick player. He educated me every day.”
Since arriving in England, journalists have made hay with his willingness to answer honestly everything put to him, despite his reluctance to be drawn into politics – Brexit (“it makes no sense”), the UK’s need for foodbanks (“beyond belief”), you name it. “We can talk about anything,” he assures me, but is said to feel uncomfortable sounding off on subjects like austerity given his own extreme affluence.
He’s known hardship – playing for a struggling German second division side, with a wife and young child, sometimes unsure he would be paid – and he gets the importance of their team to the many fans at the wrong end of the financial scale, wherever in the world they may be.
Do clubs now regard fans as merely consumers?
“No. I’m sure it feels like that sometimes but it’s so difficult to do it the right way for everybody because people want us to spend money in England.
“It’s completely different to Germany. In Germany, you get a player who’s transfer free, you get a lot of praise. In England it’s like – no money, no interest.”
A man of the left, Klopp is sympathetic to complaints about high ticket prices and welcomed the decision by club owners Fenway to withdraw a proposed increase after a mass fan protest in 2016. But he is also pragmatic. “If you say, come on, let them all get in for £1, it’s difficult. We have to earn money so we can spend it. I don’t think the situation is perfect but I don’t think it’s getting a lot worse.”
He understands, too, the frustration of fans feeling alienated by the clubs they support. “Social media makes it difficult to get close to the fans. Twenty years ago, a famous player could live the life of the people. If you saw a player out, and next day you told somebody, they would say: ‘Yeah, nice story.’
“Now we need to be a bit isolated because the world doesn’t give us the opportunity to go outside. We try to change it. We do what we can to come closer [to fans].”
To that end a friendly with Italian side Torino at Anfield in August was declared “the people’s game” by Klopp, with events in nearby Stanley Park, players interacting with fans and, post-match, the manager making the day of many an excited child attending their first game. “It was nice and we will do that again and again and again.”
Klopp took flak for seemingly criticising the £100 million signing of Paul Pogba to Manchester United two years ago, then overseeing a spending spree by Liverpool this summer. He says he was misunderstood, insisting now: “If money decides alone about success then I’m out, and that’s the truth. The only thing is, when everybody is able to spend, we have to, because it’s my job to make the team successful.”
Liverpool’s owners will continue to spend, no doubt, but the manager says funds are not unlimited. “The first day everything was on the table. The owners said: ‘Whatever you need you can have.’ But it was always clear we have to do it step by step. We are not owned by a country,” he says, perhaps with a certain other Manchester club in mind.
Klopp is contracted to Liverpool until 2022 and the expectation among fans, media and the club’s owners is that trophies will come. What words might Norbert have for his son were he around?
“He was always proud when I played for Mainz and I was not a good player. Unfortunately he died the year before I became a manager but I’m Christian and believe he now has the best position in the world to watch it all.
“I know he is very proud, but if he was still alive we would have a few discussions, probably about my beard. And probably after the [Champions League] final he would not have found the right words – he would have told me why we lost it, so not too cool probably.
“Oh, he was a fantastic lad and he loved me to bits. I know that. But he would have told me: ‘Don’t lose six finals in a row.’”
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