Sunday 18 August 2019

Jurgen Klopp uncovered: Liverpool boss on living in the present, right wing politics and greed in football

Jurgen Klopp talks to Jonathan Liew
Jurgen Klopp talks to Jonathan Liew
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Dave Thompson/PA Wire.

Jonathan Liew

The first of many throaty laughs emanates from the mouth of Jurgen Klopp roughly three seconds into the interview.

There’s something uniquely disarming about a Klopp laugh. It’s part surprise, part derision, and you’re never quite sure how much there is of each. One thing you learn after a while: Klopp doesn’t like loaded questions, and he doesn’t like boring questions. He’s 51 now, and life is far too short for banalities.

Indeed, there are times when he’ll start answering one question and finish somewhere completely different, via a sort of conversational free jazz, a thicket of connections and tangents and associations tapping out a rhythm that only he can truly follow. Over the course of 40 minutes, the Liverpool manager will discuss the trauma of last year’s Champions League final defeat in Kiev, the rise of the populist right in Europe and the greed of football’s governing bodies, all while taking occasional sucks on a vape that is perhaps his one concession to mortality.

For all that, he’s in a good mood. Here at Liverpool’s training camp on the Costa del Sol, the Mediterranean Sea licks lazily at the rocks, refracting the sunlight into a million jewels. Waiters skim across the hotel terrace bearing healthy salads and detox juices. There’s a brutal Premier League season to dissect and a legacy-defining European final against Tottenham to come. But here, now, both feel equally remote.

Why? Because as Klopp puts it more than once, life is a present. Even as he surfs the tempestuous tides of English football, its outrageous swings of fortune, its wild overreactions and its 97-point runners-up medals, what ultimately drives him is what drove him all those years ago, when he left the Black Forest village of Glatten in pursuit of a dream: an opportunity to harness and bestow the unspeakable bliss of football.

***

Why do you love football?

"Ha, ha, ha! Wow, OK. Why do I love football?

[Long pause.]

"I loved it my entire life. Or, since I started thinking. And I loved it from the first day because I could do it with my friends, together. It’s… using the skills of your friends to be the best team you can be. I loved that. We all benefit from each other. And the game itself: running, shooting, being dirty. That’s how I fell in love with the game."

There’s something about the collective that appeals to you?

"My father was a tennis teacher, and he saw more talent in the tennis with me. But there was no chance. I was not that kid who wanted to be alone for hours and hours: forehand, forehand, forehand, forehand. Football, I could have played 12 hours a day if someone gave me the chance."

Clearly, you’re an intelligent guy. You’ve got a perspective on the world, lots of interests. And yet you’ve devoted your entire life to this game. When you look back at all the years you’ve dedicated to football - all the hours on the training pitch, watching videos, studying, worrying - do you ever feel like you could have put your mind to better use?

"I probably should have. But at 33 my life changed in the right direction. Because sport is nice, but I had no clue whether I really wanted to work in that business. The idea was to study medicine, but I cannot study medicine and play football. That’s how it was. I tried to create my life around playing football. It was not really responsible. It was not a really smart decision. The money we earned was nothing. As soon as I finished my career, I would have to work three days after.

"Then life changed with the opportunity to be a manager [at Mainz]. Getting that opportunity was like winning the lottery. Look, when you play football like I played football, you have to think more about the game than when you are a genius kid. That helped me the most. I started at five years old, and became a manager in my mid-30s. Without knowing it, those 28 years were my education."

***

The focus on the collective is one that mirrors Klopp’s outlook on the world. Politically, he describes himself as left of centre. “I have no problem being conservative with lots of things,” he says. “But how politics is described now, I am for sure on the left side of middle. Because I’m interested in the community, I’m interested that we are all doing well.”

It’s fairly easy to trace that ethos within Liverpool as a club. It’s a company run along egalitarian lines: everyone has a stake, everyone is made to feel valued, from Mo Salah to the guy who buffs up the tables in the boardroom. The football is strictly collectivist, a hard-running, hard-pressing system that only really works when all 11 players submit to it. Some of the club’s community work, whether through the foundation or its matchday food-bank collections, embodies the idea that we all have a duty to those less fortunate than ourselves.

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Mohamed Salah (Peter Byrne/PA)

But within the sport as a whole, it feels like a harder circle to square. European football is ruthlessly, hopelessly stratified, with the gulf between the richest and the poorest as wide as it has ever been. Liverpool, as one of the biggest clubs in the world, have been net beneficiaries: outspending most of their rivals and cementing their place in the game’s elite. And so it’s interesting that, even from a relatively privileged position, Klopp still sees potential trouble ahead, and advocates the judicious application of Financial Fair Play rules to maintain what he describes as “proper competition”.

***

Do you think football is still a force for good in the world?

"A positive influence? One hundred per cent. A dressing room in football is the perfect example of how all different cultures work together. Because they have all the same target: winning a game. What I like in football is that you can bring together so many people - not only in the stadium - for 95 minutes with exactly the same emotion, with the same focus, with the energy. You celebrate together, you suffer together. And both are nicer. Yes, it is still a force for good. But for different reasons, it’s… a bit in danger. Let me say it like this."

Why do you think football is in danger?

"It’s in danger because of organisation. Because it’s constantly developing and creating more and more competitions, more and more games. We should not forget that players need training, they need games, but they need rest as well. We play the final on the 1 June. And it’s not finished, because then the Nations League games come up, and the African Cup of Nations. Last year we started pre-season around the 2 July. Twelve months of football. Constant."

But isn’t this just the financial imperatives of the game? Isn’t football built around revenue these days?

"But why should international associations earn more money than they spend? Why should Fifa have more money than they spend? Why should Uefa have money in their account? Why should the World Cup be bigger? Why should they have more money than they need? To build bigger buildings? There’s no reason for it. The World Cup and the Champions League, those are things that work. But then, constantly: 'Make it bigger.' Now I hear the next World Cup will not be with 420 teams, only 32. That’s OK. You don’t need more games."

What about the club game? You used to get smaller teams winning the big leagues. Now, because of the financial inequalities, Juventus win every season in Italy, PSG in France, Bayern in Germany. Is that a problem?

"It can be. Look, I was so long in Germany, so it felt like Bayern was there all the time. But there was always a gap where you could jump in, always. And it will be again, I’m sure. Leverkusen had a brilliant team this year. Dortmund is there. Wolfsburg played a pretty decent season. Leipzig will come up. There is a competition. England is a proper competition.

"Italy, I don’t understand exactly how it works, to be honest. I don’t know how much the Agnelli family is in. But of course we have to be careful. That’s what FFP is for. That we all get a similar or the same chance. In Formula One, maybe Ferrari can build a faster car. But there is no car driving around who doesn’t need to go to the petrol station. They all have to go there. That’s a fair competition."

Is it still fair when teams like Ajax, who reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, get picked apart at the end of the season?

"That is the size of the country, the size of the league. That’s true. But how do you want to change that?"

I don’t know. That’s why I find it so scary.

"But they were so close this year. Tottenham deserved it, but it was still unlucky for Ajax. They had the opportunity. We had the opportunity with Dortmund years ago. Now, with Liverpool. Are we one of the biggest fishes? We have pushed ourselves onto that level, but if you look at Tottenham and us, there are other teams that are only built for winning the Champions League, and are not in the final. So there is a chance. There are always people with more, but you have to make sure it’s a fair level, and deal with that, and play. That’s it."

-AJA-TOT (204).jpg
Ajax players lie down dejected after conceding a last minute goal to send them out of the Champions League. Photo: REUTERS/Piroschka Van De Wouw

As a general rule, would you agree that people have a duty to help those less fortunate?

"Like everybody, I’m first and foremost interested in my family doing well. But apart from that, I want us all to have a chance to improve our circumstances. That’s how it usually is in Europe. Or used to be. I’m not sure."

Are you worried by the rise of populist right-wing parties in Europe and elsewhere?

"Who is not? Who, with the full function of the brain, is not? I don’t understand why people always think that if there are problems, then the people from that direction can solve it. But it is a problem of the people from the left wing as well. Because they don’t deliver solutions.

"Common sense is something I miss a little bit in politics. Like, not just doing things for the good of the party. Or having the best people in the best positions. Why are the best people not in politics? Because we don’t pay them enough, probably. Especially in Germany. The smartest people are out there in big companies. So now we deal with the rest, pretty much."

Liverpool’s always been a very political city, somewhere with a sense of community. Is that something that appealed to you when you took the job?

"No. I had no clue about the political situation in Liverpool. I don’t think you really think about that when you sign for a club in Europe. You come to another democratic country - fine. Around the Brexit vote, I heard then that Liverpool had a similar opinion to mine."

Does the city feel in touch with your own values?

"It’s for sure there, but I have to learn that from other people telling me. I cannot experience it. The city and I, we are like fire and water. I cannot go in the city, otherwise it burns. A little example. Friday night is the staff night out. One person not going: it’s me. Otherwise nobody can have fun. I don’t miss that, it’s completely fine. What I knew was the importance of football in the city. That was something I fancied. The size of the club. The chances that I saw there. The potential. That’s what I liked."

***

Those judging Klopp by his frequent apoplectic outbursts on the touchline, or the operatic quality of his team’s football, will be pleasantly surprised to learn that he is both more sanguine and more philosophical in person that he frequently appears in public. Klopp has never lived or died by the result of a football match. Perhaps it’s because he’s known real loss - losing his father Norbert to cancer at the age of 32, or his footballing mentor Wolfgang Frank a few years ago - that he never really subscribed to the old Bill Shankly quip that football isn’t a matter of life or death, but considerably more important than that.

Klopp spent seven years at Mainz, his first managerial job, leading them into the Bundesliga for the first time in their history. He then spent seven years at Dortmund, leading them to two Bundesliga titles and a Champions League final. This season is his fourth at Liverpool, and for all the progress made in his time at Anfield, a major trophy still eludes him. But then, when you’ve taken a club on the sort of journey that Liverpool have been on over the last few seasons, how much does that really matter?

***

Why do you think you form such close emotional bonds with the clubs that you manage?

"I don’t know. But we have, as we know, only one life. So make the best of it. Sometimes you can do it by yourself, but sometimes you can’t. And the rest? I understand that football is part of the entertaining side of life. So if we bore people constantly, why should they come? So we have to try to give them some excitement. Not only silverware. That’s obviously the main target. But between the start and the silverware, there must be a lot of good moments together. And we’ve had them."

You’ve always said football isn’t a matter of life and death. Does the fact that you’ve experienced actual life and death help you deal with setbacks?

"Mostly, my belief in God helped. Life is a present. We have to deal carefully with it. And have fun with it. Sometimes take care of it. And it doesn’t mean that everything goes in your direction. We are not five years old any more. If I try a thing, then I am responsible for getting it or not. If you don’t get it, try again. If it’s not important to you any more, then do something else.

"I know it will probably come up, and it’s a bit in everybody’s mind, about losing finals [Klopp has lost his last six at domestic and European level]. It’s not nice. But I cannot ignore and forget that we went there as well. It was an incredible journey. And most of the times we went there, we went in surprise rather than: 'Pff, yeah'. They expected other teams there, and we were there."

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A dejected Jurgen Klopp after last year's Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid in Kiev. Photo: Nick Potts/PA

Would you agree that the journey is as important as the destination?

"Using common sense, I’d say yes. Because of course it’s important. How can you ignore that? You can use our season as an example. If you only see the 97 points, it’s not enough, second. But the season was brilliant."

You didn’t seem too sad about losing the title?

"I wasn’t. You get 97 points, and [slams fist on the table] City scores a goal against Leicester City. Psssshhtt. If that happens... come on. What can you do? You cannot hope that some other people fail. We did our best, 97 points is brilliant, done. But the final is of course different. We go there to win it. We have a strong opponent, they have a different situation, you could make an advantage that we played it last year. They can make an advantage that we have more pressure because we lost it already last year. That’s all possible. At the end, we only go there to win the game."

***

Twelve months ago, Liverpool lost 3-1 to Real Madrid in the Champions League final. It remains a raw and bruising night for many Liverpool fans, their tilt at a sixth European Cup ended by Gareth Bale’s brilliance, the errors of Loris Karius and the early injury to Salah after a tackle by Sergio Ramos. Only victory over Tottenham at the Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday night will truly exorcise the ghosts of that evening.

Yet a few hours after arriving back home in Liverpool the following day, a video went viral of Klopp and a few of his friends jumping up and down at his home in Formby, singing Liverpool songs. “I saw the European Cup,” they sing. “Madrid had all the fucking luck. We’ll just keep on staying cool. And bring it back to Liverpool.” It is just about possible, Klopp now admits, that some beverages may have been taken.

Yet as the video lit up the internet, few people noticed what Klopp was holding in his right hand: a photograph of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, taken in happier times at the club Christmas party. Injured in the semi-final against Roma, and now forced to watch his team-mates suffer a crushing defeat, this was Klopp’s own quiet tribute to his stricken midfielder, and a reminder that once you join the Liverpool family, you’re never truly forgotten.

***

How long did it take you to get over Kiev?

"I actually decided that night that it would not really... keep me. You saw the game. It happened like it happened, What can you do? Yes, disappointment, being sad, all that stuff. But when we arrived in England again, I was already over it. I was pretty much the only one, actually, because I saw my family coming, and they didn’t look like they were over it. My friends, as well. And I remembered standing in the queue for the flight in Kiev, all in tracksuits, heads down, waiting for the check-in, and I remembered: I want to come back. I want to do it again. I didn’t think at that moment that we would have the chance immediately next year. But now we have. And that’s cool."

How do you deal with the randomness of football? You can’t control Kompany’s goal. You can’t control Salah getting injured or Bale’s goal. You work hard, and it doesn’t guarantee you anything.

"The ball goes in, or the ball goes not in. You have to accept it."

That would drive me mad.

"You get over it. Years ago [2014], we played the cup final against Bayern. Tight game. Nil-nil. We scored a goal. No goal-line technology. Pretty much everyone in the stadium saw it, but the ref didn’t. Extra-time: Bayern score one, everything opens up, they score a second one, done. We didn’t lose. But people don’t want to hear that. People only care about the result.

"Who spoke about the Ramos/Salah incident after the game, if not us? Who said: he [Karius] had a concussion? People say: [sarcastic voice] “ha ha, he had a concussion”. But he had a concussion! Five days after the final, he had 37 or 40 concussion points. But how can you use it? You only learn to sit back and accept all the things that happen around you. Deal with yourself. Don’t expect any help. I’m not a frustrated person. You will not be interested after the final how the goals happened. Maybe a little bit, but for 10 minutes, then it’s over. For us, it can be a life-changer. That’s the situation we are in."

Is that something your faith helps with?

"I am calm. I don’t expect that my life is perfect. My life is so much better than I ever thought it would be, so why should I now only worry about the last five per cent? That would be really silly. But: 'Pep Guardiola wins constantly, I don’t win anything.' Come on! I go home, and I have a wonderful family. I am a completely happy person. How could I be jealous of people that are more successful than myself? Or smarter than myself. Or better managers than myself, which there probably are. For me, I wouldn’t understand. I treat life like a present."

Is there a danger of being too contented? A lot of people are fuelled by competing with others. In a way, would it not help to be… a bit more jealous?

"You cannot want to win more than I want to win. Not possible. So how could the rest help me? I don’t want to be the best. It’s not my target. I want to help my team to be the best. That’s absolutely true. But being jealous doesn’t help. Never."

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