Kevin De Bruyne: Why I turned down Jurgen Klopp
Man City midfielder talks to Sam Wallace about Klopp, Mourinho, money and whe he gets more assists than goals
On a blustery day at the temple to elite sport that is Manchester City’s new training centre, Jean Claude Van Damme is being shown around the facilities in sunglasses, baseball cap and, uncharacteristically, a warm overcoat instead of a sleeveless denim shirt.
He was once famous for being the world’s only famous Belgian, but today he is not even the most famous Belgian in the room.
That status belongs to Vincent Kompany, the man who has invited Van Damme, or perhaps it belongs to Kompany’s compatriot Kevin De Bruyne, one of world football’s new blue-chip stars. De Bruyne is £55m-worth of sheer attacking talent, the double German player of the year last season, a key man in the world’s No 1 ranked international team and one of only five Premier League stars on the 23-man Ballon D’Or shortlist.
You would not be surprised if De Bruyne, still just 24, won that little golden orb one day but for now he is content to have made a flying start at City where he has scored a crucial winning goal against Sevilla in the Champions League since becoming the second most expensive player in British football.
Fluent in four languages, and any position in the attacking part of the team, De Bruyne is a very modern European footballer. As for the fee itself, he does not think much about it.
“At the beginning I thought there would be more talk about it,” he says, settling into an armchair in a lounge in the City Football Academy’s first team building. “In Belgium it was really big. They talk a lot about how much I cost and how much I earn – even if they don’t know! I expected a lot more to be honest. So that’s good.
“No, it doesn’t bother me. In the end football is a big business, there is a lot of money but I’m not the only one. I am in a team with a lot of people who earn a lot of money and who were bought for a lot of money. In the end it is the same.
“Time goes quickly … this will be my eighth year as a professional footballer so if I imagine another eight I will be almost at the end. You need also to enjoy your time when you are playing football because it goes so quickly. In the end, for me, football is still a game. Even if you are a professional you need to have fun when you are on the field. If you don’t enjoy your job, you don’t have fun.”
And De Bruyne has been having fun. He broke the record for assists in German football last year, on the way to being voted player of the year by both media and players alike. His 18 months after leaving Chelsea in January 2014 for Wolfsburg were transformative and he did not miss a minute of the previous league season.
His girlfriend Michele Lacroix is expecting their first child in three months’ time and he is much more settled in England than he was two years ago with Chelsea.
It could have been different in that summer of 2013 when, having retuned to London from a successful year on loan at Werder Bremen, he was the subject of a bid from Borussia Dortmund’s then manager Jurgen Klopp, now in charge of Saturday’s opponents Liverpool. How close was he to joining Klopp?
“I had a personal agreement [with Klopp],” De Bruyne says matter of fact. “I asked the club [Chelsea] to go because I had a good feeling about Dortmund at the time. I had been good in Germany and he [Klopp] really wanted me because [Mario] Gotze went to Bayern Munich. He called me, and said ‘You will be the No 1’ … at a team who had been second in the Bundesliga and in the Champions League final.
“At the time I thought it was a good decision to go but the manager [Jose Mourinho] told me ‘You need to stay and you will get your chance here’. I accepted it and we moved on. I think he [Klopp] is a good trainer. I saw the way Dortmund played and they [Liverpool] play the same style. He tries to do the same. He is new here, and it will take some time. In the seven years he was there he did a magnificent job.”
I venture that De Bruyne’s style would have suited Klopp’s approach. “I think it is the way I am as a player, especially at that time,” he says. “It was really important for me. I fancied it but there was no problem to stay. [Then] also in that summer they [Chelsea] bought two more players in my position [Willian and Andre Schurrle] so you know it was going to be difficult. Even after pre-season I thought maybe this [move to Dortmund] can happen but it didn’t work out that way.”
He stayed at Chelsea for just another six months, playing only nine times and getting short shrift from Mourinho. Not that he is bitter about it. In fact he regards that time as crucial in making him the man he is now. He is a composed, serious young chap who left his home in the village of Drongen, aged 14, to pursue a football career at his local club Genk. In London he lived alone in a flat in Battersea while Michele finished her education in Belgium.
“It’s a totally different situation right now than two or three years ago,” he says. “We grew up and the two years in Germany we lived together went really well. I’m very happy she is here and it is also more comfortable if you have someone with you.”
It is a curious feature of De Bruyne’s career that he has been a more regular assister of goals than scorer, although he has been busy in both departments. Only in his loan season in Bremen did the goals outweigh the assists and in the league this season it is assists over goals again by four to three. In his 38 caps for Belgium, the pattern repeats itself.
“If I see someone I think is in a better position than me it is better for me to give the ball. Now I shoot more at goal. When I was young they sometimes said to me, ‘You need to shoot more, you try to give it too much’. It is something that I learned. To try to take the best option.”
Could he benefit from being more selfish? “I try to remain the same player and person that I am all the time. Eventually you grow up and think a little bit differently. But the core of the mind and the person is still the same as before. It is one of the main characteristics that it is important for me to stay the same. The people around me know me like this. I don’t know why I should change with all the things that are happening right now.”
It brings us on to the events of the past week in which Belgium’s game against Spain on Tuesday night was cancelled because of unspecified security fears, in light of last Friday’s Paris attacks. The Brussels suburb of Molenbeek has been identified as a breeding ground for jihadis and may have been the base for some of those connected who planned or carried out the Paris attacks.
“It’s very difficult,” De Bruyne says. “What happened in Paris is the worst thing that can happen and if those people [who did it] lived in Belgium then obviously not a lot of people will like it. There are a lot of [ordinary] Belgians who cannot do anything about that.
“I can understand why they would call off the game if it is too dangerous, I wouldn’t like to play football knowing that there was already a risk and especially if something happened. You would feel as a player responsible because people come to the game to have fun and watch you play.
“Then, imagine something happens. In the end I think it is the right decision for the people to call it off even if a lot of people are against it.”
De Bruyne points out that the Belgium national team has already bridged the politically-charged linguistic divide between the country’s French and Flemish speaking regions. “In the end, that’s politics and nothing to do with us.
“When we are playing the whole country is behind us and that gives us a good feeling. We are almost half and half. We are from everywhere. In the end, we are doing well as a team and we love it when we hear the game is sold out in five minutes. That’s the reason you play.”
After Liverpool, comes Juventus in Turin on Wednesday when a win will propel City towards top spot in Champions League group D, from which they have already qualified for the second round. De Bruyne is one of those players the club hope will take them to the next level. Can they win the competition? “I want to win as much as possible,” he says.
We finish by discussing his player of the year awards last season, won in spite of all that talent at Bayern Munich. The other key contender was Arjen Robben, but when he got injured, De Bruyne had a clear run.
“It wasn’t a surprise because I knew at the beginning of the year I was going well,” he says, breezily. He does not intend to be conceited but at his rarefied level, there is no point denying that £55m gets you a very good footballer indeed.