Saturday 21 September 2019

'Life is a present. We must have fun with it and entertain' - Klopp

Liverpool manager's philosophy on life reflected on the pitch as he tackles right-wing politics, football's finances and his faith ahead of attempt to exorcise the ghosts of Kiev against Spurs

Jurgen Klopp speaking in Madrid yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
Jurgen Klopp speaking in Madrid yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

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 or 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.

Klopp in coversation with Jonathan Liew.
Klopp in coversation with Jonathan Liew.

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. 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, 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."

 

Clearly, you're an intelligent guy. When you look back at all the years you've dedicated to football do you ever feel like you could have put your mind to better use?

"I probably should have. But at 33 my life changed. The idea was to study medicine, but I cannot study medicine and play football. 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. 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.

But within the sport, 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 in outspending most of their rivals. 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? 100pc, 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. 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 June 1. 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 July 2. 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 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?"

What about the club game? 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. There is a competition. England is a proper competition. Italy, I don't understand exactly how it works, to be honest. But of course we have to be careful. That's what FFP is for. That we all get a similar or the same chance."

 

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?

"They were so close this year. Tottenham deserved it, but it was still unlucky for Ajax. They had the opportunity."

 

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?

"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. 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."

Does the city of Liverpool 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 fine. What I knew was the importance of football in the city. That was something I fancied."

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 at Anfield, a major trophy still eludes him.

But then, when you've taken a club on the sort of journey that Liverpool have, 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. 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 you've experienced actual 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. And it doesn't mean that everything goes in your direction."

 

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 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."

 

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 injury to Mo Salah after a tackle by Sergio Ramos. Only victory over Tottenham on Saturday night will truly exorcise the ghosts.

 

How long did it take to get over Kiev?

"I actually decided that night that it would not really... keep me. 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."

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.

"The ball goes in, or the ball goes not in. You have to accept it. 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! You only learn to sit back and accept all the things that happen around you."

Does your faith help with that?

"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. For me, I wouldn't understand. I treat life like a present."

 

Is there a danger of being too content? A lot of people are fuelled by competing with others. Would it not help to be… a bit more jealous?

"You can't want to win more than I want to. Not possible. So how could the rest help? I don't want to be the best. I want to help my team to be the best." (© Independent News Service)

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