Jurgen Klopp tells Sam Wallace how his German roots and being a ‘really average’ player shaped his managerial approach
Jurgen Klopp recalls the days when he was just about making a living as a footballer in Mainz and the club’s visionary manager, the late Wolfgang Frank, was trying to introduce modern psychology to a battle-hardened squad of Bundesliga 2 relegation strugglers.
“The first time I realised I was confident was in a meeting when they said ‘Come on, draw a tree’,” Klopp says. “And there were all these little trees and my tree was as big as the f***ing paper, but that was only because I couldn’t draw. And the guy taking the session looked at it and said: ‘That’s confidence!’ Since then confidence has been my hobby.”
Klopp chuckles at the memory in his office at the Melwood training ground, where his denim jacket hangs on a chair and the view is out to the same training pitches where Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley plotted their triumphs.
Klopp has a challenge of his own to consider: first today’s game against Crystal Palace, and then Liverpool face runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City on Wednesday, in the first leg of what is shaping up to be an epic Champions League quarter-final.
Klopp is a very modern inheritor of an august job, but there are strong similarities with those of his illustrious Anfield predecessors, who had to fight for their place in the game. Klopp only turned professional at the age of 23, by then a father, and an impecunious university student. He says that when he finished playing at 33 the choices were stark. “I had no money in my account. It was always enough to live, to survive, but nothing else.
So it was ‘Okay, what are we doing now?'”
Now 50, and one of the most famous managers in the world, it means he thinks differently about life. We discuss his Protestant faith, introduced to him in the little Black Forest town of Glatten where he grew up, adapted over the years and by his own admission not particularly strict. There is also his respectful opposition to Brexit, and his firmly held belief, as a child of West Germany, that the European Union is, for all its imperfections, “the best idea we had so far”.
Before all that, however, there is the small matter of Pep Guardiola’s City, and a European meeting of the Premier League’s two most attacking, high-pressing teams. Klopp likes to joke that he got more out of his limited abilities as a dogged forward-turned-defender at Mainz, than Guardiola did as Barcelona’s 1990s midfield maestro. “I think maybe I got more of the maximum from my playing career than Pep Guardiola. You have to ask him that! He was really good. I can say I got 100 per cent out of my career.”
Both Klopp and Guardiola ask some of the best players in the world to sacrifice themselves for the team, although to Liverpool’s manager that is second nature. “That’s how I understand football. You want to be part of a team, behave like part of a team. You can’t have all the benefits of being part of a team and then behave like a single star. If you want to do that, play darts.
“The main thing is to make each other stronger. That is how I understand life, but in a football team it is especially like that. Help your mate to be the best he can be and he will help you to be the best.
“Being selfish is always easier than being unselfish. It’s a double-job, caring about yourself and another. Only from outside do people think ‘He’s so big, you cannot tell him anything’. There’s no player in the world like that.”
He pauses at this point and, tongue firmly in cheek, imagines a conversation with Lionel Messi – perhaps the one exception to that rule. “‘Ahem, Leo, we have Getafe on Saturday, if you were able to play that would be nice.’ All the rest, they have to train, they want to train, they love the game.”
Klopp demands a lot from his players and it goes back to his past at Mainz, a broke second-tier German club in the mid-1990s, who at that point had “never even had a toe in the Bundesliga”. “In those days, if nobody wanted you, it was like ‘Hmmm, maybe you can try Mainz’.” For 11 years they battled relegation down to the last few days of every season and only when they were safe did they know they would be paid for the next 12 months.
“That was pressure. I believe my life taught me to deal with pressure. I always had it. It’s good. That’s the thing about educating your kids – you think, ‘How can I create a situation for them to learn that?’ It’s not possible. You can’t create it. I came through with a lot of luck and fantastic mates. Sensational characters around me. We were really average footballers, but we fought.”
His religious faith is part of his belief in the strength in the collective.
“Being a Christian gives me a few rules. Being a Protestant is nice, it leaves a few doors open. It’s obviously not that dogmatic.”
His father Norbert was a travelling salesman, away all week, and his mother Elisabeth would often asked a misbehaving young Jurgen, ‘What if God sees you doing that?’. “I would say, ‘Ah, he won’t worry about that, he’s too busy’. It (faith) gives me a lot of things. I was always interested in people my whole life. I am not nosy, I am interested in people. I am a good listener and I really like to hear people tell me their story.”
In the Swabian tradition there was a prayer before bedtime and his grandmother would take him to church, “and then fall asleep after one minute”. Klopp was never sure why he had to go to church, but he did notice that when his sport-obsessed father got home he was never that angry no matter what had happened in the interim.
“My father was mostly fine and God didn’t think I did too badly. He thought I was a nice kid. Praying in church like this didn’t make me a Christian. I thought it was about common sense. There must be something that leads us, that keeps us all in line and then I found my own way to believe. It was not a style. No-one pushed me in that direction. They tried, but that pushed me in the wrong direction and I found the way back alone.”
Having had 14 managers in 11 years at Mainz, he took over himself in 2001 amid yet another crisis and revolutionised the club, eventually securing promotion to the Bundesliga. Now Mainz produces many top managers and sporting directors. His mentor Frank died in 2013, aged 62, of a brain tumour. In his last days he visited his old player, then Borussia Dortmund manager, at a training camp in Switzerland where Klopp arranged for one of Germany’s top neurosurgeons to examine his old boss. “The only thing they could say was ‘Sorry, too late’. He (Frank) was very proud. He always said, ‘One day I will sit in Switzerland in my house in the mountains and you will come and tell me your stories’. A few of us could tell a few stories now.”
During the Balkans conflict in the 1990s, Klopp recalls at Mainz at the time they had Croats, Bosnians and Serbs playing together in the team, including his current assistant Zeljko Buvac, the Bosnian-Serb who is regarded as the tactical expert. More fuel for Klopp’s belief in the collective that informs his opposition to Brexit – one that begins with a joke. “I am in a privileged situation, although if in the worst-case scenario Britain starts ejecting the EU nationals,” he says, “it would be funny if they started with the football managers.”
He makes it clear that it is not his business to “criticise any decisions of the people in Britain” and does not “think for a second about my situation”, but he has given the wider issue a lot of thought. “If I have a problem in a club, if I have a problem in a family, if I have a problem somewhere, then I stay in the family, stay in the club and sort the problem. I think the EU was far away from being perfect, but it was the best idea we had so far. That’s historically proven. As long as countries are together in a unity then all is good. If it’s not good then let’s improve it. There were hard times in the last two years in the EU with Greece, countries in southern Europe really struggling financially, then refugees because of the crisis in Syria. But that’s a problem for all people. Let’s sort it together.
“If such a fantastic country and a strong partner like Great Britain want to try to go the way alone I don’t see the benefit. I can’t see it. I am maybe not the best-informed person (but Brexit) was like countryside against cities, was a little bit young against old and that is not how democracy should work. If you have to make a decision for the whole country then find a solution for the whole country and not for old people in the countryside.
That’s all. But I am happy I live here and I deliver that message constantly to all my friends. I tell them, ‘I don’t know all English people, but those I meet are fantastic’.”
He wants to stay at Liverpool, having agreed a new contract two years ago until 2022. When asked about the inevitable interest from Bayern Munich, he points out he did not sign his current deal “like this”, miming having his hands tied behind his back and gripping a pen between his teeth. “As long as my family feel comfortable here and like it here, I always fulfil contracts. But that’s not all in my hands. I really hope we never reach a situation where people say ‘Hopefully he leaves tomorrow’. But nobody needs to worry about that moment – if anyone is worrying.”
His beliefs, his experience, his faith, have all contributed to who he is and as he prepares for the monumental task of reaching a Champions League semi-final he has hard decisions to make. “You think about it by yourself.
“What is right, what is wrong. If you think it is good for all of us then it is probably right. That is how I understand a football team. I don’t do anything that I feel bad about afterwards. I do everything in order that everyone feels better. Sometimes one player doesn’t feel that much better in the moment, but in the long term he will.”
He goes back to those days at Mainz, with the war raging in the former Yugoslavia and he wonders anew at the complete unity in that diverse dressing room. “If we think about how different cultures, countries, colours, live together, work together – have a shower together! – then look at a football team. In a football team nobody cares. They sleep in double-rooms and there is no issue with anything. That’s outstanding. Football was always a good example.” (© Daily Telegraph, London)