© Ricardo Pinto, 2015, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU
It’s not that common to see a Union Jack flag fluttering on British soil, except where the royal family is concerned. Seeing a European Union (EU) flag is as rare as spotting a dodo. But a seeing a German flag on British soil is something that I never thought I would witness, but that is exactly what happened yesterday. So what is the cause of this unexpected event? Is it the Brits getting the German reunification celebrations wrong by a few weeks? Is it perhaps celebrating the fact that Germany is doing them a favour by giving refuge to probably over 1 million refugees and asylum seekers to Britain’s 20,000 spread over five years? No, it is “Kloppmania”. Let me explain.
I have been a fan of Liverpool Football Club (LFC) since I first came to England in 1977. That was the year that Kevin Keegan left Liverpool for Hamburg SV, sparking off the German club’s revival and winning the Bundesliga in the 1978–79 season for the first time in nineteen years. But it was also the year when he was replaced by an even better player, namely Kenny Dalglish or simply King Kenny, as he is affectionately known at the club. They played glorious football, resulting in LFC retaining the European Cup and winning the European Super Cup (by beating a HSV team including Keegan). Domestically, they were runners-up in the league (to Nottingham Forest) and the Football League Cup. The team went on be the dominant team in England and in Europe, winning 5 of the titles in 1970s and six in the 1980s, as well as collecting 4 European Cups (now Champion’s League) along the way. However, the last league title was in the 1989-90 season, prior to the establishment of the Premier League. All good things come to an end and it has certainly been downhill more or less all the way since. Liverpool has not won the league titles for 25 years: a quarter of a decade!
Seven managers have come and gone in that time. Several have come close to winning the premier league (runners-up 4 times since 1989-90), most recently in the 2013-14, when the club played uninhibited, exhilarating, swashbuckling football, reminiscent of the dim and distant heyday. However, it was yet another false dawn and since the bitter disappointment of being runners-up there has been a season and a bit where all the hopes and aspirations of the fans have been crushed to the point where they could no longer recognise the team or the tactics.
Liverpool is a proud and historic city, but de-industrialisation has done it few favours. Reflecting the football, the city has experienced a period of decline. It may be one the poorest cities in the UK but it remains solidly working class the fans are as committed, vocal and passionate as ever, perhaps expressed most vividly in their support for the red half of the city (the other team, Everton, is the blue part) when they sing “You’ll never Walk Alone” (YNWA). They understand the game and expect their players to be committed and brave on the ball and to play in the Liverpool way. Intense is the word that best describes the cauldron of football called Anfield. The lack of fighting spirit against any team, especially fierce rivals such as Manchester Unite, is the single most unforgivable thing about recent performances, reflecting poorly on both the players and manager.
Not surprisingly, there was a growing wave of discontent in the stands, including regular booing their own team (but not the manager out of respect) in the last few games, and growing criticism in the media which features a remarkably large number of ex-Liverpool pundits. The manager had to go – after all, they can hardly fire the whole team – and this is exactly what happened over a week ago. Although not exactly unexpected, it was still a shock the fans, the majority of whom are known for their loyalty to the club through thick and thin.
From the beginning there were two managers in the running according to the media, namely Carlo Ancelotti (ex-Real Madrid among a long list of top clubs) and Jürgen Klopp (ex-Dortmund and Mainz 05). Both are highly successful A-List managers, but the truth be told, I believe I was among the vast majority of fans (over 90% in my estimate) who could quite believe that either one would be appointed for three main reasons:
- The club is no longer among the wealthiest in the country (5th after Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City) and cannot afford so-called “world class” players, unlike its rivals;
- The club has not been regularly in the Champion’s League since the last, brief period of glory (winner in 2005 and runner-up in 2007) unlike many other equally illustrious clubs;
- The burden of history of last winning the league 25 years ago, combined with the sheer scale of challenge involved in clawing up the league table and regaining the long-lost lustre does not appeal to many managers.
Wrong, double wrong and I am very happy to admit it.
I was flabbergasted and yet hugely excited when it became increasingly apparent that we would get Jürgen Klopp as our next manager, with him being unveiled by the club on 16 October 2015. Klopp’s decision to choose Liverpool over any of the leading clubs in the world, has galvanised the red half of the city, though I dare say many of the blue side (Everton FC supporters) are also secretly glad if not proud that he has chosen to come to their part of the NW (as opposed to Manchester) or London.
Now leaving aside the royal family, although there is respect, Germans are not generally held in high esteem in the UK. It is not simply a matter of two wars (which should not be underestimated, even today), it is the strongly held stereotypes which hold that Germans are unexciting and lack a sense of humour. None of this applied for a second to Klopp or “Kloppo” as he is affectionately known by fans. A little bit of research reveals a few consistent facts about the man, which goes to the heart of why football fans take to him and not just in Germany:
- He is loyal: he is a one club ex-football player (Mainz 05), has managed two clubs (Mainz 05 and Dortmund), each for 7 years. This is increasingly an endangered species in football and one that fans automatically respect, not just Liverpool fans;
- He gets working class clubs: Mainz, Dortmund and Liverpool have three things in common; all have a working class history, passionate fans whose “anthem” is YNWA and, of course, Klopp himself. He is clearly attracted by the passion and intensity of the fans and is something they take to him like a duck to water;
- He is larger than life: not only is he is a tall and handsome fella, he has a semi-permanent wide grin and is extremely charismatic. He has his own style and is neither afraid to express his emotions or his opinions. This is something that all fans automatically connect with – managers who sit stony faced, take reams of notes or put up umbrellas are the opposite;
- He excites all fans: he has his own variant of tactics, most clearly expressed in the hard running (counter pressing or “gegenpressing”) but it is intense, it is emotional and it is exciting football: it is dynamic football and fans all over the world can automatically relate to it. Unlike other managers who talk incessantly about their “philosophy”, Klopp’s approach can be boiled down to this: “So that’s it, it’s very emotional, very fast, very strong, not boring, no chess. Of course tactical, but tactical with big heart. Tactical things are so important, you cannot win without tactics, but the emotion makes the difference. Life in our game, that’s important.” This in turn can be reduced to two words which cannot be mistaken by any fan, regardless of language, culture or tradition: “full throttle” or “heavy metal” football is what is promised and I for one will gladly take that;
- He knows there is no instant success: he has clearly not selected Liverpool because of mere romanticism, though this is undoubtedly a factor. Klopp has stressed that this was the only club that he has discussed, that he has come because of the players and that it will take time to achieve success with a team such as Liverpool. He says this often with memorable throw away one-liners such as: “I’m here to put things right at Liverpool FC – but don’t think I’m Jesus.” It is not by accident that there was an instant emotional connection. Elements of the great Bill Shankly, who set the club on its path to success, are evident. The world has come to admire the achievements of Dortmund over the German football colossus that is otherwise known as Bayern München. Under Klopp, Dortmund punched above its financial weight and reaped global acclaim for its approach in developing players rather than paying top dollar for ready-made talent. In this context, it struck a chord with the fans when Klopp said that everyone at Liverpool FC had to turn from “doubters to believers.”
- He is not purely motivated by money: he will earn up to GBP 7 million per annum after bonuses. That is double what his predecessor earned, but he is by no means the best paid in Britain and could have earned more, if that was his sole motivation. Instead, he has accepted one of the biggest challenges in word football. To revive a team (and in the process, the city) with its fading glory and deep yearning for success in a major undertaking, compared to merely fine-tuning a well-oiled elite club with matching finances. This type of challenge is not what 99% of managers out there would go for. The level of expectation connected with such a task has crushed many before him and may well do the same to him (he is well awareness of the club’s history and has likened the weight of the past to carrying it around “like a 20 kg backpack”). He has clearly made his own calculation and let his heart as well as his head rule his decision, rather than the easy option or the bank account.
So what is the outcome?
It is that quite simply, he has gripped the city in “Kloppmania”, but he has excited everyone connected with football too. It is clear that if he is successful with his methods in Liverpool, it will impact the rest of the game and may change the tactics deployed in the UK. That prospect excites all fans. If he is able to change the money game where success if closely correlated with expenditure, as he successfully did at Dortmund, then he will not only affect Liverpool, he will galvanise all other clubs (apart from Man United, Man City and Chelsea) in the Premier League. In the process, he will also give hope to fans all over the world. The reset button will be pressed and the prevailing (largely accurate) view that money buys success on the field will be less dominant and football will get a shot in the arm.
So, it is not surprising that Kloppmania has taken over Liverpool in particular, though the effect is wider in my view, with many other fans hoping that Klopp achieves successful in England. Ex-Manchester United players and pundits such as Gary Neville are already urging caution about the runaway Kloppmania in Liverpool. To some extent, leaving footballing biases to one aside, ne is right to caution us. The first game yesterday showed that Klopp is no magician and certainly no Messiah. After 2 days of training his full squad and having to contend with a long injury list along his leading players, Liverpool played its first game against a team on top form and salvaged a draw against Tottenham Hotspurs. No win, but this team ran more, pressed more intensely, played more freely and defended much better than in three years; there are no complaints from Liverpool fans. We know we are back on the tight track. We feel that Klopp has the knowledge, experience and charisma to make our team better, more exciting and more successful. It is only a matter of time, which of course, is the very commodity which is increasingly disappearing from football.
We may have to wait a lot longer than 25 years to win the Premier League again, but at least we are free to dream once again. So pull out those German flags, wave them proudly and “Walk on, with hope in your heart.”