“What would Jürgen do?” Believing, in dark times

CPX Associate Dr Kate Power delights in the recently retired manager of Liverpool FC Jurgen Klopp both for his wins and his ethics.

When I married a Liverpool FC fan twenty years ago, I never expected to become a true believer. Unlike my better half, I never woke in the wee hours to watch The Beautiful Game propelled via satellite halfway around the globe. I never buddied up to strangers in the one nearby pub that opened specially at 2.00am, finding fellowship around football and a pint.

But my interest in soccer spiked suddenly in 2015, on watching Jürgen Klopp’s first press conference as LFC manager. When pressed to describe himself then – as Chelsea manager José Mourinho had done a decade earlier, infamously declaring himself “The Special One” – Klopp said disarmingly: “I’m a totally normal guy. I’m the Normal One.

In that moment, I was hooked.

Like the Jesus he claims to believe in, the Normal One has a way with words. Whether contrasting his own “heavy metal” approach to football with Arsenal’s orchestral “silent song” or cheekily exclaiming “Boom!” after beating Manchester City, Klopp’s charisma is clear and his metaphors memorable.

Less memorably, I suspect, for native English speakers, Klopp has been dubbed a “menschenfänger.” This German word for charisma literally means people-catcher, although the boss doesn’t take kindly to the label because, as he says, “it sounds like you catch people actively and I don’t.”

Yet Klopp has clearly captured hearts. His January 2024 announcement that he’d be stepping down as LFC manager at the end of this season left countless fans reeling worldwide – and not only those who root for LFC.

Like Jacinda Ardern almost exactly one year beforehand, Klopp told us he was “running out of energy.” It’s little wonder.

Klopp has been LFC’s best-ever manager, leading the club to several major trophy victories, and there are few now who’d deny that he is one of the world’s premier football managers. Former Premier League goalkeeper Thomas Sørensen describes Klopp as sitting among “the Mount Rushmore of managers.”

But the gaffer views his own legacy very differently: “Other managers collect trophies, I collect relationships.”

For players like Jordan Henderson, who worked closely with Klopp as LFC Captain, the boss’s connection with the team was unlike anything he had experienced or expected. Recalling a major loss in 2016, Henderson describes Klopp telling his dejected boys: “Yeah, bad moment but that’s when you stay together; that’s when you need everyone together – and also, by the way, this is just the beginning.”

Like an Old Testament prophet, Klopp knows: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” A self-professed “massive believer in happy endings,” Klopp couldn’t pull off a Hollywood-style ending to his final LFC season. But he did deliver us a cliffhanger. And he finished his tenure as LFC manager as perhaps the most beloved person in The Beautiful Game.

In an era in which self-professed Christians often inspire ridicule, mistrust and even hatred, inspiring love may be Klopp’s greatest accomplishment. How did he pull it off?

Again like the Jesus he follows, Klopp told despairing LFC fans from his first moments with the club: “you have to change from doubter to believer.” He repeated that message a year later, when under pressure to sign more big-name players: “If you really love this club,” he said, “then you need to believe in our way.”

For some commentators, this call to blind faith was too much. No one is above critique, least of all leaders. And no one gets it right all the time. Indeed, Klopp changed his stance on transfer spending two years later, backpedalling with classically colourful phrasing: “That’s the problem these days, you say something and whatever bullshit you say, nobody will forget it!”

Yet despite his missteps, Klopp has kept trust with LFC for nine years – and kept fans’ faith alive.

LFC didn’t win every game under his guidance, but Klopp delivered the goods – and lots of them. Yet more important than the wins (if inseparable from them) is the belief, love, and joy he gave both players and fans.

Klopp knew that his job was to make people’s lives better, by letting them forget their problems for 90 minutes. Refreshingly, for me – as more of a Klopp than a football fan – he also knew that “football is [just] a game.” Like Pope John Paul II before him, Klopp called football “the most important of the least important things.”

Since his resignation announcement, the tributes have come flooding in – giving Klopp credit for bringing families together and helping those at their lowest point to carry on. He has been heralded for teaching men to feel their emotions, to do life with friends, to stay human in a world governed by money, and to seek to become a better person. As a kind man, with integrity, whom others do well to emulate – notwithstanding the sharp side that sometimes showed itself at press conferences.

For his own part, refreshingly, Klopp never seemed to buy into the “What would Jürgen do?” narrative. Instead, the Normal One suggests that we “have a think about Jesus Christ. It’s a wonderful guideline for life because life is a gift.”

Going back to the source, the gaffer’s final game at LFC home ground Anfield on Sunday was a fitting finale for the manager who made LFC his home and loved it like family. And, in true LFC style, he was reminded – as many of us facing dark days also need to remember – “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Dr Kate Power is Senior Lecturer at the University of Queensland Business School and an Associate of the Centre for Public Christianity.

Image source: Shutterstock

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