Why Jürgen Klopp keeps smiling through triumph and disaster

By the Reverend John Root in THE TIMES, 1 June 2019

Jürgen Klopp, the manager of Liverpool, who play Tottenham Hotspur in the final of the Champions League tonight, has openly professed his Christian faith.

Explaining the impact of his upbringing in a Lutheran home, he says: “There is nothing so important to me that I can not bear to lose it, and that is why I find I have no reason to fear. But the most important point is that this lust for life is actually connected to my faith. I am a Christian and so I see life as a gift that should be enjoyed sensibly.”

“Gift” has the same root as “grace”, the most central word in Christian vocabulary, while other words that flow from it — such as trust, freedom, confidence, generosity and abundance — are marks of Klopp’s approach to football. In the background lies Luther’s central affirmation that we are made right with God solely through receiving by faith His grace towards us in Jesus Christ, expressing the paradox of St Paul’s words: “Having nothing, and possessing all things” (II Corinthians vi:10). The importance of our salvation does not obliterate the value of life in the world, but rather sets us free to live joyfully, creatively and responsibly.

Jürgen Klopp, the manager of Liverpool, is renowned for his laugh
Jürgen Klopp, the manager of Liverpool, is renowned for his laugh CHRIS BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES

The most seminal Lutheran of the 20th century, the pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis in 1945, coined the distinction between the “ultimate” (salvation in Christ) and the “penultimate” of living under Christ in this world. In his book Ethics he writes: “Jesus lets human reality exist as penultimate, neither making it self-sufficient nor destroying it — a penultimate that will be taken seriously and not seriously in its own way.”

Klopp and Bonhoeffer drink from the same theological stream. Several journalists have noted Klopp’s ability to regain perspective quickly after intense involvement in a match — that is, to return rapidly to recognising its “penultimacy”. His comment after losing the Europa League final to Seville in 2016 was: “It’s not the most important thing in the world, it just feels like it.” Hours after last season’s Champions League final defeat by Real Madrid he was in a bar singing with Liverpool fans.

One result is the “lust for life” — he laughs more than any manager in the history of the Premier League. A further result is freedom from fear, and liberating teams to play confidently, joyously and positively. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s quickly taken corner that led to Liverpool’s winning goal against Barcelona in their Champions League semi-final last month was the sign of a young player trusted with the freedom to improvise.

In a paper titled Redeeming Sport? for the Jubilee Centre, a Christian think tank, Calum Samuelson identified three facets of “creational good” in sport (enjoyment, competition and excellence), countered by three “fallen perversions” (addiction, antagonism and arrogance).

Klopp is strong on the conviction that football is primarily to give pleasure to spectators, with whom he always seeks a strong rapport. It is no coincidence that his successes, first at Borussia Dortmund and now at Liverpool, have come at arguably the most enthusiastically supported clubs in Germany and England.

When Liverpool were losing to Chelsea in September, Maurizio Sarri, the London club’s head coach, asked Klopp why he was smiling. “Aren’t you having fun?” he replied. Klopp has not used the hostile psychological games that have led to managers such as José Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson being criticised; nor has he used the tactic of trying to enhance team cohesion by fabricating narratives of shared victimisation. And players almost invariably improve under him. Andrew Robertson, for example, has been transformed into one of the most highly regarded left wing backs.

Exhorting his team before last season’s Champions League quarter-final against Manchester City, Klopp said: “[City] are the best team in Europe . . . But if you are brave, if you are ready to make mistakes, if you are ready to enjoy the work and your attitude is at the highest level, then you have a chance.”

These are not religious words, but they resonate with a faith that helps people to cope with risk and uncertainty, and instils freedom and confidence to deal with vicissitudes, injustices and challenges.

Such qualities stem from many sources, but Klopp’s confirmation preparation at the Lutheran church in Glatten, in the Black Forest, was likely a significant influence.

The Rev John Root is associate vicar of St Ann’s church in Tottenham, north London. He has supported Liverpool since 1947

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