“HERE HE IS!”
It is a measure of Jürgen Klopp’s popularity that when Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, world soccer stars in their own right, attended FIFA’s recent awards gala in Milan, they did not go out of their way to meet Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo—but they did make a boisterous beeline for Klopp, the 52-year-old German, now in his fifth season at Liverpool, who today may be the best coach in any sport. At the very least he’s the most charismatic, a fist-pumping force of nature who smothers players in bear hugs after games, which these days almost always end in victory. Entering 2020, the reigning Champions League winners had claimed a stunning 58 Premier League points, winning 19 of 20 games.
“I was excited to meet him, so I just went right up and got in there,” says Rapinoe, fresh off of winning FIFA’s Women’s Player of the Year award herself. “He’s so warm and genuine. I think everyone would say that about Jürgen Klopp.”
That night, as Klopp accepted his own award for the top men’s coach, he announced he was joining Rapinoe, Morgan and 130 other sports figures in Common Goal, whose members donate 1% of their incomes to charity.
“I met [Rapinoe] for the first time that night, and I loved her,” says Klopp. “It’s very important that we have people like her to be a bit chatty about important things. I share 100% her opinion about Donald Trump [with whom Rapinoe has publicly sparred]. That’s easy to do, but you need to have balls to do it in public, in these moments when you win something. Megan and Alex, they were brilliant company.”
The two American stars found out in Milan what Merseyside denizens have known for years, how it’s hard not to feel connected to the gregarious German. In Liverpool, Klopp’s aura seeps into every corner of the fabled port city. Check into a downtown hipster hotel and the elevator door is plastered with a giant caricature of the smiling coach above the word 'BOOM!'
Step into a taxi and ask for a ride to Melwood, the Reds’ training ground, and the driver will inquire in wondrous Scouse: “Going to see the German god?”
Speak to Dutch midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum and he’ll tell you about the day he signed with Liverpool, how he visited his new boss’s home that afternoon and how Klopp barely spoke about soccer.
“Most people just go straight to the business,” Wijnaldum says. “We spoke about our lives, basically. And we still do.”
Klopp rarely idles his drive to forge human connections. When 750,000 Liverpool fans turned out for the parade celebrating the Champions League triumph last June, Klopp swears he tried to hold eye contact for at least a fraction of a second with each person he saw from his perch atop the team bus.
“How much it meant to the people? I thought I knew, but seeing it is completely different,” he says. “You had 60-, 70-, 80-year-old men and women punching their chests, screaming, ‘I! LOVE! YOU!’ Life is all about having that kind of relationship.”
That worldview is reflected on the field, where the key to Klopp’s high-pressing style is to combine the collective talents, desires and energies of players from a wide range of nations into a unit that is greater than the sum of its parts.
So explains Klopp, legs crossed on a white-leather office couch, speaking between puffs on a vape. He’s dressed a bit like a dad going to his kid’s weekend soccer game: black sweatshirt, windpants, white running shoes, no socks. But what stands out above all else in person are his teeth. They’re majestic, like a human Hoover Dam, and they can express multitudes, whether it’s the pleasure of a radiant smile or the “Let’s go!” urging of a sideline gnash or the cackling cocksureness of the cartoon-villain laugh he emits when his team concedes.
This is the morning after another Champions League victory at Anfield, and Klopp can’t help flashing those choppers as he reminisces about one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history. Last May, in the Champions League semifinals against Barcelona, the Reds were staring down a 3–0 first-leg defeat to mighty Messi & Co., which meant their best chance of advancing was a follow-up 4–0 win at home ... without two of their best players, forwards Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.
“I said two things to the boys,” Klopp recalls. “One, it’s impossible—but because it’s you, we have a chance. And: I want everybody to close your eyes for 10 or 15 seconds. Imagine the best game you’ve ever played. That’s exactly the game we have to play tonight. And then the boys played that game.”
Liverpool had three goals by the 56th minute, including two from Wijnaldum. Ultimately, Divock Origi landed the decisive blow on a trick corner.
“It’s one of the most wonderful stories ever in football,” says Klopp, whose team went on to beat Tottenham Hotspur 2–0 in the final.
But while the Champions League hardware may be the most coveted in club soccer, and while the Reds (who face Atlético Madrid in this year’s round of 16) are well positioned to retain it, it’s also a trophy Liverpool has now won twice in the last 15 seasons. There’s another one, a supposedly lesser one, that supporters want even more. When the team won the English league title in the spring of 1990, it was the club’s record 18th championship, far surpassing archrival Manchester United’s seven. But almost 30 years have passed, and in that time United has won the league 13 times, Liverpool none.
If it seems inevitable that 2020 is the year the Reds tip the scales back in the other direction, with 13 points (and a game in hand) between them and second-place Leicester City entering the new year, remember: These fans have been burned before. Liverpool’s 97 points last season would have been the second most ever by an English team, if not for Manchester City’s 98. And don’t even mention Steven Gerrard’s title-costing slip-up of ’14.
Neil Atkinson, host of the popular Anfield Wrap podcast, enumerates the stakes.
“I’m 38, so Liverpool last won the league when I was 9,” he says. “I’ve got an entire adult supporting life where Liverpool haven’t won the title—and my father has 13 leagues. You’re in this situation where you want one. Just one. That’s the Holy Grail.”
Flash back to the 1980s, when Liverpool won the league seemingly every other year. As a teenager in Milwaukee back then, working concessions at Brewers games for spending money, Mike Gordon never could have imagined owning the storied European soccer club. But there he was in 2001, by then a wildly successful asset manager, joining a Red Sox ownership group led by John W. Henry. Nine years later, that organization (now called Fenway Sports Group) bought Liverpool FC, for which Gordon became FSG’s point man in ’12.
Today Gordon lives in Brookline, Mass., a private-pathway walk from Henry’s mansion. But he spends plenty of time in Liverpool, where the most powerful figure at the world’s best soccer team happily goes unrecognized in a black LFC cap and jeans.
That’s by design. But as intensely private as Gordon is—his interview with SI marked only his second as a soccer exec—he’s also deeply involved. In 2015, after firing manager Brendan Rodgers, he oversaw the process, along with sporting director Michael Edwards and director of research Ian Graham, of finding a replacement. It wasn’t long before they lasered in on Klopp, who in his seven years with Borussia Dortmund had won two Bundesliga titles and reached a Champions League final.
“Analytically, [Dortmund] stacked up very well relative to expected performance,” Gordon says. “I called Jürgen. We had an extraordinary conversation, and it was pretty clear to me by the time I hung up that he was the right person. We arranged a meeting in New York City, had a lengthy discussion late one night and the following day, and it was very straightforward. This was the perfect choice.”
Eventually Klopp stepped out of that meeting so his agent could negotiate terms. The coach, on his first visit to New York, aimlessly walked the streets, burned through a few smokes and then jumped into a golf store to buy a hat. Foreign tourists were starting to recognize him.
Inside, he was quaking with excitement. “I’ve loved this game since I’m 2,” he says, “and that’s what Liverpool is all about, the passion and the love and the emotion. ... I thought about how important football is to Liverpool supporters and the situation they were in”—hovering around sixth or seventh place throughout the early 2010s—“and me wanting to change things.”
Catching up to his new English rivals would be one thing if Klopp had inherited something akin to Man United’s wealth, but Liverpool is hardly Europe’s richest club. The team ranks seventh in revenue, according to the international accounting firm Deloitte, and in recent years has sold off two of its biggest stars, Luis Suárez and Philippe Coutinho, to higher-up-the-money-chain Barcelona. So how has Liverpool made up the wealth difference to conquer Europe?
For starters, the team doesn’t spend for spending’s sake. When the club made no major purchases last summer, Klopp was clear: It’s part of his job to make his own players better. And when Liverpool does spend—like the $48 million dished out to land Salah, an Egyptian forward, in 2016; or the $100 million plopped down in ’17 for Virgil van Dijk, a towering Dutch man-mountain of a center back (and the ’19 UEFA Player of the Year); or the $84 million handed over for Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson in ’18—it starts by identifying targets who fit Klopp’s playing style. He wants guys who can defend collectively all over the field, defenders who can play the ball, fullbacks who can join in the attack and front-liners who can win possession in the opposing end, punishing teams in transition. A transfer committee, led by Edwards, makes heavy use of data to narrow down a list of targets, from which Klopp gives a green light. Then it’s up to him to provide the environment for players to succeed.
Among those who’ve thrived in that environment: Andy Robertson (purchased under Klopp for a paltry $10.5 million in 2017) and 21-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold (homegrown), the best pair of attacking fullbacks in the world, as well as the balanced three-man midfield of Fabinho ($53 million in ’18), Wijnaldum ($36 million in ’16) and Jordan Henderson, a Liverpool veteran of a decade.
It’s the front three of Salah, Firmino and Sadio Mané, though, that will define this era of Liverpool football. Klopp, who coached against Firmino with Dortmund and who nearly purchased Mané for his old German club, swears he predicted their remarkable chemistry.
“I could see it coming,” he says.
Still, it has taken some of his best management skills to make it work. Take a much played-up incident earlier this season, against Burnley, when Mané blew up at Salah for taking a difficult shot instead of passing to his open teammate. Klopp, says Wijnaldum, is “always trying to solve problems because he can understand why people are angry.” In the days after the game that meant bringing Salah and Mané into the manager’s office—separately, not together, Klopp emphasizes—for heart-to-hearts.
“In the world of football, it looks so big; it’s like, 'Oh, my god, how can you do it?'” Klopp says of the mini-altercation. “But I just spoke to them.”
Before the Champions League final last spring, journalist Raphael Honigstein (who wrote the Klopp biography Bring the Noise) visited Liverpool’s camp in Marbella, Spain.
“The mood was so relaxed; there was none of the usual sort of paranoia,” says Honigstein. “It was like a holiday. Klopp and his staff every night had this long table, and you could hear them laughing and having an amazing time. And I think that mood has carried over into this season. ... They are supremely confident that they are going to be successful, and I think that breeds its own sort of reality. They go down a goal or two, and things don’t change.”
All of this, says Gordon, can leave one thinking Klopp is 100% charisma and emotion, leaving his intelligence and attention to detail overlooked. This is the manager, after all, who hired a specialist throw-in coach, a rarity in soccer; who installed a cutting-edge head of nutrition in charge of team meals; who revolutionized Liverpool’s use of data and video technology, including analyzing in-game patterns to share with players at halftime. At a time when some of the world’s top managers from a decade ago—José Mourinho, Arsène Wenger, Carlo Ancelotti—have failed to evolve, Klopp has updated his approach. At Liverpool, that has meant more than just unleashing the chaos of his high press. Klopp’s Reds now exert control over games too.
“He’s a polymathematical guy,” says Gordon, with whom Klopp is prone to chatter about the Fenway Group’s commercial dealings, for example. “I spent 30 years as an investor speaking to some of the best CEOs in the world, and Jürgen is right up there with them. If he wasn’t managing a football club, he could be managing a Fortune 500 company.”
In December, when Liverpool announced it was extending Klopp’s contract for two more years, until 2024, Reds fans rejoiced, not least because many had assumed Klopp would move on to coach the national team of Germany, which is hosting Euro 2024. Liverpool is a working-class city, but it has bucked the national trend in the U.K., voting for Labour and against Brexit. In many ways Klopp’s extension—coming one day after conservatives had swept to victory in national elections—was seen by many supporters as a momentary balm in a bad-news week.
Much like Rapinoe, Klopp has used football’s platform to call for social change. He is an unabashed lefty, and it’s by design that he has managed clubs, Liverpool and Dortmund, whose fan bases’ politics largely match his own. Each sings the global standard “You’ll Never Walk Alone” instead of any national anthem before games.
Perhaps the greatest testament to Klopp’s charisma is the fact that even in tribal England, where fans tend to turn the most successful opposing coaches into villains, he’s viewed mostly positively. He remains a grinning unifier even as he destroys his foes, even as he wades into the politics of an increasingly polarized world.
Liverpool’s most revered manager of all time, Bill Shankly, was renowned for saying, “Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that.” Klopp would never agree. Popular but not a populist, he sees no easy answers in the world today.
“I’m aware of a lot of problems we have,” he says, “and like every person with half a brain, I’m interested in solving them. But I really think we have to solve them together. So don’t separate yourself from the rest of the world.”
“Populists”—and here he fingers Trump and U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson—“have historically proven they were never the right solution. They’re telling people the things they think we want to hear. ... As long as we work on our problems together, they are there to solve. We depend on each other, and that’s what we should not forget.”
That could just as easily be Klopp’s soccer mission statement. In the most global of sports, one of the most popular figures has found a giant audience. And what if he can lead Liverpool to its first domestic title in three decades?
“I think it would put him with the Holy Trinity of Liverpool managers,” says Honigstein, meaning Shankly, Bob Paisley and Kenny Dalglish. “He’s taken a club that was lost. To bring them back—to relieve those 30 years of disappointment, that loss of status—I think would be an achievement on par with theirs.”
Liverpool seems destined to clinch its latest English title by late spring, but there’s more to Klopp’s appeal than just winning. The artist Dan Leydon recently designed a GIF that captures Klopp’s complete essence: the manager blasting light beams from a futuristic “good vibes” gun, flashing a toothy laugh. It’s the visual representation of a remarkable achievement, a man completely connected, both mythical and approachable.
This story appears in the February 2020 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.