I have to start with a slightly embarrassing story. Because sometimes I am afraid that the outside world looks at footballers and managers like we’re Gods or something. As a Christian, I believe in only one God, and I can assure you that God has nothing to do with football. The truth is that we all fail, constantly. And when I was a young manager I failed a lot.
This is one of those stories.
We have to go back to 2011. My Borussia Dortmund team were playing Bayern Munich. It was a huge match in the league. We hadn’t won in Munich in something like 20 years. I take a lot of inspiration from movies, so whenever I needed to motivate the boys I would always think of Rocky Balboa. In my opinion, they should show Rocky 1, 2, 3 and 4 in public schools all across the world. It should be like learning the alphabet. If you watch these movies and you don’t want to climb to the top of a mountain, then I think something is wrong with you.
So the night before we played Bayern, I gathered all my players at the hotel for our team talk. The boys were all sitting down. All the lights were off. I told them the truth of the situation: “The last time Dortmund won in Munich, most of you were still in your Pampers.”
Then I started playing some scenes from Rocky IV on the video screen. The one with Ivan Drago. A classic, in my opinion.
Drago is running on the treadmill, and he’s hooked up to the big computer monitors and the scientists are studying him. Remember that? I told the boys, “You see? Bayern Munich is Ivan Drago. The best of everything! The best technology! The best machines! He’s unstoppable!”
Then you see Rocky training in Siberia in his little log cabin. He’s chopping down pine trees and carrying logs through the snow and running up to the top of the mountain.
And I told the boys, “You see? That’s us. We are Rocky. We are smaller, yes. But we have the passion! We have the heart of a champion! We can do the impossible!!!!!”
I was going on and on, and then at some point, I look out to all my boys to see their reaction. I was expecting them to be standing up on their chairs, ready to go run up a mountain in Siberia, going absolutely crazy.
But everyone is just sitting there, staring at me with dead eyes.
Crickets, as you say.
They’re looking at me like, What in the world is this crazy man talking about?
So then I realised, Wait, when did Rocky IV come out, 1980-something? When were these boys born?
Finally, I said, “Wait a minute, boys. Please raise your hand if you know who is Rocky Balboa?”
Only two hands went up. Sebastian Kehl and Patrick Owomoyela.
Everyone else, “Nope, sorry, boss.”
My entire speech — nonsense! This is the most important match of the season. Maybe the most important match of some of the players’ lives. And the manager has been screaming about Soviet technology and Siberia for the last 10 minutes! Hahahaha! Can you believe this?
I had to start my whole speech over from scratch.
You see, this is the real story. This is what actually happens in life. We are human beings. Sometimes, we embarrass ourselves. That’s how it is. We think we’re giving the greatest speech in the history of football, and we’re actually talking complete nonsense. But we get up the next morning and we go again.
Do you know what is the strangest part of that story?
I honestly cannot be sure if we won or lost the match. I am pretty sure that I gave this speech in 2011 before we won 3–1, and that certainly makes for a much better story! But I can’t be 100% sure.
This is one thing about football that people don’t always understand.
The results, you forget. You get them all mixed up.
But those boys, and that time in my life, and those little stories … I will never forget them.
I am honored to have won the FIFA award for best men’s coach last night, but I really don’t like to stand on a stage with a trophy all by myself. Everything I have accomplished in this game is only possible because of everyone around me. Not just my players, but my family and my sons and everyone who has been with me since the beginning, when I was a very, very average person.
Honestly, when I was 20 years old, if someone came from the future to tell me everything that was going to happen in my life, I would not have believed it. If Michael J. Fox himself had come flying in on his hoverboard to tell me what would happen, I would have said it was impossible.
When I was 20, I experienced the moment that completely changed my life. I was still a kid myself, but I had also just become a father. It was not perfect timing, let’s be honest. I was playing amateur football and going to university during the day. To pay for school, I was working in a warehouse where they stored movies for the cinema. And for the young people out there, we are not talking about DVDs. This was the late ’80s, when everything was still on film. The trucks would come at 6 a.m. to pick up the new movies, and we would load and unload those huge metal canisters. They were quite heavy, honestly. You would be praying that they weren’t showing something with four reels, like Ben-Hur or something. That was going to be a bad day for you.
I would sleep for five hours every night, go to the warehouse in the morning, and then go to class during the day. At night I would go to training, and then I’d come home and try to spend some time with my son. It was a very difficult time. But it taught me about real life.
I had to become a very serious person at a young age. All my friends would be calling me to go to the pub at night, and every bone in my body wanted to say, “Yes! Yes! I want to go!” But, of course, I couldn’t go, because I was not living just for myself anymore. Babies don’t care that you are tired and want to sleep until noon.
When you are worried about the future of another little person who you brought into the world, this is real worry. This is real difficulty. Whatever happens on a football pitch is nothing compared to this.
Sometimes people ask me why I am always smiling. Even after we lose a match, sometimes I’m still smiling. It’s because when my son was born, I realised that football is not life or death. We’re not saving lives. Football is not something that should spread misery and hatred. Football should be about inspiration and joy, especially for children.
I have seen what a little round ball can do for the lives of so many of my players. The personal journeys of players like Mo Salah, Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, and so many of my boys are absolutely incredible. The difficulties I faced as a young man in Germany were nothing compared to what they had to overcome. There were so many moments when they could’ve easily given up, but they refused to quit.
They’re not gods. They just simply never gave up on their dream.
I think 98% of football is about dealing with failure and still being able to smile and find joy in the game the next day.
I’ve been learning from my mistakes since the very beginning. I’ll never forget the first one. I had taken over the job in 2001 at Mainz, where I had been a player for 10 years. The problem was that all the boys were still my friends. Overnight, I was their boss. They were still calling me “Kloppo.”
When I had to announce the squad for the first match, I thought it was only right that I go and tell each player to his face.
Well, this was a very bad plan, because we had twin hotel rooms.
So you can imagine it. I get to the first room, and I sit the two players down on the bed, and I turn to one and say, “You are starting tomorrow.”
I turn to the other and say, “Unfortunately, you are not starting tomorrow.”
I realised how dumb my plan was when the second player looked me in the eyes and asked, “But … Kloppo … why?”
Most of the time, there is no answer. The only real answer is, “We can only start 11 players.”
Unfortunately, I had to do this eight more times — 18 players in nine twin rooms. Two guys sitting on the bed. “You’re starting, you’re not.”
Every time, “But … Kloppo … why?”
Hahahah! It was excruciating!
This was the first of many, many, times that I stepped in the s*** as a manager. What can you do? You just grab a tissue and clean it off and try to learn from it.
If you still don’t believe me, think about this: Even my greatest triumph as a manager was born from a disaster.
Losing 3–0 at Barcelona in the Champions League last season was the worst result imaginable. When we were preparing for the second leg, my team talk was very straightforward. There was no Rocky this time. Mostly, I talked about tactics. But I also told them the truth. I said, “We have to play without two of the best strikers in the world. The world outside is saying it is not possible. And let’s be honest, it’s probably impossible. But because it’s you? Because it’s you, we have a chance.”
I really believed that. It wasn’t about their technical ability as footballers. It was about who they were as human beings, and everything they had overcome in life.
The only thing that I added was, “If we fail, then let’s fail in the most beautiful way.”
Of course, it is easy for me to say those words. I am just the guy yelling from the touchline. It is much harder for the players to actually do it. But because of those boys, and because of the 54,000 people at Anfield, we did the impossible.
The beautiful thing about football is that you can’t do anything alone. Anything, believe me.
Unfortunately, the most incredible moment in the history of the Champions League … I didn’t actually see it. Maybe this is a good metaphor for the life of a football manager, I don’t know. But I completely missed Trent Alexander-Arnold’s moment of pure genius.
I saw the ball go out for a corner.
I saw Trent walking over to take it. I saw Shaqiri following him.
But then I turned my back because we were preparing to make a substitution. I was talking to my assistant, and … you know, I have goose bumps every time I think about it … I just heard the noise.
I turned to the pitch and I saw the ball flying into the goal.
I turned back to our bench and looked at Ben Woodburn, and he said, “What just happened?!”
And I said, “I have no idea!”
Anfield was going — boof — absolutely crazy. I could barely hear my assistant, and he was yelling, “So … do we still make the substitute?”
Hahahaha! I will never forget him saying that! That will always be with me.
Can you imagine? Eighteen years as a manager, millions of hours watching this game, and I missed the cheekiest thing that has ever happened on a football pitch. Since that night, I have probably watched the video of Divock’s goal 500,000 times. But in person, I only saw the ball hit the net.
When I got to my little boot room after the match, I didn’t even have a sip of beer. I didn’t need it. I sat there with a bottle of water in silence, just smiling. It was a feeling that I cannot describe in words. When I got back home, my family and friends were all staying over at our house, and everyone was in a big party mood. But I was so emotionally exhausted that I went up to bed by myself. My body and mind were completely empty.
I had the best sleep of my life.
The best moment was waking up the next morning and realizing, “It’s still true. It really happened.”
For me, football is the only thing more inspiring than the cinema. You wake up in the morning, and the magic was all real. You actually knocked down Drago. It really happened.
I have been thinking about this since June, when we took the Champions League trophy around the streets of Liverpool. I have no words that can describe the emotions of that day. We were riding in the bus, and every time we thought the parade had to be over — that there could not possibly be any more people in the city of Liverpool — we would turn a corner and the parade would go on. Absolutely unreal. If you could’ve put all the emotions, all the excitement, all the love in the air that day and bottled it up, the world would be a better place.
I have not been able to get the emotion of that day out of my head. Football has given me everything in my life. But I really want to do more to give back to the world. Easy for me to say, O.K. sure. But how do you actually make a difference?
Over the past year, I’ve been really inspired by seeing Juan Mata, Mats Hummels, Megan Rapinoe, and so many other footballers join the Common Goal movement. If you don’t know about the work they’re doing, it’s incredible. More than 120 players have pledged 1% of their earnings to empower football NGOs around the world. They’ve already helped support youth football programs in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Cambodia, India, Colombia, the U.K., Germany and many other countries.
This isn’t just something for the richest footballers in the world. An entire starting 11 from the Canadian women’s national team has joined the cause. Footballers have joined from Japan, Australia, Scotland, Kenya, Portugal, England, Ghana…. How can you not feel inspired by this? This is what football is all about.
I just want to be a part of this. So I’m pledging 1% of my yearly salary to Common Goal, and I hope that many, many more people in the football world will join me.
Let’s be honest, guys. We are extremely fortunate. It is our responsibility as privileged people to give something back to children all over the world who just need a chance in life.
We should not forget what it was like when we had real problems. This bubble we live in is not the real world. I am sorry, but anything that happens on a football pitch is not a real problem. There should be a bigger purpose to this game than revenue and trophies, no?
Just think what we could accomplish if we all came together and gave 1% of what we earn to make a positive difference in the world. Maybe I am naive. Maybe I am a crazy old dreamer.
But who is this game for?
We all know damn well that this game is for dreamers.