In presidential politics, it’s called the beer test. It’s based on the theory that what really matters is personality, not policies. Voters ask themselves: Would I want to have a beer with this person? Would they be good company?
We’d all want to have a beer with Jurgen Klopp, and not only because he’s German so likely knows good lager. His likability is one reason why his arrival as Liverpool manager caused a flurry of excitement throughout the Premier League, after years of the media — and fans — wishfully linking him with England’s biggest clubs.
Ahead of his first game, away to Tottenham this Saturday, Klopp dubbed himself “the normal one” at his introductory press conference last week. It probably says a lot about soccer coaches that being normal is abnormal. That’s down to the surreal environment of cloying pressure and attention, as well as the extraordinary character and desire required to get such a rare and sought-after job in the first place. Then, to keep it, you must successfully direct the movements and massage the morale of some of the richest and most famous young people on the planet. You don’t get a job like that unless you’re deranged. Normally.
Tottenham appointed the Swiss coach Christian Gross as manager in 1997 and he traveled to his unveiling on the subway, brandishing his ticket in front of the press as a sign of his normality. From that moment, really, he was doomed, because why would the players or the media respect a manager who claimed to be ordinary?
Avram Grant, who also trotted out the “normal one” line when replacing Jose Mourinho at Chelsea in 2007, similarly proved to be too nice, too unremarkable, too well-adjusted, to last.
The climate is different now. With Mourinho’s implosion from greatest man alive, there’s an appetite for normal and nice. Or at least, someone who fits that perception. The media are helping: witness the benign treatment of photos of Klopp sitting at a table having a beer and a cigarette with his family. He’s a regular guy! Raheem Sterling’s vices don’t get treated so sympathetically.
Of course, many are excited to see how Klopp sets out his side. And now, in the wake of news from Thursday’s press conference, how he copes without the injured Danny Ings and Joe Gomez. But Kloppmania hasn’t taken root because most people are interested in how he rejigs the midfield and whether Gegenpressing will turn James Milner into the next Lothar Matthaus. It’s because it feels like he’s going to bring some authenticity to top-level English soccer. It feels like he’s a populist insurgent.
He’s arriving from the Bundesliga, with its fan-owned clubs, $250 season tickets and standing areas – the competition that’s held up as an antidote to all that is sterile, glossy and corporate about the English Premier League. Best league in the world? For whom? Media moguls who own the TV rights? Bankers in luxury suites?
A couple of years ago, the Football League began advertising itself with the slogan “Real Football, Real Fans,” playing off a festering sense of detachment and disillusionment among supporters. The EPL, even as it grew in quality and popularity, was leaving ordinary people behind. It was all about money. There was something fake about it.
True, Klopp is often described as a hipster (partly because he wears glasses, though so does Tony Pulis). In the popular imagination, hipsters are bearded part-time artists, part-time baristas who ride penny-farthings around Brooklyn and have strong opinions about craft ales in Portland. They’re self-conscious and forced. Applied to Klopp, though, the label is a compliment that signals genuineness in contrast with the pretension of his Anfield predecessor. Because in soccer, the authentic has become the alternative.
It wasn’t only sub-par results that sank the public image of Brendan Rodgers. It was the perception that he was a spin doctor, a massager of the message. Even back in 2013, comparisons were being made between Rodgers and the fictional boss in the British version of The Office. The same kind of accusations leveled at Hillary Clinton were directed at Rodgers: too stage-managed, soundbite-obsessed, calculated. Too much of a politician. You wouldn’t necessarily want to have a beer with Brendan Rodgers. Maybe a sparkling water, or a green tea.
This matters at Liverpool, a club controlled by an American Sabermetrics-loving hedge fund mogul but with a profound sense of community and authenticity. Their greatest manager, Bill Shankly, was a socialist. Their anthem is You’ll Never Walk Alone – in other words, we’re in this together. They don’t want a marketing guy in the technical area; they want someone to connect with. Someone who’s brilliant, but also who’s just going to be himself.
With his personality and his achievements at Borussia Dortmund, Klopp seems to be an oxymoron: an ordinary messiah. That should make him the perfect fit for a club that, roiled by the disparity between its historical greatness and current mediocrity, is in constant search of a savior. We’ll find out soon, starting at White Hart Lane on Saturday.
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