Jurgen Klopp happy to take pressure away from Liverpool's players
In a life more ordinary, Jurgen Klopp would fly to Kyiv in a couple of weeks time to visit the medical conference on "Urgent Cardiovascular Conditions" that is being staged in the Ukrainian capital. Growing up in the Black Forest village of Glatten, the son of a sports-obsessed travelling salesman had fantasised about becoming a doctor, you see. "I wanted to help people," he said decades later.
His exam results had not been of the required standards to gain admission to university in Germany. But Klopp, one senses, would have found a way to heed his calling. In fact, he did. "I'm helping the players calm their hearts and minds," said the 50-year-old ahead of the team's trip to the Champions League final against Real Madrid.
Dr. Klopp has prescribed a high dose of perspective ahead of the clash with the holders and favourites. There was nothing to be nervous about, the message was drummed into his players during the recent training camp in Marbella: nothing to lose, everything to gain.
The Liverpool boss, too, will have reminded his men about a pact he had made with them shortly after coming into job in October 2015. "When you win, it's down to you and when you lose, it's down to me," he had told them in a bid to ease unspoken fears about a new, complex and very demanding playing style.
As much as he might be secretly irked by the endless repetition over the past few days of his poor record in recent finals -- five losses in the last five attempts -- Klopp wouldn't be his usual, relentlessly optimistic self if he had not ceased on those unwelcome numbers as yet another reason why his players should approach the biggest game of their careers with tranquility. If Madrid were to win, he will have imparted on his players, few would point an accusing finger at them, a team made up of six Champions League rookies who have made it to Kyiv against all expectations. As far as the public were concerned, Klopp the "serial loser" would have lost another final instead.
And he'd be okay with that.
In football, a team sport that often knows no "I" when it comes to admitting mistakes, a coach prepared to preemptively shoulder the blame is a rarity. Klopp doesn't shield his men from potential negative fallout out of the goodness of his heart, however. He believes it's simply the pragmatic thing to do. Pressure should be eased, not ramped up even more. There's no benefit in adding the fear of recrimination and rebuke to that of failure on the pitch. By dwelling on a defeat, he once told Dortmund defender Neven Subotic, a team and their coach only made it more likely to get beaten in the very next game too.
A side with such an uneven distribution of footballing skills and even less experience at this level surely could not have made it to the very last game of the season if it had not been for Klopp's forgiving approach. As a former player of limited means, he knows all too well that footballers crave both instruction and the confidence of their coach above all other things. Learning from mistakes is an important, unavoidable fact of life in the fast lane -- something Klopp has taught youngsters such as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.
As for teaching, coaching and making sure that the players' bodies and minds are strong enough to master the challenges? It all bleeds into one and the same thing: Klopp is inspired by making people do well and by making them do better.
"To create a situation where everybody feels important, enjoys themselves, knows their jobs, feels respected and feels needed -- that's how life should be," he told me in November.
But what if it's all not enough? What if Klopp's gameplan falters under the weight of Madrid's expertise and conviction? What if the team come up short by one or two players of Virgil van Dijk's price tag and stature? Then it'll still be a beginning rather than the end, a season of progress and excitement that will become a cherished part of Liverpool's fabric.
"The most important pillar of this club is made up of the stories it has written since its foundation," said Klopp to German author Christoph Biermann in 2013. He was talking about Borussia Dortmund at the time but Liverpool supporters will just as easily identify with the sentiment.
"My motivation as a coach is to collect that kind of stuff, for people to tell it and retell it, in 20 years' time," Klopp added. For Klopp, football is a shared collection of stories, a shared history, a shared identity that is much more important than the binary outcomes of triumph and defeat can ever be; it's much more important than (sporting) life and death, as another Reds manager once famously put it.
In Klopp's words, "You win and you lose, but you're with people you like. You're at home. You belong. That's what we all want."
And so, Liverpool FC and their supporters head to Kyiv, electrified by a collective experience that only comes around once every few years if at all, giddy with the thrill of anticipation. They'll come back with a story. Perhaps even with history.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein