Imagine Sisyphus Happy – Jurgen Klopp: Part-Manager, Part-Philosopher

As a woman and a professor of philosophy, I have seen football always very differently. I had poor knowledge of tactical systems, but I enjoyed from all my heart the great spectacle from the peach with emotion. If a Nobel winner, Camus, acknowledged that everything he knew about ethics was learned from football, why wouldn’t we recognize that it happened the same for ourselves, as the round ball equipped our mind with a playful sense of fairness, rational thinking, and moral altruism? Being in the stadium made me though that supporters are nothing like the masses embracing the false sense of democracy, as Nietzsche argued reading Schiller’s reflections on the raise of the choir on the stage of a tragedy. Fans belong to a voluntary and passionate social contract. The values of the football club they support make them equal in front of the other, be it woman or man, adult, or child. So, a democrat means being capable of loving all those who share the same values with you and respecting all those who have different commitments and perspectives on a competitive world that they all share together. 

As a little one, I grew up watching France’s international competitions: for my father, football was a blue spectacle with Zizou’s melancholy, a glacial look, even when trophies were breaking any record. Consequently, I was educated with the conviction that passions should always be controlled by reason, regardless of the triumphs or the losses you might face.

In time, I found out the opposite of the Cartesian, methodical game: it was British, and this pedigree imposed quite a different Weltanschauung. Football was part of the DNA of a nation: kids were filling the stadiums; the game was part of their canonical education; it was no shame to argue that the sense of citizenship and the taste for loyalty started on the grass. Football was Bildung, there was no doubt. The sense of competition was learned empirically. Football was, as Locke would put it, sensation, always more powerful than reflection. I recall reading the book written by one of Liverpool’s greatest fans, Simon Critchley, What about football? It is nonsense to ask a player what he was thinking when he scored. It is pure instinct, phenomenology, experience. But to enjoy this contingency occasioned by a game, you must tailor multiple scenarios of possible worlds engaging reason and imagination in different plans to play as good as possible. I learned from English football that the fever of the stadiums perfectly describes the Pascalian logic of the heart and that in this sport you always have a twelfth player: in my case, the force of Anfield, the collective consciousness of those loyal to the club. That’s how, in time, I started to understand football from Zizou’s melancholy to Klopp’s smile, which was by far highly temperamental and yet remained one of the few examples of perfect elegance from this sport. It is not relevant here why I embraced Liverpool: it was not only a matter of choice, but also of empathy. 

What had an impact from the world of English soccer was the fact that I learned three philosophical lessons. The first one is that virtues will always help you to act correctly whenever destiny makes something unpredictable happen. Machiavelli was right: virtue will help you defeat Fortuna. And yet, this is not enough to think about football in terms of political realism only. 

The second one is that your rival will always change, so you have to be prepared not only for anything, but also for anyone. 

The third thing is that if you do not respect your opponent, you will never dignify your game. 

Jurgen Klopp knew how to blend these three directions of his moral philosophy attached to football, without even knowing, I guess, that he was behaving philosophically or that his decisions might be discussed in these terms. I saw a master of wills who turned doubters into believers, as Liverpool fans recognized these days, after he sadly announced his departure, at the end of the season. The decision to retire from the management of Liverpool made us discover the human face of football: faith, anger, hope, despair. Klopp was never afraid of showing all the moods of his élan vital that was contagious for his team. The same élan vital – borrowed from Husserl’s philosophy – that nowadays seems to be vulnerable and became Jurgen’s reason for retiring from Liverpool. One can no longer be Stoic without a fundamental source of energy nurturing the whole system of players, staff resources and fans. 

On the one hand, leading means managing, in Klopp’s perspective, and this is one of the subtlest definitions of democracy that I have ever met. If you cannot support the energy of each piece of the larger puzzle called footballcracy, then you no longer remain democratic, attentive to anyone, capable of listening, not only to hear, the others. What Klopp is saying through his retirement is that he does not want to lead without managing. Because then, this power of mutual energy that supports his democratic perspective on leadership would be endangered. 

On the other hand, I understood how important it is to share your knowledge with youths without manipulating massive capital. He created a football system keeping democratic values, stoic morals, and a leftist perspective on resources. Being deeply honest, what we learn from Klopp’s management is that for democracy you do not have to invest overwhelming amounts of money, but talents, time, and knowledge. Klopp never went “shopping” – a barbaric term completely unsuitable for his convictions – in the wild capitalist markets of football, nor did he ever trade mercenary players. He tried to increase a family looking after players who would correspond not only to the team’s needs, but also to the club’s lifestyle and set of values. For him, the world was spread between “kids” and “boys”, either grown up at Liverpool’s Academy or transferred mainly from Portuguese and German circles, his favorites football societies. He had an eye for Iberian and German players because he had a sense for passion and precision in game. Nonetheless, he still has it, but from the end of this season, Kloppo will no longer be “the boss” – an etiquette that despite its English resonance, I am afraid it is not the right one to describe the leadership performed by him. 

Artwork by Charbak Dipta

Actually, Klopp always blended coaching, teaching, and parenting in a “heavy metal” style of football management remaining human, all too human, just to pick one of Nietzsche’s most famous formulas, which suits the current example. In England, Klopp’s socialist views were perfectly fitting Liverpool’s history and values. But mostly, he was ideal for Liverpool because he took a team with ups and downs, despite its brilliant history, asked for five years and brought all the trophies that Anfield wished for. This was due to his ascetical work, for almost ten years in row, with one month off during summer. When was the last time you had less than one year off for ten years of emotions that could give you two heart attacks per week? In fact, when a philosopher watches Jurgen Klopp’s morality and lifestyle, authenticity takes on another meaning. It is brilliance in a Dadaist world of routine and absurd; it is geniality invested in raising talents with decent resources; it is faith that “you will never walk alone”, meaning that Klopp, Anfield and fans all over the world will be with you, as a player, regardless your mistakes and your hyperbolic courage. For Klopp authenticity was relational and paved the pragmatic way to become better than you used to be. 

If you remain behind in your life, then you are not worthy of being in front of Liverpool. For a decade, he has been a modern stoic. However, this stubborn move, retiring, has been considered by Klopp himself a relief. Why would it be like that? Maybe Klopp was Camusian enough. He took the rock on the hill each time seeing something new and different that would make his burden easier. Such as in 2019, the FIFA Club World Cup and the UEFA Super Cup; in 2020, the Premier League trophy, to end a 30-year title drought as champion of England in 2022, the FA Cup and the English League Cup. It is our fault: we imagined Sisyphus happy. Now what? 

Fans will revolt. Klopp would ask for comprehension and acceptance. A stoic asks temperance and resilience from hedonists: this is an image to remember. 

These days people were in shock. “Socrates” did not want to defend himself; he was just exhausted and had to retire. Doing so would allow Klopp to remain himself until the end. Not dropping Liverpool will be dropping authenticity. “We shall all cry less,” said Klopp, in a very Socratic tone, and yet, in the night with the game against Norwich, he got overwhelmed by thousands of people singing the hymn of Liverpool for the first time since he announced retiring. 

But what really astonished me was that in an age of resilient leadership we are skeptical that Klopp is exhausted by the decade of emotional challenges of Liverpool. I was astonished to see a human being that I truly respect for his Socratic vocation staying in front of the world and saying: “I no longer have energy to do it”. And even worse: “I would like to live before it is too late”. Then it hit me. Time in which the roots of our finitude are deeply seeded, is so easily falsified when you live like Klopp and when you live like Liverpool. You take things as they come, you fight, you score, sometimes you lose. Guess what: there is no time to recover either from victory nor from defeat.  How long can you live from one day to three days, from one game to another, one competition to another, one season to another? And yet, people found this explanation being superficial. What a contradiction, isn’t it, in times when we shout loud and clear that authenticity and resilience is fashionable, we consider those who did their job perfectly and would like not to ignore their personal life being capricious or weak. Some people condemn what they appreciate only in theory. And others consider that personal life is a reasonable price to pay a la longue for an impressive professional life that brings happiness to the highest number of people. 

The conflict is easy: we have a Kantian Klopp screaming that he has done his duty but he is no longer filled with the necessary energy to do so from now on, and a utilitarian mass of audience displeased that their own happiness will no longer be provided by the same leader – the problem is not that another scenario of this happiness is not possible, but that this one was quite certain. Fans adored the prediction of the level of happiness that Klopp provided for years. There is a thick boundary between the altruism we all have for the club, the level of personal satisfaction and the expectancy to be constantly delivered performance. The problem with this utilitarian perspective is that if you do not know how to handle it, this might turn into a giant source of selfishness. To recognize something that has not been said yet, we cry these days not only for the club and for Klopp, but also for ourselves. But what else can we see beyond this moral conflict?  

Klopp’s philosophy of football, so to say, is situationist: “This is how it is”. How many times have we heard that? “This is how we stand; we take it from here”. For a German, it felt odd that he was never an idealist. His vision of games was privileged by the immanence of reason manifested through apparently irrelevant elements: spaces, corridors, timings. Everyone is responsible for the game on Klopp’s pitch.  You influence the destiny of a game by how you stand, run, watch, react, create an occasion, or restrain to shoot. You are responsible for any possible world of the ball. Klopp was, in his way, Leibniz reloaded: but he designed a different monadology, being one of any other monads. One day, perceptions suggested that there was no energy left to support this Kloppology. No energeia, as Aristotle would say. Consequently, no dynamis. No energy for any becoming. 

It is not my intention to peach the argument that Klopp is deliberately a philosopher. But I would dare to say that his mentality and behaviour turned him into a better philosophical pragmatist than others who were consciously committed to this kind of personal evolution. Just have a look to Jurgen, not to Klopp, to the individual, in the habituality of his life. 

He is deeply German, by rigor, and human, by emotions: smiles and screams are both hyperbolic but what you find in between is a very human and regular figure, of a normal guy, living a passionate life by being good at what he loves most, football. A regular professor being proud of his fellows and risking beating the titans of England’s Cup with a “kindergarten” lunched on the peach. An attentive coach who mastered talents of boys turning into adults along all these years, under his paternal care. A leftist who fit Liverpool’s tradition rooted in a proletarian community. A normal individual who refused embracing social media convinced that influencers are a disruptive voice discouraging personal relationships and that any post involves a public responsibility: “I don’t understand why you would want to tell other people, people you don’t know, what is good or not so good in the moment” (a philosopher would have asked instead what is good and what is bad by itself?). A manager who prefers a tracksuit instead of a costume because before the match one has better things to do and think about other than “fixing the tie”. A self-made performer in the industry and knowledge of football because he had no instinct “to read what others say about football”. But in all these circumstances he has always chosen people instead of appearances. And it is not something to be ignored in times when we all live self-centered, between likes, filters, and scrolls. Nonetheless, my perennial question since I have been analyzing his personality and professionalism was how is it possible to be an absolutely regular guy and to inspire so many philosophical reflections? At first glimpse, because philosophy is about life, its normality and normativity. In fact, there is something that puts things into perspective and makes this human, but extraordinary character, of Jurgen Klopp, worthy of being included into the many provocative cases of authenticity that we might discuss in terms of practical philosophy as models for our daily reactions. His relationship with the community, with the polis, which means from ancient times up until nowadays being responsible for the others. So, let’s engage some philosophical traditions to answer a basic question: how should we deal with the case when someone feels he is failing in the exercise of mutual and public responsibility and retires from a social contract? Or, if you prefer, what would be the advice of a philosophical counsellor for all those fans who refuse to accept that their favourite coach retires? 

Klopp ends his career at Liverpool perfectly aware that altruistic responsibility is the only rule they cannot break. He blamed himself for not leading Liverpool to win the Premier League. “It was my job” and “I failed.” But he won so many other competitions. Was this moral responsibility or moral disappointment? Kierkegaard would say accumulated anxiety from living your life in the either-or logic, always having to choose who plays, who stays, who is capable, who is vulnerable. Even saying who is less than one might believe about himself. Marx would say: is alienation. Klopp has lived too much between to be (for himself) and to have (for the others). Nietzsche would applaud: this is the will of power affirmed, choosing life instead of anything else. Camus would have a tear in his eye: everything the winner of the Noble prize knew about ethics was from football. And what inspiration would have been Klopp for that. Sartre would say that on intimate levels, Klopp stayed to long “behind the closed doors”. But he found a way out. Foucault would bet that Klopp is a parrhesiast: he spoke only the truth and nothing but the truth, although it was uncomfortable for all of us. It was not just franc parler: it was a discourse on the effects of power. Ortega Y Gasset would recognize Klopp as the Hero who fights against the dehumanization of art. Yes, football is at least a form of art, and in times of mercenary playing and massive investments supported by the Orient, the Occidental world of football has dramatically changed. But Klopp would not choose any of them. Because this manner of choosing yourself after sacrificing yourself, this is a Christian duty. It is time for Klopp to love himself so that he can continue to love us all, those who are part of the force of Anfield. 

So here is my question: why does it hurt when someone chooses himself, doing what is right? The answer is aesthetic, not moral: because we are unable to imagine Anfield without him. This sadness that we all have and endure is a lack of power to project a world in which Liverpool walks alone, without Klopp. The following statement broke my heart, as it prescribes a sense of loyalty that I have never seen in academics or in politics: “I would never train a club from England, even if I wouldn’t have what to eat”. This is loyalty. And because of Klopp, loyalty became the name of pure love. 

I would like to thank Jurgen Klopp not only for what he has done for the history of Liverpool but for the heart of each fan. I would like to thank him for all the days he was not on the bench. When he hugged sick kids from hospitals; when he brought presents to Liverpool people; when he stood behind the doors thinking how to fashion a better world for fans that found in Liverpool a sense of belonging and the faith that God and players can do a job in thirteen, that of bringing happiness on Anfield. I would like to thank him for adding courage to youths starting their career and for all the “kids” who had their debut in those games when Liverpool was making a spectacle. He made both players and fans rationally understand football and express both rage and excitement with the same sense of fairness and dignity. 

In what concerns the future of the club, as a prophane when it comes about the art of football and a devoted fan when it comes about the respect for this wonderful world that Liverpool created for us all, I think that we shall go from an irresistible smile to a poker face, keeping the level of exigence and experience. In theory, Zizou might add some blue blood to Liverpool. If someone can turn Zidane into a Red that is this club as a challenge for any French professor to test his methodical eye for the unleashed phenomenological spectacle of the round ball. But for that he should behave like a true Cartesian: getting exiled from the comfort of his home, tackling societies with other values and principles, keeping the human face of Liverpool that we all want to protect. For Gerard the eternal return would be just a little postponed.  

In what concerns my own relationship with football, as a woman, I would like to say that the years watching Liverpool were a source of power added to femininity, whereas as a professor a philosophy, they served as a living experience of multiple passions and emotions situationally emerging from competitions, fair-play, unjust arbitration, reflection on human limits and ambitions, moral revolts, aesthetic spectacles and social engagement. I will continue to watch the universe of Anfield whose future history will always have two terms of comparison in my mind. The first one, Kloppocracy, as a paradigm of stoic and democratic leadership. The second one, Kloppology, as a model of moral responsibility that made our boss to ask for the arena’s support, to apologize for the times when he felt failing, to gratify everyone for his amazing records and success in turning Liverpool into a football machine with a human soul. I am incredibly grateful that these two, put together, offered us a title of nobility, powerful enough to never walk alone in this world that we face more equipped and educated by Klopp’s taste for parrhesia. If we have had managers like him in universities, we would be far. 

I will enjoy each day of Klopp being here. And when the time comes, I will tell myself: Imagine Sisyphus happy as you have been all these years. 
P.S. A few weeks after drafting this essay, I found an interview for Sky Sports from 2020, where Klopp was challenged to describe himself in three words. I don’t think about myself a lot, yeah? So three words, I can’t do it. Happy? Not always! There you go. Not. Always. Happy. Three words!” Two things came into my mind instantly. First, he will leave the club as he feels regularly, not always happy. I hate dialectics. Secondly, I had no idea when I chose my title, “Imagine Sisyphus happy”, that this playful Camusian paraphrase could be a self-statement of Klopp, in different words. But this synchronicity convinces me that there are no coincidences, I saw it right: an extraordinary individual, who temporizes happiness as any of us, by chances, by mistakes, by contingencies, … by retirements.