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01st Jun 2019

Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino’s relentless pursuit of the trophy neither really needs

Kyle Picknell

The unbearable lightness of winning

I’ve been thinking about a German phrase, Einmal ist Keinmal, that translates as ‘once is never’. I read it in a book. It means whatever happens once might as well never have happened at all. It means that, ultimately, one incident is not significant. Once is nothing. Tomas, one of four central characters in the story, even goes as far as to say “If we have only one life to live, we might as well have not lived at all.”

I’ve also been thinking a lot about Klopp and about Poch and about trophies, too, and what it means to win them, and what it means to exist without any when, ostensibly, it is your job. To win them. To win as many of them as possible. Reduce the point of the football manager’s existence down to its simplest, most acute terms and the overriding sense is that trophies, and only trophies, will do.

And in the end, that is how they will be judged when they’re just a name on a Wikipedia page followed by a list of numbers and dates.

This is why names like Sir Alex Ferguson, Bob Paisley and Jock Stein carry such immeasurable weight. It’s why the names of Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino, two of the most talented, intelligent and admired managers around, still have that asterisk next to theirs in the build-up to the Champions League final.

Supporters of both Liverpool and Spurs, and indeed many with no affiliation to either club, would say that each has been overwhelmingly successful, even with no honours to their name. In that old footballing parlance, you’d say “they’ve done a good job”. Even though, really, they’ve done a great job. An astounding job. They have catapulted two teams who used to look up the table enviously at Manchester United and Arsenal and Chelsea far above them all.

And in the process, they’ve created two of the most progressive, daring and, from a neutral’s perspective, enjoyable teams in Europe.

Klopp has won at Borussia Dortmund, of course, with two Bundesliga titles and a DFB-Pokal to his name before the Bayern monopoly on German silverware took hold. He hasn’t won a major trophy since, finishing as a runner-up in three major European finals and the League Cup. That’s four additions to the legacy that have slipped through the grasp, without mentioning this season’s Premier League hare and tortoise title race.

Pochettino has never won a trophy as a manager. Should he lead Spurs to one astonishing Champions League title on Saturday night, will that change anything? Say if that is it, and he never wins anything beyond that. Say Pochettino gets poached, as Real Madrid or United have so often threatened to do. What then?

The same hypothetical for Klopp: what if he wins, sends the city of Liverpool into a summer-long rapture but nothing else follows? That even if their expectations might increase, and they might begin to anticipate further slurries of glory along the way, none will come? Say he moves on or retires. However unthinkable now, say he eventually gets fired.

Will once have been enough?

Should they suffer defeat, Liverpool will have recent experience to fall back on. When they lost last year it was heartbreaking, beyond heartbreaking, but there was a monumental sense of pride in it. The defeat. There was pride in the journey, in their manager and most of all in their players. Pride in how far they had come.

If they lose again, it is difficult to say whether that spirit will be rekindled, or displaced entirely by a heavy, suffocating despair. Liverpool are a resolute team, Liverpool is a resolute city and Scousers are a resolute people. But just how resolute can they be if the opportunities keep presenting themselves but keep evading them, too, and the pain and the despair that follows the hope, and is made all the more devastating because it follows the hope, keeps rising? What if the wait grows even longer? Will they be as resolute then?

Spurs have never been in the final of the Champions League, or the European Cup before it. For them, this is new. This, for them, will be the once. The einmal. If they lose this, a final they arrived at in even more miraculous circumstances than Liverpool, there’s no telling how much it will hurt. This is a team that has won one trophy in the last 20 years. They are as starved of success, if not more so, than their frequently complaintive opponents.

There’s another phrase I’ve been thinking about that appears in the same book. It’s taken from String Quarter No.16 by Beethoven, the last major work he completed. In his manuscript notes for the performance of the fourth and final movement wrote down: ‘Muss es sein?’, a question asked, and ‘Es muss sein!‘, its immediate refrain.

Must it be?

It must be.

I think that’s what both sets of supporters, and both managers, will be thinking now, ahead of the biggest game of their lives. That the whole thing has an air of destiny about it. This is just what football does to us, makes us believe in cosmic patterns and grand ideas and the turning of the universe in our favour. That they have to win. That they must win. That it’s fate. They have waited so long. How could they not succeed? They will be thinking about this, I am sure. They won’t be worrying about losing.

And yet, one of them will, and either Klopp or Pochettino will continue at Liverpool or Spurs without a trophy to their name. And their fans will go on waiting what could well be a long wait. You never really know how long it’s going to be, which is why supporters paid tens of thousands of pounds for tickets, it’s why they drove across half a continent in a banged up car to get there. All to experience it: to watch your team lift the most coveted trophy of them all. Or watch them fall as hard as you will ever see them fall.

Which is why I’ve been thinking about the two managers, and trophies, and winning, and that German phrase, Einmal ist Keinmal. That once is never. That once is nothing. Unimportant and unsubstantial compared to extensive, storied bodies of work.

I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s that once, just once, can be enough. Once can be everything. And I think Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino realise this, that there is far more of a poetic kind of bravery in striving just for that one, that first with Liverpool or with Tottenham, and losing, and then striving for it all over again. It is all about winning. It is. History will always remember the winners.

But it’s also about who you win something with, and why you even want to win something so badly with them in the first place.