Best friends, rival coaches: Klopp, Wagner go head-to-head
They’ll stand meters from each other in the technical areas, both wearing tracksuits and maybe baseball caps, both bespectacled, both with similar facial hair, both exuding lots of passion and kicking every ball with their players.
Juergen Klopp and David Wagner will be rival managers for 90 minutes at Anfield on Saturday when Liverpool takes on Huddersfield in the Premier League, but they will look like brothers — and likely act like brothers before and after the game.
In fact, they are so close that they regard each other as family after sharing a 26-year friendship which started in Germany and continues in England.
Klopp is the godfather to Wagner’s daughter. Wagner was Klopp’s best man. They played for the same Mainz team in the Bundesliga in the early 1990s. They were coach (Klopp) and assistant coach (Wagner) for Borussia Dortmund from 2011-15.
“Now he is the manager of Liverpool, I’m manager of Huddersfield and we’re playing in a Premier League game at Anfield,” Wagner said. “It’s a great story.”
Klopp even has a framed picture of himself and Wagner in his office at Liverpool’s training ground at Melwood. He admitted to “crying like a baby” as he watched on TV as Wagner’s Huddersfield clinched promotion to the Premier League by winning the second-tier League Championship playoff in May.
For his part, Wagner is regularly seen turning up just before kickoff for Liverpool’s games at Anfield, and taking a seat in the media tribune. This is no scouting mission — he’s there to support a man he describes as his “best friend.”
Uncannily, they even have the same guffawing laugh.
It all began in 1991, when Wagner joined German second-division team Mainz from Eintracht Frankfurt. Klopp, then 24, was a striker at Mainz and he would immediately have competition for his place from a 19-year-old half-American/half-German with a thin moustache and thick hair.
Wagner ended up taking Klopp’s place in the team, and Klopp switched to being a defender. There was no lingering resentment, as they became roommates for away games and good friends. They remained close even when Wagner left to join top-flight team Schalke in 1995.
Later, Wagner would drop back down to the second division in signing for FC Gutersloh and once played against Klopp’s Mainz. Klopp went to Wagner’s house the night before the game, and they reminisced and ate together. During the match, Klopp was marking Wagner — a right back against a left-sided forward — and recalled that he didn’t have the heart to properly tackle his friend. Wagner was going through a goal drought at the time, but he scored a hat trick.
In 2005, Klopp got married and Wagner was the best man, organizing the bachelor party in Mainz — where the groom was working as the popular manager of the city’s soccer team. Six years later, Klopp — now manager of Dortmund — recommended Wagner for the job as coach of Dortmund’s reserve team, a role which brought Wagner back into soccer after having quit the game upon retirement to go to college and then become a teacher.
They both left for England in 2015, Klopp for Liverpool and Wagner for Huddersfield. Using his knowledge of the German league and the “heavy-metal football” practiced so famously by Klopp, Wagner put together a team that managed to get promoted to the top flight following an absence of 45 years.
The match between Liverpool and Huddersfield would have been circled by both men when the schedule was published in June.
“When I was young, a kid, I played all the time against my best friends,” Klopp said Friday. “I enjoyed nothing more than winning against my best friends. He is my best friend, we have a really close relationship and it changes nothing for the game.”
Wagner is slowly emerging from Klopp’s shadow as a coach. On the back of last weekend’s victory over Manchester United, a win for Huddersfield on Saturday would lift the promoted club above Liverpool in the standings.
“For the first time, my very good analysis team came to me and I tell them, ‘Don’t tell me, I know,’” Wagner said. “It makes it easier to play them because I don’t have to invest too much time in analysis, I know all I need to know about them and how he will set them up.”
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80