Japanese mountain climber Nobukazu Kuriki passed away earlier this month during his eighth attempt to reach the top of Mount Everest. On his fourth attempt, he lost nine fingers, but this didn’t prevent him from trying a further four times and this didn’t prevent him from getting all the way to the final stage, the summit push. Yet Kuriki never did make it to the top.
Does this make his efforts worthless? Of course not. I have never stood at the top of the world and neither has Kuriki, but he came infinitely closer to the peak of the world’s highest mountain than I ever have. That counts for something.
Like me, and like Kuriki, Jürgen Klopp has never won the Champions League. Yet, as with Kuriki and Everest, the German has come so close to European glory. He has now lost his past six finals in cup competitions, but the fact he was even able to lead Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool to these showpiece events is an achievement. There are many other football coaches who have never lost a final, but that’s usually because their sides have crashed out of these tournaments in earlier rounds. As Klopp himself put it: “If you want guarantees then don’t qualify for a final, stay at home and or go on holiday.”
Over his career, Klopp’s record in finals is one win and six losses, with that victory coming in his very first one, as his Dortmund side thrashed Bayern Munich 5-2 in the 2012 German Cup final. He went on to lose to Bayern Munich in the 2013 Champions League final (2-1) and the 2014 German Cup final (2-0) and to Wolfsburg in the 2015 German Cup final (3-1), before losing with Liverpool against Manchester City in the 2016 League Cup final (3-1 on penalties after a 1-1 normal time result), against Sevilla in the 2016 Europa League final (3-1) and against Real Madrid in this year’s Champions League final (3-1).
Besides the 2015 clash with Wolfsburg and perhaps the 2016 Europa League final, Klopp was always coaching the underdog, in either a financial sense, an experience sense, or both. For his Dortmund side to have gotten the better of the behemoth that is Bayern Munich in one cup final and in two separate Bundesliga seasons is the anomaly, not the fact they lost to the Bavarian giants in a couple of other clashes. As for his two previous finals with Liverpool, it was something of a miracle that he was even able to lead the Reds to two finals in his first few months on the job after taking over from Brendan Rodgers. To push Manchester City all the way to penalties was a decent effort while losing to perennial Europa League winners Sevilla was far from embarrassing either.
There’s another important point to be made to counter the criticism that has been flung Klopp’s way since last weekend’s 3-1 defeat in Kiev – a lost which, incidentally, there was little more he could have done about given that he lost his best player to injury, saw his goalkeeper make two howlers and witnessed one of the best ever Champions League final goals.
While many are accusing him of losing six finals in a row, that’s not strictly true. If we count the German Super Cup – and why shouldn’t we when the suggestion being made it that Klopp bottles it when there’s a trophy on the line – then Klopp’s record in ‘finals’ is three victories and eight defeats. With Borussia Dortmund, he had a ticket to the German season’s curtain-raiser in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, losing to Schalke and to Bayern in the first two, before beating Pep Guardiola’s Bayern in the latter two, winning 4-2 and then 2-0.
It’s still the case that he does have a losing record in finals, but the idea that Klopp always chokes on the big stage is simply not true. Of the six occasions, he has met Bayern Munich with a trophy on the line, Klopp has won three times and lost three times. That is an incredible overachievement, as is the fact that he led Dortmund and Liverpool sides to the Champions League final in 2013 and in 2018 when at the start of those two seasons those teams were considered to have as much chance of reaching the final as a football fan had of booking a reasonably priced Airbnb in Kiev last weekend. There is merit in the journey, even when you don’t always make it all the way to the summit.