“Radler is for women,” came the voice from above. I looked up to find the head coach of the neighbouring side beaming at me with a glass of our sponsors finest dark beer in his hand.
He spoke with strangely accented English and began to make jokes about my style of play. He told me he’d only recently retired to focus on coaching, that his dream was to coach in England for “the biggest club in the World”. He was, sadly, delusional in that he supported Liverpool.
He introduced me to a friend who was still playing but had already begun to coach at youth level. Also a giant, he spoke better English, as much as I could understand as he was rather (in Dunphy terms) tired and emotional. It was a stunning Hessian day, with clear blue skies, +25, sunshine, free beer and the aroma of barbecue floating around the hospitality area.
If you couldn’t be at one with the grain on a day like that, you never would. The coach leaned over and told me, “It’s ok, he can’t drink like us, that’s only his second beer, and it’s a radler like yours.” Duty re-called me to my double jobbing and I went off with our club secretary to organise the raffle. Semi-pro football’s like that.
So what is a Radler but a shandy, beer and lemonade. It’s the perfect drink for a warm day but weak as a Manchester United defence. To get drunk on a Radler you’d need a serious feed over the course of a weekend.
More than six years passed and I’d forgotten the meeting until in the hospitality zone in the Commerzbank Arena I again heard that voice from on high. “Now you drink a man’s drink.” We shook hands, clinked glasses, said “Prost” and tried to catch up. We caught up a little and looked out at the emptied stadium where an hour before his side had been solid enough for a 0-0 draw.
I asked him about the odd 2-2 draw the previous November in Mainz, how was it that his fellow ex-Yugoslav had scored three goals (two of them in his own net)? He laughed and changed the topic to my misfortune in his hometown, Prijedor, four years previously when I was driving back to Saudi Arabia. We began to talk about what was good in ex-Yugoslavia when his Boss sauntered over with a bottle of Jever beer (not a Radler).
It was his first of the evening though by the time he’d started his second he was a little, well, pissed. Zeljko and I exchanged a few words in Serbo-Croat and he guided his Boss away to grab a coffee.
Zeljko Buvac has come a long way from the troubled, ethnically concentrated town in the Serbian part of Bosnia. At Neukirchen he remains something of a legend, being part of their most successful side in the mid-90’s before leading them for another three years.
From a tiny area of 7,000 inhabitants they enjoyed relatively stable 3rd tier seasons before the romance wore off and financial reality kicked in. By the time Zeljko was brought in to support his former Mainz team-mate and friend Jurgen Klopp, the club were almost bankrupt.
His solid coaching and man management were enough for him to drive the revolution at the previously placid Mainz-05. It was the Bosnian who got the system in place to get them into the top flight and Europe. When Jurgen left for Borussia Dortmund, Zeljko Buvac was the deal-breaker.
This summer when one Zenit/Gazprom notable went on a solo run to make VVP and Alexei Miller happy, he didn’t bank on Klopp’s need for his number two. The deal collapsed when Zenit refused to offer the Bosnian a contract, insisting that Sergei Semak would support Jurgen and that, maybe, Zeljko would join the coaching staff. Zenit St. Petersburg lost out on Europe’s most prized football partnership, Liverpool didn’t.
In all the noise about Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool, it felt a little embarrassing to see and hear the tumult of analysis and “insight”. Borussia Dortmund, rightly, occupied most of the word count, though very little was set aside for the success delivered to Eintracht’s Rhein-Main rivals. Especially hearing Borussia described as “not glamorous” and being the only reference for Klopp’s record (this from Mr. Giles).
Mainz’s promotion to and stability in the top flight, European football and money in the bank. Even managing to turn Andrei Voronin into a goal machine (ironic that he went on to flop so badly at Liverpool). And almost nothing has been written about the Serb nationalist who is the new Liverpool number two.
The Klopp/Buvac team will do well at Liverpool until the English media flee the honeymoon period and the hipster crowd, plus fans with laptops, turn to their next cause celebre. The Klopp/Buvac partnership will work well with the transfer committee, as they did in Germany. Zeljko has joined his favourite club and if listened to will turn Liverpool’s misfiring millionaires into a decent unit.
So what do I know about Jurgen? I will offer fivet hings that I can back up:
1. He can’t hold his drink (Marburg 1999 and Frankfurt 2006)
2. He is “loyal as a hero” (Buvac, 1999)
3. He has a very good sense of humour, even with drink taken (Frankfurt 2006)
4. He is “intelligent, hard-working, always learning and innovative” (his ex-coach and mentor Wolfgang Frank in 2000)
5. He knows the value of money.
Klopp has the potential to do a Wenger, stay long term to deliver success and financial stability. He would have been the ideal replacement for Arsene, though Liverpool need someone who will be bigger than the media, for now. With his sidekick in tow he has the ability to turn Liverpool into genuine title contenders. He will solidify their porous defence, Zeljko will sharpen their link play and attacking nous.
This season they will aim for third/fourth place in the league, a trophy win and a long run in Europe. It was in the UEFA Europa League where the partnership began blossoming in 2005. Winning 2 qualifying rounds before falling to eventual champions Sevilla.
If Liverpool fans are prepared to give him two or three seasons, they’ll be rewarded. If they are deluded and the media play along, he’ll be gone by next Christmas, along with Liverpool’s hopes of winning the league before the centenary of the last win.
Who knows, maybe he’ll even learn to hold his beer when he settles in at Anfield. If he enjoys the success he and Zeljko are capable of providing, he’ll need to get used to drinking lots of champagne!