This article is an extract from the latest issue of Champions Journal which is available to purchase now.
“The legend. One of a kind. I love the man.” It was not just Virgil van Dijk’s effusive words about defensive partner Joël Matip – uttered as Liverpool’s players were filmed modelling the club’s new kit last June – which ensured the ensuing video went viral. It was also the T-shirt he was wearing, featuring an image of Matip’s smiling face on the front.
The image came from the ‘No Context Joel Matip’ Twitter account, set up by a Liverpool fan to celebrate the centre-back’s goofy smiles and gangly limbs. The fact that it now has more than 100,000 followers tells you that Van Dijk is not alone in his admiration of a low-profile footballer who, five-and-a-half years after his arrival from Schalke, has become an unwitting cult figure amid a squad packed with household names.
“I can’t really tell you how it has come to this,” says Matip. This is a man who just goes quietly – and quirkily, some might add – about his business. “I enjoy being here. I look forward to arriving here every day, seeing the lads again and spending time with them on and off the pitch. This is the best basis for positive development, as well as for fun and successful work.”
Cult heroes are not necessarily the star performers; think the snarling, scurrying Gennaro Gattuso in the stylish AC Milan side of the Noughties. Perhaps Divock Origi, who stepped from the shadows to play a starring role in Liverpool’s 2018/19 Champions League success, would be a prime example in the current Reds squad. In the case of Matip, John Gibbons of The Anfield Wrap podcast points to “the mannerisms, the unusual things he does with his body, his gestures on the pitch”. Yet he attests that this should not detract from the quality of the Cameroonian international’s football. “He’s playing at such a level now, and has been for such a long time, that it is a bit of a disservice to just describe him as a cult hero.”
Alongside the thoroughbred figure of Van Dijk, the 30-year-old may look a “a bit edgy” at times – to quote Jürgen Klopp – but he has forged a strong pairing with the Dutchman, keeping Joe Gomez and Ibrahima Konaté out. It helps that Matip is one of the best players in the Premier League at taking the ball up the pitch – highlighted by a meme on his parody account that shows his head transposed onto the body of Bilbo Baggins and the words, “I’m going on an adventure.” At the time of writing he ranks eighth in the English top flight for the distance he carries the ball forward, almost 300 metres on average per game.