For Georginio Wijnaldum, it came to feel like a divide and it was entirely stark, shaping what was a tumultuous climax to his time at Liverpool. On one side, there was Jürgen Klopp and the players, together with the matchgoing fans, while on the other, there was the Fenway Sports Group ownership and the club’s followers on social media.
Wijnaldum felt only love and support from the former and he will never forget the Anfield send-off they afforded him during and after the final game of last season against Crystal Palace. The 30-year-old midfielder’s contract was due to expire and it had been clear for some time that he would depart as a free agent. The only question concerned where he would go and that was answered last month when Paris Saint-Germain stepped in front of Barcelona to secure him on a three-year deal.
Klopp had named Wijnaldum as the captain against Palace and, when he substituted him in the 78th minute, it was the cue for the 9,901 supporters in attendance to stand and applaud. After the match, the players formed a guard of honour for the Dutchman and he was presented with a commemorative plaque.
When does this happen to a player who has run down his contract? It is rare, to say the least, and Wijnaldum was overwhelmed by the recognition of his efforts over five seasons at the club when he won the Champions League, Premier League, European Super Cup and Club World Cup. “It was beautiful at the end and, for weeks after, I thought about it,” he says. “Not every player who leaves has that.”
Yet his tone changes when he considers the people he believes were positioned against him and he suggests they started at the top of the club. “There was a moment when I didn’t feel loved and appreciated,” he says. “Not my teammates, not the people at Melwood. From them, I know … I can say they all love me and I love them. It was not from that side, more the other side.”
Wijnaldum said after the Palace game that he “would have loved to remain a Liverpool player for many more years but unfortunately things went different”. His contractual stand-off with the owners was long-running and, ultimately, impossible to resolve. The Netherlands international wanted certain assurances in terms of a renewed overall package but FSG were unwilling to grant them for a player of his age.
It fired an unwanted narrative from Wijnaldum’s point of view. He worked as hard as ever last season, playing in all 38 games of Liverpool’s failed title defence, 34 from the start. But the critics conflated his contractual situation with the team’s disappointing results.
“I have to say also there was social media,” Wijnaldum says. “When it went bad, I was the player who they blamed – that I wanted to leave. Every day in training and in the games, I gave everything I had to bring it to a good end because, during the years, Liverpool meant so much to me and because of the way the fans in the stadium were treating me.
“My feeling was that the fans in the stadium and the fans on social media were two different kinds. The fans in the stadium always supported me. Even when they came back [after the Covid lockout], already knowing that I was going to leave, they still supported me and, in the end, they gave me a great farewell.
“On social media, if we lost, I was the one who got the blame. There was a moment when I was like: ‘Wow. If they only knew what I was doing to stay fit and play every game.’ Other players might have said: ‘OK, I am not fit.’ You get players in their last year who are like: ‘I’m not playing because it is a risk.’ I did the opposite.
“I didn’t always play good but, after the game, I could look in the mirror and say: ‘I gave it all. I trained hard to get better.’ Even with the physios … I took the most possible treatment I could get. I cannot remember when I had a day off because I played so many games and basically it was too much for the body but I did everything to stay fit.”
Asked to specify when the moment was that he felt unloved and unappreciated, he says: “Not towards the end, also before that. Basically in the last two seasons I had it a few times.” He was unhappy at how his part in the stand-off was sometimes portrayedand it added up to something that he could never truly escape.
“There was a story that Liverpool made an offer, I didn’t accept because I wanted more money and the fans made it like: ‘OK, he didn’t get the offer, so he doesn’t try his best to win games,’” Wijnaldum says. “Then the results were not really good and everything looked like it was against me. Some moments, it was like: ‘Wow, me again?’ It’s a collective. But my teammates never gave me the feeling that I let them down or I was taking the piss or something like that. With the team everything was fine.
“It was difficult to speak about football because every time, it was: ‘What are you going to do?’ Even my friends would read something and come to me and say: ‘Is this true? Oh, you are going to do this?’ I would say: ‘You will see what is going to happen.’ I just didn’t want to talk about it because it was: ‘My future this, my future that.’ That was basically my last season at Liverpool – the future of Gini Wijnaldum, not beautiful things on the pitch.”
He will always have the beautiful things that he did in a Liverpool shirt and he tells a good story about surely the most beautiful – his career-defining performance in the 2019 Champions League semi-final, second leg against Barcelona at Anfield. Sent on as a half-time substitute with Liverpool 1-0 up on the night but 3-1 down on aggregate, he scored twice to level before Divock Origi got the winner from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s quickly taken corner.
“Klopp probably spoke to me [during half-time] but I was so angry [at having been dropped] that I didn’t listen to him,” Wijnaldum says. “The only moment I listened to him was when the morning training stopped and he said: ‘Gini, you have to be ready because I need you when you come on.’
“When I did come on, Pep Lijnders [the assistant manager] told me that when we built up I had to come into a back three to get the ball with the wing-backs higher. In my head, I was like: ‘No, no, no. I’m not going to do that. I just try to play up front, try to score goals.’ I was so angry that I wanted to do my own thing and, in the end, it helped.”
Wijnaldum’s PSG adventure is afoot and he is relishing the chance to work under Mauricio Pochettino, who had tried to sign him in 2016. Back then, the player was leaving Newcastle and Pochettino was the manager at Tottenham.
“I went to Pochettino’s house and he showed me on video how he was training with players to make them better and that’s what makes him a good coach,” Wijnaldum says. “He’s not only busy with the team but also to make the individual better. When my agent called and said Pochettino wanted to speak with me, I was like: ‘Why does he want to speak with me? I already know how he works.’ But it was to tell me about the PSG project and I’m happy to be a part of it.
“You feel how badly this club wants to win the Champions League, it looks like the obsession just takes you. But I am also obsessed to win the Champions League because I’ve seen how great it is and that’s the case even more so now I’m here. I have to say the league, too. There is an obsession here to win all titles and be the best team in the world.”