Joel Matip remembers his phone buzzing and being consumed, initially, with feelings of suspicion.
It was the winter of 2015 and, having decided he would be leaving Schalke, he was wondering what the future might hold. So when an unrecognised number flashed up, his interest was pricked. Soon all became clear.
‘I was like, “Hmmm….”,’ says Matip, smiling as he relays the story. ‘Then I knew it was special.’
Punching the messages in at the other end of the line was Jurgen Klopp. Previously, Klopp’s only dealings with Matip had been when he was Borussia Dortmund manager and their paths crossed during frenetic Ruhr derbies.
This text message, though, was to open a new world.
‘Only when the possibility of joining Liverpool came did I have personal contact with him,’ Matip continues. ‘Before that? Only on the field maybe when we were screaming at each other!’
Klopp might not have recalled if he had previously squabbled with Matip, but what he did know was the value this tall, rangy defender would add to Liverpool’s back four and sending the message so early, with other clubs circling, was crucial to getting him on board.
When it was announced last February that the 25-year-old had decided to move to England, Klopp shook his head with delight that he had got his man. Time and performances have shown his judgment was not flawed.
Matip, in the main, has been excellent since arriving at Anfield, taking each challenge in his long, elegant stride. It’s why the prospect of trying to keep Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero shackled tomorrow does not fluster him and has led to suggestions that he has found English football easy. ‘No, no,’ he replies. ‘It’s really hard. It’s much more physical than I’m used to. But this is the nature of the league.
‘A few weeks ago I faced Diego Costa. Before it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Now it’s Aguero. Every week you face high-quality teams. I just try to do my best.’
That attitude shines through during two significant parts of this conversation, namely the topics of what Liverpool should strive to achieve and the issue that made headlines at the turn of the year: Cameroon.
Though he had played only once for Cameroon since the 2014 World Cup, he was still included in their Africa Cup of Nations squad, despite indicating he was not available for selection. It led to a wrangle between Liverpool, the Cameroon FA and FIFA — and Matip missing five games in January.
‘It’s done now and I’m looking to the future,’ he insists. ‘I only wanted to stay here and play. It was not easy because I didn’t understand what was going on. Now the problem is solved and I can concentrate on Liverpool.’
Had he gone, Matip — who grew up wanting to be a midfielder like Patrick Vieira — could have returned with a winner’s medal. So does he have any regrets?
‘No,’ he says. ‘I knew they could win it. I was happy. Cameroon is a big football nation. I was happy for them because the last years were not easy and they got back to their old spot.’
But will he represent them in the future?
‘No.’ Again his tone is unequivocal. ‘It is Africa and you can never compare it to European things. I’ll concentrate on Liverpool. It’s done.’
What isn’t done is Liverpool’s pursuit of a Champions League spot. The pressure is building and the next two games — away to Manchester City, home to Everton — will go some way to defining whether the club will meet their target for the campaign.
Matip longs to be in that competition again. As a 19-year-old, he reached the semi-finals with Schalke in 2011, scoring a rare goal in a thrilling quarter-final win against the holders, Inter Milan, before Manchester United arrived in Gelsenkirchen.
‘I have to say they beat us ugly,’ Matip says. ‘The first leg was 2-0 (the second leg at Old Trafford was 4-1). It was clear they were so much better but it was still a big thing to be in the semi-finals.’
But is it a big thing for Liverpool just to be back in the competition? They have won only one trophy since 2007, one of the most fallow periods for silverware in their 125-year history, and the idea that just qualifying for Europe represents achievement does not sit comfortably with supporters.
Clearly it doesn’t sit that way with Matip, either. He understands the fervour of fans from the conversations he has had with them in restaurants. Getting a place in the Champions League would be good, but… ‘It’s not enough,’ he interjects. ‘That is the reason we want to achieve something here.
‘It is not just to play a little better. Maybe it will need some time but we are on a good way. If we play well, maybe we can go higher and higher.
‘It is much better to win trophies. But for the beginning, it is better to be in the Champions League than nothing. I think we are in a good way. We are focused.’
A big threat to Liverpool’s hopes of progress comes in the form of City’s Leroy Sane, a player with whom Matip worked at Schalke.
There have been no phone calls between the pair this week and no private bets of the loser having to buy dinner.
‘Everyone wants to win this game,’ says Matip. ‘I don’t only want to win against Leroy. I don’t need any extra motivation.
‘I’m happy it has worked so well for him but on Sunday I hope that it doesn’t work so well! I want to win against City.’