I’d like to start by issuing an apology to anyone who doesn’t like football. Because this Editorial is going to be all about football.
At the time of writing this, Merseyside is in the grip of football fever. You must have noticed it – the inescapably giddy sense of possibility, grown men and women wearing football shirts on non-match days, the strains of “Allez allez allez” floating on the breeze of a balmy May evening. Like my fellow Tranmere fans, I’m still basking in our dramatic, 10-men play-off final victory at Wembley, strutting round like I’m 10 feet tall (almost as big as Andy Cook). Liverpool fans are currently riding high on the magic of Mo, whose goals and impish grin have propelled them to the cusp of European glory in thrilling fashion. And Everton fans… well, I’m sure they’re happy they finished above Bournemouth again.
The heady atmosphere that gathers around moments like this is so infectious that only the cold-hearted are likely to be unswayed by its sheer positivity. It’s also a cyclical pulse that is deeply entwined with the city’s collective psyche, a fact that writer Clive Martin noticed when he wrote an article for Vice titled ‘Liverpool Is Like A City On Ecstasy At The Moment’. Martin, a Chelsea fan, visited the city in April 2014 when Liverpool FC were hunting down an elusive Premier League title, and the club’s fans were caught up in the possibility of another kind of redemptive victory in the months after the final inquests into the Hillsborough disaster were opened, the culmination of the long wait for justice. “The main prism through which the world views Liverpool isn’t news, or politics, or geography, or even its most famous band, Cast, but football,” wrote Martin with some degree of tongue in cheek. “The way we understand Liverpool is through Liverpool and Everton FC, their achievements, their fans,” he continued, adding that, from his view as an outsider, “Liverpool are the team whose fortunes appear most bound up with the city as a whole.”
The ecstatic catharsis of victory, at least in football terms, would have to wait, but Martin had hit upon a basic truth at the core of the city’s identity: that the hopes and dreams of an overwhelming majority of Scousers can be viewed through the lens of football fandom, a passion which verges on almost religious levels of fervour. “When tourists come to Liverpool, they come, in part, because of the football,” Martin added. “The glories and tragedies of Liverpool have left an indelible impression on the psyche of football fans the world over.”
Football has a knack for throwing up the most Shakespearean of plot twists and slips, which it did (twice) for LFC just weeks after Martin’s article was published – which puts an added edge on the club’s pursuit of triumph this year. A similarly dramatic chapter of football’s tragicomedic saga came two years later with England’s exit from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland, just days after the country had voted for a similarly ignominious European exit. In an article penned for The Guardian in March of this year, author and journalist David Goldblatt referred back to this shock result when he remarked that “football’s uncanny capacity to reflect our social identities and collective moods is also a curse. Many of us, myself included, still look to football as an entertainment, a glorious illusion, a soap opera of distraction. Even though we all know that the spectacle is deformed by the worlds of commerce and politics, we still want to disappear into the zone of play, pleasure and irrelevance: at the game, on the screen, lost in our noisy Twitter feeds.”
This summer we have an extra distraction in the form of the World Cup, the four-yearly sporting drama that reduces fans, players and Brazilian commentators to spluttering, joyous, angry and petulant teenage versions of themselves. Even though I should know better, I’m preparing for the tournament like I would do if I was still 13 instead of 33: I have my almost completed Panini sticker album to hand and I’ve earmarked which replica shirt I’m going to buy for my monthly kickabout (Nigeria’s, obviously). Apart from a more limited range of movement on the football pitch, the only real difference between the 13-year-old me and the 33-year-old me is my appreciation of the World Cup as a theatrical spectacle in itself, devoid of any national or club allegiances. I’m in it for the scandals as well as the skills now, waiting for those moments of high drama and pure technical artistry that transcend the game.
If you find yourself scoffing at that last comment, or you don’t believe that football is capable of producing things of great beauty, then you can’t have seen Dennis Bergkamp’s balletic winner against Argentina in the France 98 quarter final, Pelé’s overhead kick in Escape To Victory, Ronnie Radford’s screamer in the FA Cup, or any goal by Matt Le Tissier. How about Andrea Bocelli serenading Leicester fans with Nessun Dorma after their most improbable of Premier League victories, Cantona’s sardines press conference, John Aldridge’s bard-like use of language at USA 94, or Des Lynam’s narration of the BBC’s France 98 highlights package with Kipling’s If? Even tragic moments like Gazza’s tears at Italia 90 and Zidane’s World Cup final headbutt have passed into common lore as moments that are bigger than the context of football matches, bywords for the romanticism football fans still find in failure. It would be disingenuous to claim that all aspects of football are beautiful, or even that it offers up poetic results every time – but ask any fan what it is that keeps them hooked and they’ll invariably tell you that the communal experience of being a supporter of a team trumps all this. It is encapsulated in those moments when you look across the stadium and catch the eye of a stranger who is celebrating the same glorious moment as you and you see your own feelings of joy and relief reflected in their expression.
In his book Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby summed up the passion verging on obsession that football fans experience and offered a disclaimer to those who can’t quite grasp the intensity of this feeling: “So please, be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.” It is this statement I point to in order to explain why I once celebrated a last-minute Tranmere equaliser by running to the end of the row and hugging a complete stranger (one of the fabled 82 away fans at the Liberty Stadium that day). And why, at around 4.45pm on 12th May 2018 somewhere in North West London, I let out a guttural roar that tore at my vocal chords and I gripped my brother in a rough, one-handed bear hug as tears stung my eyes. Footballing circumstance – in this case, in reaction to James Norwood’s 80th-minute winning header – was the reason for such a raw outpouring of emotion. Whatever you define victory as, the elation of seeing your team achieve their goal is a high like nothing else. And it’s worth enduring a few lows to wait for that ecstatic hit.
Now, where did I leave my swaps…