When I went to England in November 2008 to see Liverpool FC play a Champions League match against Marseilles, that triumvirate of questions began most of my conversations. At home, I tend to get the latter two questions, in one form or another, often enough. While I hope the woman question is easily answered, the how and why I’ve come to being a sports fan is less clear.
I played sports growing up and certainly watched my share of college (American) football games and plenty of college and major league baseball games. My grandfather, and indeed my father’s whole side of the family are largely Cubs fans, but I never truly followed a team. I do remember watching the World Cup with my sister and a neighborhood friend in the 90s, but still, I mostly listened to music, read, and concentrated on my studies.
In the summer of 2002 I completed my undergraduate studies and got a job in the music industry that required a move to Chicago. That summer, I went to see the Chicago White Sox play. Something happened. I don’t know but I’m sure there was a click and from that moment, I started to attend and watch more and more White Sox games. Frankly, baseball saved my life. Moving to a new town can be lonely and, as I’ve heard it said many a time and repeated to new Chicagoans myself, “Chicago is hard.” It’s not a town that cuts you any breaks for any reason. But it gave me baseball and summers of riding my bike down to sit in the 500 level by myself and watch a team shape up over a few years to become the 2005 World Series Champions. It got me through difficult times. I love the game and I love the White Sox (sorry, grandpa, I know that makes you roll in your grave). What does baseball have to do with footie? Nothing for most people, but it’s the backdrop for how I came to sports fandom later than most.
A few years ago I found myself poking around watching bits and pieces of football (soccer). I also learned that a good friend of mine actually watched a lot of English Premiere League matches, and another friend was following the MLS, EPL, La Liga and other European leagues. And another friend and another until I happened to meet a Liverpool fan who, when I mentioned my burgeoning footie interest, invited me to watch my first Liverpool match.
So, I’ve not been a Liverpool fan long, which makes me feel a bit chagrined. I wasn’t lucky to grow up loving this team and watching them win League titles. I didn’t experience the tragedies of Hillsborough or Heysel. Although I know some of the club’s history and take it upon myself to learn more and more, I am still a novice. I won’t even buy myself a Liverpool shirt until I feel I’ve earned it and that time has yet to come.
What is plain to me is that football is the most amazing sport and Liverpool is my team. With most questions in life I hesitate and search for an answer or deeper meaning; however, in this I know one true, simple thing: I love Liverpool Football Club. The only comparison I can conjure is what people must feel when they meet the person with whom they will spend the rest of their life—the chemistry, spark, certainty and love that come with this knowledge. Except this has to better. Bone-deep, this love wakes you up at 5am before the alarm to trudge through sleet and snow just to sit around other people who have this same passion and wordlessly understand why you jump from your seat because you can see the goal coming or, all too often this season, sullenly hold your head in your hands.
There have been many heavy sighs this season, none heavier than the recent loss to Portsmouth. Several fans and I sat around for hours after that match lamenting it. Many a lifelong fan has begun to say that they really don’t feel it’s ever been this bad. Every fan has their own criticism and ideas about how the team is playing, how Rafa is doing, how the owners have been detrimental; everyone is searching for an answer, a place to lay blame, and hoping things will get better. Portsmouth was an emotional match for fans and not in the typical way. I’ve read that match described as the “low point” but with many games remaining, I think fans fear their own sense of resignation about this season and are trying to fight against it specifically when the media write about selling Torres and Gerrard, and Hicks Jr. makes inappropriate comments to an inquiring fan. No one wants this and to shore each other up we quote from and remind one another “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
The truth is I’ve never been one for hope. There have been many days, after watching a match, where I find myself reciting lines from “Those Winter Sundays,” by Robert Hayden: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices.” Love for Liverpool has, at times, been a lonely endeavor this year. So, I don’t know that I carry hope in my heart. In fact, I have a tattoo on my arm that says “No Hope.” This isn’t because I am a negative, cynical person, it’s because I believe so fervently that we make things happen. We work, we sweat, we cry and continue to try until we do whatever it is that has to be done.
Somehow, Liverpool has become my exception. Whatever it is that sends shivers down my arms when I hear the Kop signing “YNWA,” I think it must be the hope of so many people who also have shivers and long for the team to do well. So many people who have grown up with the club, the people seeing their first match, families, friends, everyone just needing to be there for the team as the team is for them. It’s for fellow fans that I’ve learned to hope because I understand what it means each week, especially in such a difficult year. Sometimes Liverpool is the one good thing in a week overflowing with worry.
When we lost to Portsmouth, I looked at one of my friends afterward and said, “Liverpool and I are having the same season.” Good people leaving, layoffs (let’s call them bad management decisions), coming close but not close enough, financial woes, knowing your potential but feeling like you just can’t perform or get that one lucky break to start the turnaround; that’s been my year. The other thing about this year is that I have weathered and continue to weather it well, better than I thought I would and for much longer than I thought I would have to. I don’t have to hope that Liverpool will do the same, I know they will. I know the fans will because they are the people singing songs like “We All Dream of a Team of Carraghers,” which is an appreciation of the values of true passionate loyalty and hard work. When I was at Anfield last year, “YNWA” gave me shivers, but “We All Dream of a Team of Carraghers” is the song that made me well up.
You know what they say about hard times, right? Hard times are hard. They also wane. It’s a strange feeling, knowing that no matter what happens you’ll still love something as much or more than you did the year before. It feels like a filling up on the inside, a sense of fullness that I admit seems out of place for me to attribute to a sport but, at the same time, is inextricably part of who I am.
I’m an American, yup. A woman, check. And I really like footie. Love it. If baseball saved my life at the beginning of the decade, then I think it may have saved me for Liverpool. Not that I don’t absolutely still love and follow baseball but it’s Liverpool that’s teaching me how to live.