I woke up on New Year’s Day 2014 with my team, Liverpool, sitting in 5th place in the table. They had just suffered back-to-back defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea, and it seemed inevitable that the season would end with them outside the top four in the Premier League once again. Then, something special happened. Liverpool won 14 and drew 2 of the 16 matches they played, leaving them three games from an improbable title, which would have been their first since 1990.
Of course, they didn’t win the title that year, but for four magical months, Liverpool couldn’t lose. I sat on the edge of my seat for every minute of every game. Even the blowouts were exciting: Liverpool 5, Arsenal 1; Liverpool 6, Cardiff 3; Liverpool 4, Tottenham 0. It was an unprecedented run in my experience as a Liverpool fan, but then again, my life as a Liverpool fan hasn’t been that long.
Growing up a soccer fan in the U.S. is different from growing up a fan of other sports. Most boys become sports fans by watching sports with their fathers. My father was a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, so naturally I became a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. We watched games together, went to games together, talked about games together, talked about the team together, and rooted for the Pirates through times good and bad.
For American soccer fans, we didn’t grow up fans because we couldn’t grow up fans. Soccer was barely shown on television in the US, and even when it was, who was going to sit down and explain to us how to be a fan or whom to root for? Our parents weren’t fans. Our friends weren’t fans. My soccer education came from playing the sport, playing FIFA, and watching Champions League games on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons after school on ESPN. Broadcasting those Champions League games, Derek Rae and Tommy Smyth taught me how to watch and appreciate the beautiful game. All of this contributed to the eventual equilibrium of my rooting for Liverpool (the subject of a different post), but I was never destined to be a Liverpool fan in the way I was a Pirates fan.
In a sense, all American soccer fans of this generation have lived their fandom as much through the absence of memory as through the creation of memory. Unlike natural-born fans, we first-generation fans live through a liminal period where we were both fans and not fans at the same time. Pinpointing when we first became fans is difficult, and there are matches in this liminal period that fall outside of our histories in a way they never would for a natural-born fan. I remember rooting for Liverpool in 2004, 2005, and 2006, but I missed key events. I didn’t see the Olympiakos match. I didn’t see Istanbul. And I didn’t watch 2006 FA Cup Final. In other words, I missed arguably the greatest three matches of Liverpool’s decade.
For a Liverpuddlian, missing such key matches would be unforgivable – it would mark one permanently as not a fan. The consequence for first-generation fans is an inevitable sense of always having to prove the legitimacy of one’s fandom. We have unforgivable absences in our fandom, therefore we must be twice as focused, twice as dedicated to our fandom to ensure such absences never happen again. But there is no remedy for that feeling of inadequacy except for time and commitment. One simply has to watch all the games.
As Liverpool embark on a new season, my hope is to have something to root for. Too many seasons in recent memory have resulted in Liverpool’s league games from April onwards (or sometimes even March) devoid of meaning. I remember during that run in 2014 I kept telling myself to just enjoy it. “Enjoy the feast of goals, the winning, the rise up the table, the competition for the league title. It might be many years before you get to experience it again.” The two years since have mostly been a waste (excluding that match against Dortmund last year), but each new season brings with it the hope that games late in the season will be meaningful.
All I want from the new season is a chance to write my own history of fandom. Someday I want to be able to tell my kids where I was when I watched Liverpool clinch a league title. If Liverpool are playing meaningful league games in April, though, this year, I’ll take it. And with an attacking quartet of Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mané, there’s reason to believe meaningful matches in April aren’t an unrealistic expectation. Regardless, every year spent watching failure is one more testament to bona fide fandom that will make celebrating a championship that much better when it does arrive. I should know, I’m a Pirates fan. Maybe I was destined to root for Liverpool after all.
Photo by Stuart Frisby via Flickr