Article by Sean Kelly @virtualstatman
Liverpool’s appearance in the UEFA Champions League final may feel just like old times, but across the Atlantic the Reds will be breaking new ground on May 26
Cast your minds back to 2001. It was the year in which Liverpool famously won the cup treble, clinching League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup (along with clinching post-Heysel European Cup football for the first time), as Gerard Houllier reached his zenith as the Reds manager.
Who would forget Robbie Fowler’s sensational strike in the League Cup final against Birmingham, Michael Owen’s winner in the dying minutes against Arsenal in the FA Cup, followed soon after by the insanity of the UEFA Cup final against Alaves, as we repeatedly surrendered a winning position in a manner in which Liverpool have come to specialise in this century, before a dramatic golden (own) goal winner in extra time.
If you’re American, the chances are that you remember none of that, and with good reason. Live coverage of any those games was not something you could rely on in the USA, something I came to accept in the early 2000s, as I spent an increasing amount of my life in the States.
As I came and went from the country, I got used to the idea that being in North America meant that following any European football, at international or club level, was a hit-and-miss experience (for this reason I missed the Euro 2000 final completely). Of course the rise of the internet improved things, but even in those heady days of 56K dial-up modems, trying to follow the fortunes of Liverpool was tough.
My only companion was invariably the BBC Sport website, or phone calls with my brother back home. Finding anyone in America to have a conversation about Liverpool was practically impossible, and wearing a Liverpool shirt while out and about was greeted with complete indifference. As for the notion of an American bar actually showing a Liverpool match, let alone PROMOTING the fact? You must be having a laugh….
The game changer in America would ultimately prove the launch of Fox Soccer Channel in March 2005. It ushered in a revolution for soccer interest in this country in the following decade, but alas, it came a little too soon for our date with destiny in Istanbul a mere eight weeks later.
While able to watch both of Liverpool’s Champions League semi-final encounters with Chelsea on US television that year, I also commiserated that there was basically nobody in the neighbourhood with whom I could discuss the merits of the “ghost goal”, or just share my euphoria of reaching a European Cup final, the hinterland of all Liverpool supporters’ dreams. In the pre-Skype days, another expensive phone call to home ensued.
I emigrated to the US full-time on June 3, 2007. The precise date is significant, as it too was tied in with the fortunes of LFC. I delayed my departure from the UK by three weeks because I wanted to watch Liverpool play in another European Cup final in the front room of the family home. Why sit alone in America when I could be among the same friends who had shared the previous two decades of agony and ecstasy?
Liverpool, of course, saw the promise of #6 disappear in the Greek tragedy of Athens, defence skilfully undone by Pippo Inzaghi and AC Milan. The events witnessed on the telly box that day/night, while not as fondly remembered as Istanbul, will nevertheless live with me until my dying day.
From the reports of poor turnstile security and the entire stadium seemingly supporting Liverpool, Inzaghi sinking to his knees at the corner flag in celebration of his second goal, Kaka’s famous “I Belong To Jesus” undershirt, Xabi Alonso sitting forlornly wearing a runners-up medal, the unusual choice of Feeder’s “Feeling A Moment” playing on the stadium PA when Paolo Maldini lifted the trophy, to me consuming the best part of a bottle of cognac in the three hours that followed the full-time whistle, it’s still a night I’ll never forget.
Having arrived in the US literally a week after those events, I’ve since seen the audience for English football and the support for Liverpool grow exponentially over the past 11 years. The notion that Americans really would get out of bed at stupid o’clock on their weekends off to go to the bar and watch soccer had started to gain traction, and the emergence of social media meant it was easier for groups of fans to congregate. The success of Fox Soccer Channel was built upon by ESPN and (briefly) Setanta, before NBCSN took Premier League football exposure to the next level in the US.
By coincidence, NBC’s first game as the rights holder was a Liverpool game at Anfield, the opening day of a 2013-14 season that would see a Luis Suarez-inspired Liverpool play the sort of kamikaze football that won them a whole new legion of fans, and so nearly brought the league title back to Anfield for the first time since the days when even English TV viewers only saw one live game a week.
Without exaggeration, American Liverpool fans now get to see more live coverage of Liverpool games than do English Liverpool fans. NBC – for full disclosure, my former employers – have done a superb job in growing Premier League interest in this country. It’s now perfectly normal for US bars to show Premier League football in the early mornings, and to see people resplendent in their attire of their favourite club. A far cry from those anonymous days of 2005.
Because of this timeline, there is only one area left in which us “European” Liverpool fans still have unique experience over most of our North American brethren, and that’s in the European Cup. People such as my older brother recall the four European Cup triumphs of the late 70s and early 80s, whereas we both had the memories of Istanbul and Athens in the mid-2000s.
If you’ve only started supporting Liverpool in the past 10 years, Kiev is going to be a totally new sensation. Yes, you may have felt the heartbreak of the 2016 Europa League Final (boy, did we), but trust me, the emotions involved in that competition barely amount to 10% of what you experience in a Champions League final.
Even the Premier League near-miss of 2014 doesn’t compare. Over 38 games, it’s much more of a marathon than a sprint. The league can’t provide the instant hit of euphoria or despair in the same way as knockout football…. Michael Thomas and Sergio Aguero excepted.…
In the US market this will be the highest-rated game in Liverpool’s history, and we partly thank UEFA for that, having moved Champions League finals to Saturday evenings from 2010 onwards. Weekday games are notoriously low draws for soccer bars across this country, and with obvious reasons – people are at work here when midweek games kick-off between 11.45am and 2.45pm.
I can recall as recently as 2009 watching Barcelona v Man Utd in the final – a supposed summit of football superpowers – in a totally empty bar in Scottsdale Arizona. Literally the only people there were me, the bartender and the landlord. The apathy was such that at the full-time whistle they switched the channel to a sports talk show, missing the trophy presentation entirely.
This time, there will be no such drawbacks. To those who remember the pandemonium in American bars when the USA played Portugal in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, expect the same again…. but this time it’s the Kop version.
If you’ve never experienced it, I can’t describe to you that visceral feeling when you first see that bespoke gold Liver bird on the players’ shirts that says “The Final”, “LFC” and “Kyiv 2018” as the players wait in the tunnel, before the teams emerge and the ACTUAL Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens, the trophy we dream about, placed between our players and those of Real Madrid, ushering in the Champions League anthem, which in recent times has been sung live at the final by Andrea Bocelli.
Just for a few seconds, as the camera pans along a line of players that includes Ronaldo, Benzema, Modric and Ramos, but also Salah, Firmino, Van Dijk and Henderson, you’re able to stop and consider the magnitude of what is happening at that moment. That is if you can still stand up from the tingle of emotion, as it sinks in that yes, we ARE truly here.
With statistical justification, we’ve always regarded ourselves as European royalty. This is our eighth final, as many as all the football clubs in Manchester and London combined. In England we grew up experiencing European Cup triumphs in the present tense, not in ancient history.
It wasn’t something that happened to other clubs…. we WERE that club. I have always been hugely proud that our shirt sports the UEFA Badge Of Honour in European play, something not yet earned by supposedly more fashionable clubs like Manchester United, Juventus, Internazionale or Chelsea.
I personally regard the trophy – ol’ big ears – like a beloved old friend, one with whom I’ve shared some of the most special nights of my life. If you’ve visited the Istanbul trophy in the Anfield museum, you’ll know that it is akin to a religious pilgrimage, especially given that it really IS the 2005 trophy, still resplendent with the dings and scrapes Milan Baros unintentionally added when he dropped it during the victory party.
Therefore, there are certain things that I felt compelled to pass on to newer fans, lest they should not get as much out of this as those of us who’ve been around long enough to remember the days when European Cup winners’ medals were so common around Anfield that they were practically used as door stops in the boot room.
First and foremost is this: Don’t make any plans to be in any way functional on the day of the game, either before or after. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can concentrate on work for a few hours beforehand, or that the result will not impact your ability to focus afterwards.
On the day of the 2005 and 2007 finals, it was literally the ONLY thing me or my brother could think about. Even casual discussion of another topic was beyond us. From the moment we got up, every action and thought that day was geared toward the game.
Unfortunately, we also learned how we reacted to differing results. The night of Istanbul ended with my brother passed out fully clothed on his sofa, and me passed out fully clothed on the floor, sometime after 2am – with Sky Sports News still broadcasting the barely-believable scenes from Turkey, and the jubilant fans in the streets outside Anfield and in Liverpool city centre.
Nothing else in the world mattered in the hours that followed. I didn’t even take off my specially-made “ISTANBUL 05” home shirt until TWO full days later (when it was promptly stolen from my suitcase at Heathrow Airport, never to be seen again, but that’s another story).
Conversely, Athens 2007 demonstrated that the emotion of defeat is similarly stubborn to remove. I mentioned that bottle of cognac earlier – I once again ended the night on the floor, but this time I became increasingly belligerent after my continued efforts to get the ceiling to sing to me (you read that right) amounted to nothing. Never mind that I don’t normally drink alcohol. I still have the “ATHENS 07” shirt, a forlorn memento nobody wanted to steal….
Once you’ve cleared your diary of all productive activity, know that whatever happens to you on Saturday May 26 will be etched into your mind until you are gone of this Earth. Think about this carefully.… what do you want this day, and this memory, to be?
In my case, it isn’t enough to just go to the same bar as for a run-of-the-mill league game. This is too big for that. My son was born in the US three months after we lost in Athens, so this is his first European Cup final. While growing up, he’s learned all about that Badge Of Honour, the trophy depicted on it and the significance of the number. Now for the first time in his life, he could see that number change.
Taking him to Kiev or even England is impractical in a school term, but I want him to get the sense of a special occasion, so instead I’m taking him to Disney World and Kennedy Space Center, then watching the game at the Liverpool supporters’ bar in Orlando.
I’m already looking forward to wearing our Liverpool shirts, our “Egyptian King” paper crowns and waving our “We’ve Conquered All Of Europe” flag in the Magic Kingdom on the day before the final. Given the number of English tourists who regularly visit, I have a feeling we won’t be the only ones whipped into this fervour. As for Cape Canaveral, I don’t know what the policy is about sneaking anAllez Allez Allezscarf onto the next rocket launch…?
Lastly – and this applies to all Liverpool fans – Don’t be lulled into the trap of thinking that this final is the start of a Klopp dynasty, and that from now on this is the new normal. Don’t get me wrong, I would love it if it DOES become normal, but don’t treat this as a stepping stone to something else, because this is IT.
There isn’t another game bigger than this further down the road…. this is the height of achievement. The stakes are as high as any game in Liverpool history. Rome 1977, London 1978, Paris 1981, Rome 1984, Istanbul 2005…. Kiev 2018. With a victory, the stories of these few weeks will become as significant in LFC folklore as all the anecdotes you’ve heard about the legendary wins of yesteryear…. the difference being that this time, America is invited.
Get the absolute most out of this that you can, because even if Liverpool were to start winning the Premier League with regularity, a Champions League final is no guarantee…. just ask Manchester City. Treat these next few weeks like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Drink it all in, and don’t let anything get in the way of it. Even our impending opponents Real Madrid went 12 years without reaching the final until they returned in 2014. They’ve won it 12 times, yet every final is treasured even to them. Whatever happens in this game, get ready for life to feel different afterwards.
Thirty years from now, you’ll still remember the day like it was yesterday…. and if it’s anything like May 25 2005, it will come to define you as a person.
Even if we lose, never again in your life will hear the word “Kiev” and think anything other than “2018”.
Article by Sean Kelly @virtualstatman
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