Every sport has their cathedrals. Baseball, a game rooted in nostalgia and history, looks to the ancient grounds of Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. A spring playoff game at Madison Square Garden has a different type of buzz than other NBA arenas. In the NFL, Lambeau Field is a desirable destination even for the most neutral and indifferent of football fans, for all of the history, friendly fans, brats, and the Sunday afternoon throwback to good old Americana. These are all sporting Meccas on every fan’s bucket list—necessary pilgrimages to pay homage to our own homo ludens.
With the rising cost of tickets, transportation, and concessions, it’s now become customary to watch the game at home amongst friends. Television production has advanced rapidly the past decade, making sporting events watched from home a more informative and comfortable experience. NFL games are remarkably different without the little yellow line, and unbiased instant replay doesn’t exist at the stadium.
Still, I like to get out to MSG, Red Bull Arena, and Yankee Stadium at least once a year, and to MetLife Stadium whenever the Packers are in town just to say “I was there.” It feels strange that my ticket purchasing decisions hinge on whether or not my tweets, statuses, and photos from the game will get lots of likes and retweets, but that’s 2013 social media going to work. It’s not enough to tell your real life friends about it for social gratification—you need to push it to your network too.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be in attendance at a few classic match-ups. I’ve seen Yankee-Red Sox playoff games at Yankee Stadium, Red Sox games at Fenway Park, Packer games at Lambeau Field, Giants Stadium, and MetLife Stadium; Juventus and Red Bull games at Red Bull Arena, and a nice string of Knick games at MSG: I was there for the last two Knicks playoff victories the past decade (over the Raptors and Heat, respectively), the birth of Linsanity (25 points against the Nets), and the height of Linsanity (28 points and a 3-point shot over Dirk Nowitski and the then defending NBA Champion Mavericks).
As a sports fan, I’ve been spoiled. Totally and irreversibly spoiled. I can’t go to basketball games without comparing it to the excitement of beating the Heat in the playoffs at MSG. Football games at MetLife are cold and classless compared to Lambeau Field. Baseball games without “BOSTON SUCKS” and “Pedro, Who’s Your Daddy?” chants are boring. The lens through which I view every single live sporting event I now attend is skewed, usually for the worst, because of the incredible feats, scores, and crowds I’ve been a part of in the past.
Soccer, however, is the one sport that has yet to be tainted. Red Bull games are fun, and sitting in the supporters’ section while Thierry Henry continues to bless us with his once-in-generation technique is special, but it’s still just the MLS. Outside of the supporters’ section of Red Bull Arena, nobody really cares about the game on hand, which almost makes the diligent chanting, singing, and general noise making of the supporters’ section feel disingenuous. It all feels forced when you and the 400 other diehards around you are the only ones who constantly give a damn in a 25,000 seat arena. There’s nothing hallow-hearted about the raw emotion let go after a stunning goal, but everything else in-between feels like the work of a “try-hard.”
This past week, soccer has become totally tainted for me. I’ll never be able to sit at a Red Bull match again with the same attitude. Even going to an Arsenal match at the Emirates Stadium would put me to sleep. Actually, I’ll never be able to go to another sporting event—outside of maybe the Super Bowl, NBA Finals, or World Cup—without thinking back to that night at Anfield.
Last Thursday, Liverpool played Zenit St. Petersburg at their home stadium, Anfield, in a Europa League knock-out stage tie. The Europa League is far less prestigious than the celebrated Champions League, but that doesn’t make it less important to the clubs playing in the competition. In the international arms race to acquire the best talent amongst the Petrol-dollar fueled likes of Manchester City and Chelsea, and the appeal of Barcelona and Real Madrid, any European trophy is important for a club, especially for a struggling Liverpool side.
After being defeated 2-0 in Russia the previous week by Zenit, Liverpool needed to win by at least a 2 goal margin and to not concede an away goal to advance. A mighty, but not impossible task against the Russian Premier League Champions. Liverpool and their home fans would have to conquer the Russians physically and mentally. Physically, the players had to do their jobs. Mentally… well, that’s where us fans had to bring it.
Fans of Liverpool have an architectural advantage to their mental battle, because Anfield is unlike any other stadium in the world. It’s small for a soccer club of Liverpool’s size (Liverpool is the 4th most valuable soccer club in the England, and Anfield’s capacity is 45,276. Comparatively, the most valuable club in England, Manchester United, can squeeze 75,765 fans into Old Trafford), but that works to the fan’s advantage. The playing field itself is no more than 15 feet away from the first row of seats—there are no massive sidelines full of players, reporters, and cameramen like at NFL stadiums. Anfield, which opened in 1884, has no modern amenities—there’s no big screen video board, luxury boxes, or cup holders. It’s just hunks of timber, metal, and fans.
Because of Anfield’s minor league size, and the massive overhanging roofing above large swaths of the seating, sound gets trapped within the grounds. Decibels hang over the pitch instead of dispersing into the Merseyside air. The crowd has complete control of the atmosphere, which can either lead to doom or gloom for Liverpool.
Earlier that week, I was in the stands at Anfield for an English Premier Match against Swansea City. It was an important fixture for Liverpool, but a sunny Sunday afternoon against a non-rival was never going to generate much oomph from the crowd. Still, if a player messes up, the hissing from the Anfield faithful will begin. Around the 20th minute, Liverpool winger Stewart Downing had a golden opportunity to strike from distance. The ball was teed up for him to smash into the left upper 90 of the goal. Downing had all the time in the world for a clean strike. It should’ve been a basic training ground score for him. He followed through, but his shot ended up closer to the corner flag than the frame of the goal. Anfield responded with a 45,000 hisses and grumbles, which remained in the air for a full minute after the mis-kick. It sounded like a cicada farm. The hushed whispers, grumbles, and gossip murmured on.
Downing wouldn’t dare to take another shot until after Liverpool had already established a lead, and the crowd was on their side again. He had been scared off by his own fans. If the crowd is tense, the players are too. If they’re in full-voice and gunning for the players to score, then players will feel more comfortable.
Prior to the Zenit match, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers called on fans to be their 12th man. He spoke of the Luis Garcia “ghost goal” from 2005 as a moment that was influenced by Anfield’s roars: “I was here for the first one, the ‘ghost goal’ and for me, it wasn’t a goal — it was the sheer force of the crowd that got it.” He was a coach for Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at the time, who were knocked out of the Champions League by Liverpool because of the ghost goal—a goal that was called even though Garcia’s shot never broke the plane of the goal line. It’s widely believed that it was given by referee Luboš Michel because he was pressured by the celebrations of the crowd. Mourinho himself has called it “a goal that came from the moon—from the Anfield stands.”
We heeded Rodgers’ call last Thursday. I sat in the famous Kop end of Anfield, and we were brewing a cauldron of resistance 20 minutes before kick-off.
Every time a Zenit player got on the ball, we hissed and booed until he was dispossessed. Whenever Liverpool were orchestrating a build-up play, relentless calls of “ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK-ATTACK-ATTACK” rained down. It was relentless. The Liverpudlian sitting behind me literally didn’t stop shouting the entire match. In his scouse, he drunkenly yammered for all 90 minutes. “Come on Liverpool!” “Get in now lads!” “C’mon you Reds!” “That’s a penalty!” It didn’t stop. It was like he was single-handedly trying to will Liverpool in on goal.
Liverpool conceded the first goal of the match after defender Jamie Carragher had the ball stolen from him near his own goal by Zenit striker Hulk. This all happened, of course, while the Kop was singing “A Team Full of Carraghers”—an ode to Jamie Carragher himself. “Well that’s a bloody team full of Carraghers for ye,” quipped an elderly woman in front of me.
Liverpool, now needing to score 4 goals to advance, were basically left for dead. 100% of fan bases that I’ve been around would’ve sulked, sat on their fans, and waited out the rest of the match in bitter disappointment. These fans didn’t. We weren’t going to accept that. After Carragher’s blunder, a brief “Did that just happen?” moment was allowed for all, and the “Come on Red Men!” chants started again. We responded with more noise, more energy, and even louder singing after a calamitous death-blow. A dagger that wasn’t.
Frankly, that’s unheard of. Jet fans would’ve left immediately, Knick fans would’ve booed relentlessly, and every other American sports fan would’ve wallowed in self-deprecation and mumbled cursing.
After non-stop singing and chanting—it was like the Zenit goal never even happened—the magic of a European night at Anfield started to thicken the air. Liverpool got one back from a Luis Suarez free-kick. And then another from Joe Allen’s right foot at point-blank range. 2-1. And then this happened:
3-1 to Liverpool, all on the backbone of our voices.
Liverpool would search for a fourth goal for the remaining thirty minutes. They’d come up short. A gutting result for fans, but a courageous and near-magical one at that. There’s no way Liverpool come back and score three goals after conceding first without Anfield behind them. A reserved crowd will almost always lead to a tense match, and ultimately a disappointing final score. Never before have I witnessed a home crowd tangibly will their team to victory. If the atmosphere of that night is ever surpassed, it’ll be by fellow Liverpool fans during another Anfield night.
Sporting events back home will never be the same again, thanks to 45,276 fans from across the Atlantic on the fields of Anfield Road.
Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49