Tag Archives: The England Takeover

Anfield Is Just Different

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

NFL Fans Who Hate The EPL, In Fact, Do Exist In London

Two Sundays ago, I spent my first Super Bowl outside of the United States. It felt a bit sacrilegious to spend America’s Greatest Holiday in a country where they call NFL football “that elbow and rugby thing,” and refer to it as “armored egg chase.” Everywhere outside of the United States, and especially in England—the birthplace of association football—”football” is the beautiful game played exclusively with feet, not with hands and helmets.

For the first Super Bowl in four years, I didn’t have a vested interest in the game. I had no bets wagered, the Giants weren’t there to root against, my Packers weren’t there to root for, and the Drew Brees wasn’t there playing with all of post-Katrina New Orleans on his back. Still, with a considerate 11:30 PM kick-off time in London and no class until 2 PM the next day, I ventured out to the University of London’s bar for their Super Bowl party.

On the walk to the bar, I noticed that every single pub I passed (it was a half hour walk, and given that there’s at least one pub per block on London, I must’ve passed at least 3,000 pubs) was open and advertising “the Big Game.”

At UL’s bar, I expected a handful of Raven and 49er fans, a small sect of Americans wanting to watch the Super Bowl just to attain a sense of American normalcy in a foreign country, and nothing more. It was late. Kids had class the next morning. The half-time show would be on YouTube the following morning. It’s just the NFL. To my surprise, half of the bar was full of British NFL fans, all cloaked in NFL apparel, and NYU students were aplenty. Never underestimate the drawing power of a Ray Lewis speech and a Beyonce performance.

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British NFL fans are nothing new to me. At my first Packers game at the old Giants Stadium a few years ago, I met some British Packer fans in the parking lot. With the expansion of NFL broadcasts overseas over the past twenty years, they had watched Brett Favre’s Packer teams dominate the mid-90s, and had adopted the Pack as their own, despite not even knowing where Green Bay was on the map.

I get the Packer connection. It’s a historic franchise that has produced winning seasons for the past two decades. It’d be the American equivalent of picking Manchester United as your favorite team. When there’s no natural connection, you fall in love with the consistent winner.

What didn’t make sense was the group of British NFL fans wearing Donovan McNabb, Mark Sanchez, Roy Williams, Tom Brady, and Eli Manning jerseys in the heart of London. The jerseys could’ve been just a novelty. When I go to MLS games at Red Bull Arena, it’s common to see American fans wearing whatever soccer jersey they happen to own to the game. The Red Bulls could be playing the Houston Dynamo and you’d still see about 30 Lionel Messi jerseys around the stadium. To these fans, wearing any soccer apparel to says, “Hey, we’re here because we know something about the sport.” In actuality, they probably know very little about the MLS, and could probably name only five European soccer players, but they know Messi. It’s a shame that Mark Sanchez was the finest representative the NFL had to offer for one British NFL fan.

At the bar, the NFL Brits noticed my Liverpool jersey. Worse, they saw that Joe Allen, the much lamented midfielder, was the name printed on the back of it. I should’ve known to not wear that shirt in public. It was only a matter of time until the crows came out to give me a hard time.

Here’s how the conversation went down, edited for appropriateness (you can probably guess where the warm beer-fueled expletives came in):

“Ey mate, are you a real Liverpool fan or a joke?”

“What? Why?”

“Well you’re wearing your crap club on yer chest with the name of a midget Welshman on the back.”

“5 European Cups, and 18 Leagues, that’s what we call history. Anyway, you have a JETS jersey on. You’re a disgrace to my city, the NFL, sports fans who grew up with a pre-sensationalist SportsCenter, and TMZ.”

“What’s a ‘European Cup’?”

Pause.

I had just encountered a Londoner wearing a Mark Sanchez jersey who knew enough about Liverpool to insult me but not enough about international soccer to know about the European Club Championship… WHERE WAS I?

After further conversation and a round shared with his mates, I learned that these guys actually hated the English Premier League, and only had anecdotal knowledge of their national sport through their friend’s Twitter rampages. Mr. Sanchez has a friend who’s a Liverpool fan, so the “midget Welshman” name was fresh in his mind. They admired the physicality of American football as opposed to European soccer’s divers and whiners.

Going around the table, I got to know the background stories behind these NFL Brits. Mr. Sanchez started following the Jets after a visit to New York two years ago, at the peak of the Rex Ryan era. The lad wearing the Tom Brady jersey picked the Patriots because he’s a history student and thought the Patriots’ Minuteman logo from the 90s looked cool—ironic, considering, well, you know, these Minutemen blasted his ancestors back across the Atlantic en route to Independence. The Cowboys fan had read about Tony Romo dating Jessica Simpson in the tabloids (“She has great knockers,” according to my new friend), and started tuning in every Sunday night to Cowboy games.

They couldn’t afford to make it out to the NFL In London annual games at Wembley, but those games are “the third biggest day of the year” according to one NFL Brit. The two days above in his pecking order of grand occasions: the Super Bowl and Christmas.

These were all very random roads to fandom fueled by either whims or pop culture references, but all backed up by an exceptional knowledge of the game. These fans knew the difference between a 3-4 and 4-3 defense, wondered how Kaepnerick and the 49ers’ pistol offense would fair against a strong Ravens front 7, and lamented the fact that European sports didn’t have a hard salary cap like the NFL did. Any novel reader of the game could dissect a 4-3 defense, but these guys actually knew the difference between a “hard” and “soft” salary cap. They were practically Sport Management majors!

Eventually, I left their table to participate in matters concerning Beyonce, but these fans had genuinely impressed me. I’d be hard pressed to find well-versed soccer fans at a World Cup party back in the States.

Before leaving, I asked them whether they’d like an NFL team in London one day. A resounding “YES!” was blurted in my direction. Roger Goodell, I just found your first 6 season ticket holders for your future London franchise. Finding 85,994 more to fill Wembley every Sunday shouldn’t be so hard now.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

The England Takeover Continued: Liverpool at Anfield Match Documentary

I finally made it to Anfield. Finally. After five years of loyalty to Liverpool FC, and over a year of planning, I finally made the trip to my Mecca. I realize, however, that millions of Liverpool fans aren’t as fortunate as I was to see a match at Anfield, so I wanted to put a video together to showcase my time in Merseyside. Thank you to everyone who let me interview them, and to the Reds for a terrific 5-0 win. YNWA.

Thank you to David Russell of Ireland for hooking me up with a ticket to the match.

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Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

The England Takeover: Arsenal-Liverpool Match Documentary

I’m finally in England. After supporting Liverpool FC and following the EPL for five years now, I’ve traveled to London to “study abroad.” Honestly, the moment I found out I could spend a semester in London and get academic credit for it, I made the trip my goal. Although I’m here to take classes that will enrich my understanding of British culture, above all, I’m here to go to football matches and follow my beloved Liverpool.

That began last Wednesday, as Liverpool traveled to the Emirates for a tough draw with Arsenal on a cold and windy London night. Liverpool were coming off of a disastrous performance against Oldham in an FA Cup draw, but with the proper back four and 4-3-3 shape installed once again, I reckoned that we’d see a better performance from the Reds. A draw was always on the cards, and that’s just how the match ended up. 2-2.

It was disappointing to see Liverpool throw away a 2-0 lead in the second half, but Arsenal deserved those goals, as they out-shot, out-possessed, and terrorized Liverpool with consistent pressing and lightening quick build-up play. I’ll take the point.

Just like I did with the Boston match over the summer, I put together a mini-documentary of this match. I interviewed fans around the ground, got some great shots of the pitch, and ate my first pie! Watch it below. I hope to attend 2-3 more Liverpool matches, so look out for me England! I’m here!

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49