No, Steven Gerrard, NO!
Gerrard’s bad play against Chelsea will forever go down in Liverpool lore as something like The Slip, or The Drop, or The Fall. Something to do with the legendary Reds Captain falling down and going boom as Demba Ba streaked into open field for an entire half a pitch before booting a fireball behind keeper Simon Mignolet. It will go down as symbolic of more than just Gerrard tripping over his own feet; in that one moment, Liverpool’s stupendous season seemed to fall on its ass with him. One minute, there they were, one win away from a grasp on the Premier League title so tight the trophy was turning blue. Losing to Chelsea shouldn’t have been a death knell. Chelsea is one of the best teams in the EPL, and Liverpool was five points up in the standings. Then came that meltdown against Crystal Palace. If you haven’t heard this one yet, the Eagles were down 3-0 well past the 70-minute mark before they caught fire and mounted a full-out assault, drawing the game and basically killing Liverpool’s shot at their first title since 1990.
This, I think, has been my official induction into Liverpool fandom. I had already been following the team for a couple of years by that point, but with the advent of EPL matches on NBC Sports, I had finally developed my affection for one of England’s most stories clubs. I was able to watch them as they meekly snuck out of the gate, opening their season with three straight 1-0 victories, with every goal coming courtesy of Daniel Sturridge. They outright lost to Southampton, which was a League One club just in 2009. 2013 concluded with back to back losses to Manchester City and Chelsea. By New Year’s Day, the Reds were doing that bouncey/teasey routine. You know the one: The one where they’re playing just well enough to make you think they have a real shot, but you’re always keeping your defenses up because they slacked at all the worst times in the past. Then right on New Year’s Day, the Reds beat Hull City 2-0, and it began a magical run which would see Liverpool rise to the top of the EPL and dominate, not losing another match until April. They were beating the giants of the EPL and making it look easy. Behind record-setting MVP Luis Suarez, top-five scorer Sturridge, and emerging star Raheem Sterling, the Reds smoked Everton, torched Arsenal and Spurs, and in the biggest test of the year, took the rematch against the Citizens they were supposed to lose, thus setting up what should have been a very winnable final four matches. Now all that’s left is for us Reds supporters to weep into our beers again, singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for another year while watching helplessly as Manchester City clinches a title which is theirs to lose.
It felt like the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals all over again, except this time there was no ref to blame in order to make myself feel better. Liverpool was the club I had chosen; or, rather, the club that chose me. I have to live with this defeat-snatching collapse on my head forever. It’s right now that I’m wishing I followed some mid-table club no one cares about, because at least my expectations wouldn’t have been so high. But nope, it had to be Liverpool that picked me.
Liverpool picked me. That’s kind of a funny think to think about, but it’s the popular adage of being a European soccer fan. In my case, it also happened to be true. When I made the decision to commit to a Premier League team and make my soccer fandom official, I had a certain set of rules I wanted to abide by, and those rules at first appeared to be pointing me straight at one of the big London teams – Arsenal, Chelsea, or Tottenham Hotspur. Arsenal was the most fitting candidate, and the Gunners’ matches were even being picked up by YES before showing EPL matches came in vogue. They’re the subject of my all-time favorite sports book, and are located in a place which is easily accessible to Americans. They even have a website catering to American fans which not only promotes the side, but tries to help interested Americans to really know and understand the team history and the way English soccer works. I liked Arsenal. I wanted Arsenal. I was fully expecting to go into life as an EPL follower supporting Arsenal. But something about them wasn’t feeling right. My following Liverpool doesn’t make any logical sense, but the Reds clicked with me in every way the Gunners didn’t, and so I held my head up high last year as I followed my newest sports team to a seventh-place finish.
Soccer climbed surprisingly high in my sports pantheon in the short time I’ve been following it. Since I’m caring about the NFL less and less these days, the EPL is leaps and bounds ahead of any team loyalties I had in the NFL and will probably be leaping up further. (Though it will probably never surpass my beloved NHL.) Even though the EPL, like any American sports league, is corporatized as hell, soccer still acts as sort of the hipster antidote to people fed up with the way sports are done in the United States. Soccer is the world’s sport, and as such, it’s one that, despite our efforts, will never, ever be Americanized the way the suits want it to be. Soccer doesn’t know commercial break timeouts; 24-7 draft commercialization which includes mock drafts and the grading of those mock drafts; threats to move; or boardroom rivalries. Yes, it has its corporate problems (corporate branding being prominent on the jerseys, ahem), but nothing that interrupts what happens on the pitch.
There are other appeals, too. Since substitutions are limited, the superstars often play the entire 90-minute game time, and it’s not unusual for a club to have to finish a game with fewer players on the pitch than their opponents after an injury. There are no division alignments or playoffs, meaning that whoever has the best record at the end of the season is the league champion, and there are a handful of other tournaments running concurrently with the league schedule which offer teams chances at other trophies. My favorite aspect of soccer is relegation. It gives teams incentive to do well, because if they’re too bad, they get kicked out of the league while the best teams from a lower league are brought up to see how much damage they can do. If they suck in the lower league, they get knocked back to an even lower league, and it keeps going. This means that, in theory, I could start an amateur club in England and eventually make it into the champion of Europe.
The EPL is about to conclude the kind of dramatic year that solidifies the fandom of interested fence-sitters. First there was the sudden transfer of Spurs superstar Gareth Bale to Real Madrid, the Spanish league giant which may be the best soccer side in the world. Bale was indomitable, and Tottenham Hotspur was looking like a rising power with him, but they sent him packing apparently for what was wrongly assumed to be a better shot at a league title now. Cardiff City rebranded themselves after getting to the Premier League for the first time in 51 years and fired their manager halfway through the season. Crystal Palace, another usual suspect for relegation, made the most of their promotion on a surprise run to the middle of the table after winning only one match in the whole first three months of the season, beating Aston Villa twice and Chelsea and Everton once each and playing Liverpool to a draw – ruining the season for both Chelsea and Liverpool. Manchester United’s new manager, David Moyes, led the Red Devils to a campaign which was disastrous by their standards, and was fired before the end of the season. The title race has been a fight without an immediately emergent winner. (Though we know it won’t be Chelsea, and we’re pretty sure it won’t be Liverpool.)
It all made the so-called football league in this country rather easy to forget. There’s less than 20 minutes of real action during NFL games, and breaking scoring records is commonplace because the commissioner keeps rigging the rules to make them nicer to offensive players. They don’t do this very often in soccer – a goal is a goal. I still enjoy watching NFL games, where there’s always a palpable sense that something incredible is about to happen, but watching 22 do-everything athletes on a field for 90 minutes is too great a show to ignore. The only real parallel we have to it in the US is the NBA, where the biggest stars can play a half hour of a 48-minute game.
Of course, the practical downside is what happens when the attachment finally arrives and you’re stuck supporting your team. Goal margins tend to be pretty low, so you’ll be on edge during every match, living and dying with every pass. It’s not enough for your favorite team to just be favored by a mile, because momentum shifts can be sudden and unexpected. That’s a fact that small teams cling to when they’re clearly overmatched, because no matter what the talent differential looks like, a single-goal lead is still a single-goal lead. Also, if you like a small club, god help you because there’s no salary cap in the EPL. You team needs to spend big and bigger if they want a shot at a title.
I’m quite happy following Liverpool and the EPL. I can’t say I miss the NFL.