Last night, I watched Liverpool.
I could say that I watched Liverpool vs Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final, because that’s what I did, but mostly, I was watching Liverpool.
Let me try to explain why.
In the context of being Irish and watching the English Premier League from across the sea, almost everyone here, at least almost everyone who’s male and has any interest in sport, follows or supports a certain team.
You can sometimes guess from their age the team they follow.
Leeds United have not been a force for 20 years or so, and it’s more than 40 years since their heyday of the 1970s. So there are a disproportionate number of Irish men in their 50s and 60s who still follow Leeds.
Nottingham Forest too. They’ve been out of the top division since 1999 and it was 20 years before that when they were winning European Cups with Brian Clough at the helm. There are many Irish men in their 40s and 50s, stirred by being boys when Forest won back to back European titles in ’79 and ’80.
For my part, I was always a bit confused. The first goal I remember seeing, when I was five or six, was by Everton, who were a big deal back in the mid-80s, and so I followed them for a while.
Manchester United and a perfect soup of circumstance
When I was a teenager we moved home and settled in next door to a family of ferociously ardent Manchester United supporters. This was an era when United presented the beauty of Kanchelskis and Giggs and the brawn of Schmeichel and Bruce, and when Eric Cantona combined brawn and beauty in one crazy package, and when our fellow Irishman Roy Keane wore the captain’s armband.
In that perfect soup of circumstance I was won over entirely by United for a while.
But when it comes to sports teams I’m fickle. It’s not part of my identity, so I usually drift away before I’m entranced by something or someone else.
The Arsenal of Arsene Wenger did that a little. There were six months or so in the late ’90s when I was enchanted by the wonder of Derby County, who had assembled a cosmopolitan team of Eranio, Baiano and Wanchope and played some of the most sumptuous football I’d ever seen.
I was watching football all the time back then. These were the years of the late teens and early 20s when for a few short years life opens up and we can make choices without the weight of responsibility. Football was one choice I made. But not football for tribalism and confrontation. Not football for winning. Winning didn’t matter, not really. This was football for art. Football for beauty.
The poet John Keats wrote that “beauty is truth, and truth beauty”, and that feels right. Certainly, nothing can be beautiful, no matter how perfect it looks, if it doesn’t hold the ring of truth. I’m beholden to this genuine, honest beauty in every facet of life.
Over the last two years, Liverpool have done this for me. They have offered beauty and truth in many different ways, and they did it again on Tuesday night.
So I didn’t tune in to watch a Liverpool-Barcelona Champions League semi-final. I tuned in to watch Liverpool.
I tuned in to see how they might respond to the predicament in which they found themselves. 3-0 down from the first leg in Spain, without two of their best players, against a Barcelona team which included Leo Messi, maybe the greatest footballer in the history of the game.
It was an almost impossible task for Liverpool. Due to the vagaries of the rules, if Barcelona scored just once, Liverpool needed to score five (a 4-4 aggregate draw sending Barca through on the “away goals rule”).
And yet, as the old Adidas ad used to say, impossible is nothing. Nelson Mandela is supposed to have said “everything is impossible until it is done.”
The atmosphere on the field visibly changed and shifted as more than 50,000 people at Anfield transferred their bottomless collective energy to the home team. Liverpool players became bigger, stronger, faster, more powerful and Barcelona, legends or not, wilted and collapsed beneath the white heat of the red army they were faced with.
I’ve said and written more than a few times, here and elsewhere, an affirmation that I’ve been playing with.
It goes like this.
Energy is the currency of the world.
At Anfield on Tuesday night, Liverpool and their fervent supporters had that energy. From the first moment the players feasted on the belief of the fans, and vice-versa, in an endless virtuous circle that turned the night into a catastrophe for the ages for the visiting superstars.
Never giving up, in the face of all rational evidence that tells you that you should, is an art.
It’s an art in that there doesn’t appear to be any real science to it. Never giving up is emotion and belief and faith and lots of other intangible things that add up to something miraculous. (Julian Edelman, the New England Patriots wide receiver, was caught on mic when his team were 28-3 down in the Super Bowl. “It’s gonna be one hell of a story.” The Patriots never gave up, and it was one hell of a story.)
But it’s possible that the foundation of all art is energy. And energy has occupied the minds of the greatest scientists. I’ve never been great for physics and Einstein and all that jazz, and I’d need a crash-course to get my head around E=mc².
On Tuesday night, energy created a perfect canvas for the thousands inside Anfield, and the tens of millions of entranced viewers around the world.
Including at least one fairly fickle football follower in rural Ireland, won over by beauty and truth and energy and art wherever he finds it.