ANFIELD, Liverpool. I was there during my vacation in the United Kingdom last month. Friends said it was “sacrilegious” for me, a Tottenham Hotspurs fan, to visit the sacred ground of Liverpool FC. “A man can change his clothes, his house, his girlfriend or even his sexual orientation, but changing your favourite football team! It’s an unacceptable ‘sin,’” said one friend, quoting a saying by a fan of a South American football club.
TNJ, a staunch fan of the Merseyside football team, had requested that Anfield be included in our UK travel itinerary. I thought it would be interesting to get into the psyche of a football fan despite having to spend five long hours on the road from London to Liverpool. He has been a Liverpool fan since his teenage years and was at a boarding school in the UK but he had never set foot at the stadium until recently.
He was a walking encyclopedia on anything Liverpool FC, rattling off statistics on the English club and its players then and now. A former stockbroker, his interest in Liverpool could also be beyond the football statistics: Liverpool was the ninth highest-earning football club in the world in 2016–17, with an annual revenue of €424.2 million, and the world’s eighth most valuable football club last year, valued at US$1.944 billion.
It was an emotional trip for the 62-year-old as he stood in the stadium facing the Sir Kenny Dalglish stand. When he sat himself at the Kop stand on the far right of the stadium, he could probably hear the Liverpool anthem (yes, they called it an anthem, not a song) being sung loud and clear. The anthem rarely fails to stir the emotions of the Reds (or Kop) fans that sing it or hear it. Had it not been for closing time, we could have stayed on at the stadium forever.
Now, what is it about these men (and also women) and their football team? Another die-hard fan, who was equally excited when I told him about my trip to Anfield before I left for the three-week vacation (to the extent of asking if I can make arrangements for Liverpool’s forward Mo Salah to record a video message), said “Liverpool is about ‘silatulrahim’ (friendship).”
A fan, Anthony Spud Le Tallec, tells it succinctly in his letter published by Irish-based sports media publication, Pundit Arena.
He wrote that football is more than football; “it is life. The same goes for Liverpool FC. Those players that play, have played, and in the future will play, are like family to me and other fans. To see them walk off the pitch dejected after a loss hurts, a lot, and the same goes for any other fan.”
Liverpool, he said, gave him memories that he will forever cherished. “We share the passion, the famous red jersey, Anfield, and Liverpool Football Club. When You’ll Never Walk Alone is played, we get the same goosebumps, whether we’re physically present or not. We all bleed Liverpool Red. Ourselves and our adopted family.”
Le Tallec further wrote, “football is a crazy old game. It can turn friends into enemies and enemies into friends (even if it is only for 90 minutes). It can unite a country, or even a continent. Football is a universal language, spoken on the fields and in the stands, by such passionate players and fans, that the joy of seeing your team win a match, or a trophy just can’t be described. The elation of victory, in my opinion, cannot be matched, nor the disappointment of loss. It’s what us fans talk about and spend the week looking forward to, it is what we live for. Football is our getaway, our 90 minutes of freedom.”
Social psychologist Dr Susan Krauss Whitbourne, writing for online portal Psychology Today, said ardent sports fans will hold onto the passion for their team no matter what. However, even the truest of the true fans may find that their faith is tested when things aren’t going well for their beloved team.
Social psychologists have identified two patterns of reactions that sports fans have to their team's performance.
First is “Basking in Reflected Glory or "BIRGing", for short. “When your team is doing well, you feel great. Research shows that on the day after a team's win, people feel better about themselves. They say "we" won, and by "we," they don't mean themselves, personally. The closer you identify with the team, the more likely you are to BIRG. People who BIRG are more likely to wear their team's regalia on the day after a victory,” the article in the portal said.
In contrast, there is "CORFing", which means "Cut Off Reflected Failure." “Your team was trounced and now you want to distance yourself from them and their disgrace as much as possible. It's not "we," who lost, it's "they." The last thing a CORFer wants to wear on the day following the team's loss is hats or shirts with the team's logo.
Whitbourne said this is the test of the true versus fickle fan. It's the CORFers who are the fickle fans. Their identification with them rises and falls with the box scores. True fans, in contrast, will don jerseys, hats, and almost any item with the team logo no matter how poorly their team performs. True fans may feel dejected, but their heroes remain their heroes, even if somewhat tarnished by defeat.
But Liverpool fans like TNJ would beg to differ. “1989-1990 was their (Liverpool’s) last top local division victory. They’ve not won it for the last 28 years, yet their supporters remain loyal.”
So, literally speaking, football is not just 22 highly paid men in coloured jerseys and shorts (in their home or away kits) running around a field for 90 minutes (or more including injury time) in pursuit of a ball. It is also not watched purely as a source of entertainment.
As the great Bill Shankly aptly puts it, “football isn’t a matter of life or death, it’s much more important than that.”
Fauziah Ismail is NST associate editor, Digital & Features