I had been kicking the football around since I could walk. But sometime around my 5th birthday, I became cognoscente of an actual relationship. I would sit with my Dad on our ratty couch in our small home on the north side of Dublin, as he interjected his directives to the lean chested, mullet clad, short-shorted English fellas, believing it would matter from across the Irish Sea! This was as routine in our house as potatoes were for dinner. He’d be raging. —Insert your best attempt at a Dublin accent here— “Man on!”. “Will you kick the feckin’ t’ing ya bleedin’ eejit, ya!”. “Brilliant save!”. I would look over at ‘me Da’, and all would be right in my little world.
I loved hearing the cry of the crowd. No matter what team or stadium, the supporters all seemed so remarkably in sync. Did they hold auditions? How did they know all of these words? My heart would pound to the rhythm of their song. I would envision myself channeling their voices, gliding over each blade of grass, dropping my shoulder as I sailed past the defender. There was an innate sense of calm when I felt my right foot connect with the ball as I hit the sweet spot. Then came a chilling silence. A moment when you know you caught it clean and you anticipate what might be. It’s like everything moves in slow motion. The flight of the ball is entrancing. Then that sound! The glorious, swift catch of the mesh. The ball is in. And the terraces erupt!
It was spiritual. It’s like I already knew where it would take me. And I was all in.
Dad supported Arsenal FC, a stalwart club in the top fight of English football from North London. Founded in 1886, The Gunners boast a rich history with many accolades including being the only English team to go unbeaten throughout an entire 38 game season (2003-2004). But in 1985 they had just gone through a barren spell. They were no longer seeing the success they had in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I wasn’t sure why Dad was a supporter. Perhaps it was because they had a decent sized Irish contingent playing for them at the time! They also played tough, no nonsense football, noted for grinding out games 1-0. Which I guess suited his personality.
However, I wasn’t the type to like something just because my dad did, and my eye was drawn toward another crew. They wore all red. Stylish. Entertaining. Successful. They were in the midst of dominating England and Europe… again. I loved watching them play, and felt a strong affinity with their no. 9! I could absolutely get behind this team.
And so it began. The most most tempestuous love I have ever known. I had no idea at the time, but my journey with ‘footy’ and Liverpool F.C. would become the most consistent source of comfort, elation, and disappointment, throughout the rest of my life.
There was no competing sport in the United Kingdom and Ireland back then. Football had all the focus. Like, imagine if the NFL had zero competition for fans with MLB, the NBA, the NHL, or dare I utter the words… the MLS (shudders)? Rugby and Cricket had some following, but football was the sport of the people. And in Ireland specifically? I mean, sure my Granddad loved the horses and we would always root for the token Irish boxer! And maybe even once or twice a year we would be good patriots and rally behind our respective Counties for the All-Ireland GAA and Hurling finals (our National sports). But football was life. Rich. Poor. On the street. On a dirt patch. On any of the fabled 40 shades of green. We all connected through it. Every young boy dreamed of donning his favorite ‘kit’. It was our common denominator.
I remember vacationing in Europe as a young boy during our summer vacations from school. Dad would lay down our sleeping bags in the back of the Volvo and we’d take off down the coast, onto a Ferry, and wake up the next morning in Cherbourg or Le Havre. We would stay at campsites all over the continent from Normandy to the Loire Valley to the Black Forest. Wherever possible, inevitably, my dad would walk me over to a communal patch of grass where a bunch of random kids from across the continent were ‘having a match’. He’d encourage me to crash their game. I would be mortified. Every time. Who knows what they were going to say about me! But in the end, it didn’t matter, because I could play. I didn’t need to sound like them. I didn’t need to speak their respective languages. I just needed to put the ball in the back of the net. And that was something we all understood.
Football is so much more to me than something to which I am simply a fan of. From touring Southeast Asia, to vying for a tournament title game at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, this incredible sport has gifted me the most amazing life experiences. North Americans groan about the lack of goals, the speed of the game, and of course, the dramatic flopping (which, for the record, infuriates the hell out of me too). But I’m sorry. You would be hard pressed to find an impromptu game of (American) football in Hanoi, Saumur, or Bangkok. Football can be found everywhere. In the streets. On the sand. On grass. On TURF. You don’t need a ton of money to play it. You don’t need to speak the same language as your teammates. It transcends race and religion. The love of football is shared the world over. It is the embodiment of all that we need right now. A ‘coming together’ no matter what our affiliation. It is indeed, ‘The Beautiful Game’.