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June 12, 2019updated 03 Aug 2021 10:54am

On football, belonging and being a Liverpool-supporting Londoner

By Samuel Kerr

There are 15 professional football clubs in London, and I don’t support any of them.

I was born and grew up in Lambeth, London, and I can see the Oval cricket ground from my window. If you ever cross the River Thames at night, you’re seeing my favourite view in the world. One side of my family is German, the other’s from Kent, but I love being able to say I’m from this city.

And yet, aged 5 – seeing Michael Owen’s goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup – I decided to support Liverpool. And apparently nobody in my football-hating family was minded to correct me.

In terms of the distance from my house, it might as well have been France’s Paris St Germain, Belgium’s Anderlecht or the Netherland’s Feyenoord.

It’s one thing Liverpudlians debating the notion of “Scouse exceptionalism”; it was quite another being a teenage Londoner arguing with other geographically-confused friends about the Manchester Ship Canal.

As a student, shuttling between Bristol and Liverpool by coach provided an outlet for the energy. Thoughtfully, Bristol continues to abstain from top-flight football, which gave us an excuse to head up the M5. The 2011-12 season was particularly memorable, as Liverpool rewarded our endeavour by cheerfully hitting the post and crossbar more times than any other team in Premier League history.

Belonging is normally something inherited, but club football has been global for decades. And if nobody’s there to indoctrinate you, then you do it yourself. In Official Supporters’ Clubs from San Francisco to Seoul, people re-structure their lives to wake up and stare very hard at this strange, infectious, red thing. They fall in love with the heroes and the miracles. They learn about Hillsborough, and Heysel, and managed decline.

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I know that university friends now living in Nairobi, or Washington D.C, still sometimes feel guilty about how much mental energy goes into guarding the flame.

Can you really belong to something you’ve chosen? If we do tell ourselves stories in order to live, do we weave ourselves into the stories of the things we love – or do we weave theirs into us?

On Saturday 1 June, Liverpool beat Tottenham Hotspur to win the Champions League, European football’s premier club competition, for the 6th time.

The following day, a crowd of 750,000 people attended the victory parade in Liverpool. The last time Liverpool won the competition, in 2005, the BBC reported estimates that the crowd reached 1 million – or to put it differently, 2 per cent of everybody in England at the time.

For emphasis, those are the two largest crowds ever seen outside London. After the 2003 Stop the War March, the 2nd and 3rd largest crowds in all of British history were to celebrate Liverpool winning the Champions League.

These people could have gathered for religion, or music, or ornithology, but they didn’t. It’s true that many will have gone with friends and family, or for the spectacle, but just as many will have gone there for communion. Whether you care about football, and especially if you don’t, it’s important to appreciate the depth and power of self-selecting communities – and the lengths we go to sustain them.

As with any kind of fanaticism, it becomes your escape, soundtrack, punctuation. It’s how you measure time. You seek out your own media (or create it yourself), develop cultures and habits, and wage factional conflicts. You marinate in it.

It’s supposed to be a leisure activity. But I’m not the only one who, after a horrible week, has irrationally needed a result from my team like a personal favour. And I’m not the only one who has felt that when your team is doing well, they’re doing it for you, personally. Uncomfortably, unforgivably, it’s also likely that the “sanctioned madness” around football goes some way to explaining why rates of domestic abuse soar during international football tournaments. It’s supposed to be a leisure activity.

The club season has officially ended, and the fever has temporarily broken. Irrationally, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little relieved. We can all pretend we’re excited for the Hampton Court Flower Show now, or the Proms.

But this enduring weirdness, this addicted worm, clearly isn’t going to go anywhere. Kindly, firmly, it’s sat itself down in my frontal lobe with a lifelong tenancy agreement. But come August, I’m glad the decision’s been made for me.

Samuel Kerr works in events for the New Statesman.

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