It’s a crisp November evening as I make my way to Anfield for a Champions League fixture against Atletico Madrid. I’m at the tail end of what has been a whirlwind two-month stint in Europe, having made new friends and experienced so many adventures and cultures that everything still needs processing. However, this night has been circled on my calendar from the start and finally, I’m here. A chance to finally experience a game at Anfield in Liverpool, after so many missed opportunities and global shutdowns.
As with any sports-mad city, when it is matchday or evening, everyone seems to be in the same rhythm. It sounds like every conversation is all abuzz about the match. Some discuss tactics or hopeful scorelines, others badmouth the competition. This is exactly what I’ve been hoping to feel, as back where I’m from in New York, it’s a similar feeling on certain days but rarely if ever involving Liverpool.
A father and his young sons approach me as we’re walking in what I still only assume is the direction to Anfield and asks if I’m confident about the match. I assure him I am, as Klopp almost always gets his tactics right for big European nights, and if not, he finds a way to adjust or motivate the team. Plus, they can really put a stranglehold on the group with a win tonight. On top of that, it’s a revenge game for Atletico beating us way back in 2020. It’s at this point that the man, who has been enthusiastically agreeing and chiming in, falls silent.
“It’s been a lot, these last few years, hasn’t it?” he says finally, as we continue walking. Our path is now winding through a park and up a hill, the lights and downtown of the city fading behind us with the setting sun. He then tells me that he and his sons are originally from Bangladesh and had spent most of Covid’s lockdown worrying about family back home whom they couldn’t go and see. We stop a moment and take in the sight of the stadium, rising above the neighbourhood.
“This is our first time going out to something in months. I was so worried it would end up being closed. I really wanted us all to have something fun to look forward to,” he continues. After a few more minutes, his boys, who can’t be more than 6 or 7, start to fall behind and he goes back to them, bidding me farewell.
I pick up my pace a bit as the stadium appears ever closer and enjoy the fact that people seem to be popping out of every house to make their way to the game as well. It’s a strange phenomenon as the sports stadium experience in the states generally doesn’t allow for the feeling of a neighbourhood team. Most arenas or stadiums are built away from the general public, to allow for more parking and such, but Anfield, like so many stadiums in Europe, is right smack in the middle of the residents.
After a quick detour to see the Trent mural up the block, I finally enter Anfield. Crowds are lining up, waiting for the team buses or cars to arrive. The sun has completely set by this point and the temperature is rapidly going down. Minutes tick by and after a while, I duck into the nearby store to warm up. Wishing to mark the occasion, I purchase a few items including an old school coloured Liverpool scarf of red and gold. Not giving it a second thought, it will become a source of endless amusement back in the USA as the colours make all Americans think I’m wearing a Harry Potter themed scarf instead.
Arriving at my seat, the pitch looks as green as a forest, with sprinklers running to keep it that way. Many fans are inside already, some just to drop off their coats before they return to the concessions for another round. I end up staring all around the stadium, marvelling that I am actually here and not just seeing it on TV.
The players arrive to begin the warmups and the applause and boos ring out loudly. Though the stadium PA plays some pop music anthems, the atmosphere doesn’t really need any further amping up.
Watching closely, the balls zip all-around even faster than they look on a broadcast. As with most sports, seeing it live, the athletes seem somehow more impressive and superhuman. The ease with which they generate pace on a shot or the angle of a pass. How much control does Salah or Mane seem able to conjure with their feet as every ball is moved around to and fro like a hot potato?
I find myself watching Jurgen Klopp closely as I search for any hint of animosity between himself and Atleti’s manager Diego Simone, who at the previous encounter had refused a handshake. Klopp stands at the halfway line and slaps players on the back as they sprint past or shares a joke with his staff but actually seems to be paying more attention to the Atleti players on the other side. These are the moments I wish I could ask what he’s scanning for, whether it’s some confirmation of an edge he wants to exploit or merely just looking for which players seem particularly ready for the match.
Finally, warmups end and the players leave for a few minutes so they can be re-introduced for the broadcast.
The stadium is completely sold out, ready to cheer on the Reds, save for about 250 hearty souls from Madrid. As we patiently wait for the match to begin, the man who has taken the seat next to me nods grimly and then apologizes. He is short, stocky, with thinning white hair, probably approaching his mid 60’s.
Confused, I ask him why he’s apologizing.
“I might start a fight if this damn ref buys into Madrid’s dark arts tonight. You watch, they’re gonna try and make this game a rock fight. Just fair warnin”.
Our conversation is interrupted by the moment that I had been anticipating my entire trip: The first few notes of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” begin. It’s very hard to put into words the feeling when nearly 60,000 voices all do something in unison. It’s a sound that comes not from your mouth at that point but somewhere deeper. More visceral in feeling and in tone, especially as the words echo out and rise into the night. It’s a creed, an ethos as much as an anthem. Raging against the ceaseless void that the last few years have represented as if to say we are here and together we aren’t going anywhere.
The match begins in earnest. Quick, purposeful and direct, Liverpool are up for it. They immediately take the game to Atleti, who seem somewhat stunned by how Liverpool are attacking. It’s become a Klopp standard that the team wants to begin on the front foot and chances are flying in early. Several darting Salah runs, excellent counter-pressing and before the game can settle, Jota heads home the opening goal off an excellent Trent pass.
The game begins to get more choppy, which is the Atleti way and some cards are handed out, including to Mane, which will factor in a bit later. However, before that, he doubles the lead and the stadium is bouncing up and down. Simone begins to implore his players to wake up and that’s when the real turning point happens as at the 37th minute Felipe is shown a red card for a foul. It’s a bit harsh to be fair to go straight red on the foul but the sending off also brings out the true caged animal in the Atleti side. Every ball now becomes an attempt to get a Liverpool player to retaliate or to be sent off to even the numbers. Mane, sitting on his yellow card, is the chief target and at halftime, Klopp has no choice but to sub him off rather than risk losing him.
The rest of the game passes, with many more chances though no goals. The only real blemish ends up being an injury to Bobby Firmino who comes on as a halftime sub to protect Mane and has to be taken off himself. Thanks to the man advantage, Liverpool are able to more or less dictate the pace of the game and keep every Atleti player chasing the ball. Though still dangerous, they are nowhere near the threat we’d feared before the game. Even Luis Suarez, the onetime Liverpool hero and now pantomime villain, hears a few cheers from the crowd as he’s subbed off, such is the joyous mood of the crowd.
To the Atleti fans credit, they are loud throughout, constantly singing and cheering anything positive their team can muster. Though small in number, there are several moments where this band of travellers rouse the home supporters into responding with cheers of their own, mostly pointing out that Liverpool, with this win, have survived the group of death while Atleti are left to an uncertain fate.
The man next to me is very satisfied with how the game is going and as the subs start to come in he sits down, having stood nearly the entire match to that point. Living and dying with every kick has certainly tired him out I think, but then I notice that he actually seems drained, almost on the verge of some sort of breakdown.
I sit down and ask if he’s alright. Initially, he nods and waves me off, but a few minutes later, after another potential goal opportunity goes missing, he shakes his head.
Expecting to hear him complain about the lack of goals, he says something entirely different. “Sunday was my daughter’s birthday. She’d have been 31.”
At that moment, the crowd, the players, the entire stadium fade away and now it is just me and this man, two strangers in a sea of people.
“She worked in London,” he tells me. “Moved there a couple of years back with a boyfriend. We have some health issues in me family but she always took care of herself. Still, she got sick and it turned bad. COVID.”
The match continues as he tells me this story and all I can think to do is put my hand on his shoulder as he talks. He says that it was a terrible ordeal, as she went from bad to worse before passing a few months back. He is so upset at himself for not having spent more time with her after she moved away. Though she wasn’t a Liverpool fan, he was and had taken her to several matches when she was a kid. He then says he just needed to be distracted for a few hours, to scream and yell at something. Since her passing, he just felt in a daze and increasingly numb.
All I can think to say is how sorry I am and that what matters is that he was there with her at the end. That his memory of her will never fade away and that so long as she knew he loved her, that is what is most important. He nods, saying nothing.
We sit quietly for a few moments and watch more of the match. Atleti are tiring and the feeling of resignation is in the air for Simone now. Klopp meanwhile continues to conduct the team but there is a satisfying nature about his commands from the side.
Stoppage time approaches and You’ll Never Walk Alone begins again, as it does near the end of every match. This time, however, the man next to me sings it as if in a trance. At the top of his lungs come the words “With hope in your heart” as a few tears blink out of his eyes. My own mist up a bit too.
The match ends and the team and fans seem both excited and relieved. They’ve passed another test and now are firmly into the knockout stages. It was more professional than emphatic and that’s perfectly okay.
Leaving the stadium, I stop the man and tell him I want to buy him a pint somewhere but he says he has to work early in the morning. Then he embraces me in what must feel like a Klopp hug, the full force of his arms wrapping me up.
“I didn’t feel alone tonight. Thank you.”
Then he disappeared into the departing crowd.
Devin T Klos