Finding Liverpool

By David Shams

“It doesnt matter where you’re from. What religion you are. What language you speak. If you’re a Liverpool fan, you’re a Scouser. All of us are Scousers,” Neil Atkinson bellowed. Atkinson is one of the main writers and producers behind The Anfield Wrap, a popular podcast following all things LFC.

He was speaking during The Anfield Wrap’s End of Season Party on May 11th at Mountford Hall on University of Liverpool’s campus.

For me, that moment had been nearly 14 years in the making.

My Liverpool fandom hasn’t been lifelong. Growing up in Kentucky, my siblings and I didn’t have much access to soccer on television. Our soccer coverage relied on infrequent subscriptions of Soccer America, the occasional promo magazines sent to our dad, and old recordings of matches from the ‘90 and ‘94 World Cups.

Having an immigrant father usually meant the team you followed was selected for you. Normally, it was passed down from generation to generation in the same way that each parent passes on their DNA. But my dad immigrated from Iran in 1964, before soccer became as popular as it is today.

The bottom line, we didn’t have much of a soccer culture growing up. Sure we played and sure we watched games. But “we didn’t,” as my dad likes to say, "know shit from shinola.” We had to make it up as we went along.

It wasn’t until the mid-90s that we were regularly exposed to club soccer. We knew it existed and we knew some of the major teams—AC Milan, Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester United, Liverpool. But we didn’t know much else.

Owing to that lack of ‘culture’ or pre-determined fandom, my brother and I never really settled on a single club to cheer for while we were growing up. We ended up cheering for specific players and watching games for the sake of watching games, to pick up on some sort of tactical innovations that we hadn’t been—and likely never would be—exposed to in Bardstown, KY.

We’d absorb every game possible. Record them, watch them again, dissect them in every way possible. But never once did we settle on a team to cheer for. Ajax, Juventus, and Barcelona all came close to capturing our undivided attention. Ajax won the first Champions League title we saw on television. Juventus won it the next year and made it to the finals in the next two seasons. Barcelona was televised more often as ESPN picked up La Liga and they had more of the players we tried to follow—Romario, Ronaldo, Ronald Koeman, Gheorghe Hagi, Hristo Stoichkov, Luis Enrique, etc.

I chalk all this up (our lack of support for a specific team) to irregular access to games on television and little to no coverage in whatever print media we had access to. Even with regular access to the internet, it was quite hard to know where to find updates on what was happening overseas.

At the turn of the century, though, as I was graduating from high school and heading off to play soccer at Union College in Barbourville, KY, I started to have a little bit more access. My teammates and I could watch games via satellite or pay per view cable channels. Teammates from Brazil came from different areas, so they had different teams they cheered for—Ponte Preta, Flamingo, Sao Paulo, Gremio, Cruzeiro. One from Scotland had played in the Glasgow Celtic youth system. A few of the Latinos were Real Madrid fans, which clashed with the fact I favored Barcelona.

Some of the American players were like me and didn’t have regular access growing up, so didn’t have a team they cheered for. Of the ones who did, they were usually Manchester United fans, owing primarily to that teams’s Treble in 1999. And being obstinate, I made up my mind I would never cheer for the Red Devils.

But, if anything, as opposed to finding a team to support I figured out which teams I wouldn’t be cheering for, and so, I continued following my favorite players—Thierry Henry, Claudio Reyna, Ronaldo, Steven Gerrard, Edgar Davids, Zinedine Zidane.

Even with satellites and pay per view, coverage in the US remained patchy, though. Meanwhile, the MLS continued struggling to improve quality wise. Add to that being in Kentucky where the soccer culture hadn’t fully developed, there still wasn’t massive pressure to pick a side. Rather, the excitement came with any game that would be televised, no matter the sides competing.

It was much of the same when I transferred to Murray State. Although, I would say the campus was a bit more diverse and had a strong international student community. Naturally, this meant there would be more interest in specific clubs. Some of my fraternity brothers were Liverpool fans, others were diehard supporters of Man U. They’d grown up in the St. Louis area, one of the US’s soccer hotbeds.

For some reason, I was still reluctant to go beyond cheering and following specific players. So much so, I had two Claudio Reyna jerseys from when he was at Man City—the horror. I’d tell myself, ‘It’s okay, you love the game, you don’t need to pick a team to cheer for.’

After I studied in Germany during the fall of 2003, I flirted with the idea of becoming an FC Bayern Fan since I went to their Champions League match against Glasgow Celtic. There was a little moment when I felt the same for Newcastle after spending a weekend there when I went to visit Durham University. And my appreciation for Ajax grew a little larger after I saw them play Feyenoord at the Amsterdam Arena. To be clear, I have a soft spot for all three sides. But nothing more grew from it.

A few years later though, I found my way to Liverpool.

It was May 2005, the school year had wrapped up and I would be home for a few weeks before returning to Murray for the summer classes I needed to graduate. I chalked up my fatigue to the tough semester I had just completed. But when it didn’t go away after a few days, I went to my primary care physician who ran a battery of tests to figure out if something more was at play.

Those tests came back with a troubling result. My platelet count, 11,000, was well below normal (150k-450k). I was rushed off to an oncologist for fear that whatever I had could be cancer related. He did a bone marrow biopsy, prescribed me with some steroids to increase the platelet count, and asked me to come back early the next week.

A few days later, the morning after hitting the driving range at a local golf course with a friend, I woke up with a paralyzing headache. My parents drove me back to the oncologist for some sort of emergency triage. For some reason, they sent me back home for 24 hours. And by the next day, when I went back in for my regularly scheduled appointment the pain hadn’t dissipated. In fact, it had only gotten worse.

The doctor admitted me to the hospital next door. They called in an infectious disease specialist, requested another battery of testing, and pumped me full of anti-viral drugs and pain killers. I was supposed to rest and not over exert myself. I wouldn’t have to worry about over exertion, as my headache had immobilized me. But rest would be far more difficult. Whatever drugs they had given me were doing a number on my dreams—think Twisted Metal but in real life.

My second day in the hospital wasn’t much better. But even though I couldn’t hold any food down, one thing was certain. I was going to must up all my strength to watch the Champions League Final that afternoon.

Since Ajax beat AC Milan in 1995, I had only missed on final—Juventus v Real Madrid in 1998.

“Mother,” I started, using the preferred, more formal title, “the Champions League Final is this afternoon, I’m going to watch it.”

She rolled her eyes, because she knew, despite my condition, this was a statement of intent not to be trifled with.

The final pitted Liverpool against AC Milan. If I’m honest, I didn’t think Liverpool stood any chance at winning. AC Milan had a squad filled to the brim with talent.

By halftime the score was 3-0 in favor of AC Milan. My gut told me I should turn it off and actually get some rest. But my soul, that little bit that had directed my lifelong love of the game told me Liverpool would offer up a rebuttal.

“Liverpool still has a chance,” I told my mom, “anything can happen.”

She had gently suggested that maybe I should forget about the game. My Jordanian nurse took one look at the scoreline, clicked his tongue, and agreed with my mom.

“No chance they come back from this. Maybe you should turn off the tv and rest,” he said.

I didn’t budge.From my hospital bed, fighting off fatigue and migraines, I witnessed the Miracle of Istanbul. All it took was six minutes.

Starting in the 54th minute, Steven Gerrard directed a looping header to the far post, fooling AC Milan’s goalkeeper. Two minutes later, Vladimir Šmicer took a speculative shot from 20-plus yards out that went through two defenders and narrowly missed his teammate Milos Baros before finding the back of the net. And four minutes after that, Xabi Alonso missed his penalty kick, but then buried the rebound to complete the comeback.

“Mother, I told you they’d do it,” I said faintly.

“I know, son,” she said, now sitting on the edge of her seat fully captivated by the comeback.

Liverpool fans the world over all know what happens next. LFC held on to beat AC Milan in a shootout winning their fifth Champions League/European Cup.

Captain Steven Gerrard lifting the Champions League trophy in Istanbul

Captain Steven Gerrard lifting the Champions League trophy in Istanbul

Within the next few days, I started to make my own comeback. The migraines subsided, my appetite returned (I’d lost nearly 20 pounds over a ten day period), and I was able to get out of bed and move around for extended periods of time.

As I’m sure most of you guessed early on, my primary care physician missed the signs suggesting I had Mononucleosis—fatigue, low platelet count, swollen lymph nodes, etc. When they prescribed steroids to increase the platelet count, the virus attacked the fluid around my spine and brain causing the headaches. The end diagnosis was Mono and viral meningitis.

I spent the rest of the summer recovering, which wasn’t terrible, but meant I would have to return to Murray for the fall in order to finish the classes I needed to graduate.

But my hospital stay, in all of its terribleness, led me to Liverpool. I will forever link the Miracle of Istanbul to my own comeback. And for that, I will always be a Kopite, a Red, a Liverpool fan, a Scouser.

David is the founder of DC Soccer Digest. He lives in Washington, DC. You can follow him on twitter at @ShamsWriter.

Özil's Retirement Fuels Integration Conversation

Mesut Özil will be 34 by the time Qatar hosts the first ever World Cup not held in the summer. It's very likely Russia would have been his last, anyway. 

But on Sunday, he released as statement announcing his retirement from the German team. He pointed, primarily, to the sorts of racial and ethnic abuse that critics have been throwing his way as the basis for his early exit. 

Blame was also shared by the German FA, who did little to support Gelsenkirchen-born midfielder during the controversy surrounding his decision to take a photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

For the Arsenal star, their lack of support was based solely on his ethnicity and faith. Özil is a practicing Muslim and can be seen praying before each game. 

Some German politicians have, ironically, pointed to the midfielder's statement as a case against integration. They feel this proves that both Turkish and Muslim citizens aren't able to assimilate. I use the term 'ironically,' because in 2016 he received a Bambi award for being an example of successful integration in Germany. 

There's lots to say here, I think. Both about Ozil's decision and this idea of integration/assimilation.

The Arsenal midfielder is third generation Turkish-German and was born and raised in Gelsenkirchen. Third generation can be ambiguous, but at a minimum it tells us that his family been in Germany for at least three generations. 

As an example of this ambiguity, I could either be first or second generation Iranian-American. As I was the the first generation to have been born here. Or if you count my father's naturalization, then I would be second generation. In short, if I have children, they could be described like Özil, third generation Iranian-American. 

But I digress. 

We live at a time when the idea of identity can be polarizing. Simply being hyphenated is political. Having dueling nationalities, competing identities is to some anathema to creating a unified national narrative. 

In a more globalized society, however, it is increasingly difficult to maintain an idea of a monolithic national identity. This is especially true in societies with strong linkages to countries through colonialism or economic trade. For Germany, the large Turkish population stems from the guest worker program that allowed Turkish workers to help fill the labor void in factories across Western Germany. Those workers ended up staying and building lives in Germany. The German authorities had to decide to either forcibly remove the guest workers or allow them to remain. After a lot of hand wringing, the Germans began recognizing the German born children of Turkish guest workers as citizens, which gave that community stronger legal status. 

But Özil isn't the only one complaining that despite their allegiance to their home country (in his case Germany), fans often speak of them in terms of not being fully accepted. For players like Karim Benzema or Romelu Lukaku, followers are willing to accept their French or Belgian status only when they're playing well, scoring goals. Fans strike another tune, however, when those players with dueling identities aren't playing well. Ozil, Benzama, and Lukaku's immigrant-origins are highlighted.

Michael Bradley or Olivier Giroud performing poorly will never have their nationality questioned. Their ethnic make up will never be a part of their team's fans. That's the privilege whiteness bestows on them. Or going further Mix Diskerud's performance will never elicit questions or comments highlighting his Norwegianness. 

On a personal level, I can identify with Özil, Benzema, and Lukaku. If I were to do something heroic, possibly by serving in the military, my Americanness would never be called into question. But, as often happens, when I'm critical of something this country has done, my Iranianness is highlighted. "Go back to you country" or "why don't you just leave, if you don't like it here" are all too familiar responses to my commentary on social issues. 

Like Özil, Benzema, and Lukaku, I'm a natural born citizen. We were born in the places we represent. But in the places we represent, our status, even if it is legal and somewhat protected, sits rather tenuously. And it is often determined solely by societies misaligned idea of how we should perform or behave. We're only counted when we do something they like. 

None of this is to say that Ozil's performance at the World Cup wasn't abysmal--it was. Or that his meeting with Erdogan wasn't misguided and the follow-up could have been handled differently. Push back on those fronts are warranted. But the critiques should be coated, not in racism or anti-Muslim sentiment, but in basic footballing terms. He looked lackluster, uninspired. His choice meet with Erdogan caused some locker room issues and his lack of response to the surrounding shitstorm made it worse. 

The fact of the matter is, even outside of sports, these conversations should be taking place. Sports could be the vehicle through which societies begin to realize that being hyphenated shouldn't be a problem.

It's instructive to know that neither side of the hyphen is sufficient enough to critique a person's character. But both sides are very real identities for those of us who are hyphenated. 

I think we can start there.