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.

Nostalgia: Champions League Style

By David Shams

The first time I saw a Champions League Final was in 1995. To be honest, I had no idea what I was watching, but at the end I knew I wanted more.

Ajax’s young guns, Frank and Ronald De Boer, Nwankwo Kanu, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Edwin van der Saar, well basically their entire starting lineup, faced off against AC Milan, a squad that could only be described as the old guard, remnants left over from one of the more dominate footballing sides of the late 80’s and early 90’s.

I didn’t know it at the time, but they had met in the group stages with Ajax taking both matches 2-0. But, it just like a changing of the guards. Even though we didn’t get access to much club soccer on television, we did get a handful of soccer magazines. And from those sources my brother and I knew that AC Milan was powerhouse, they were the pinnacle, they were the Yankees.

It was the 85th minute before 19-year-old substitute Patrick Kluivert’s first touch from a Frank Rijkaard pass took him 1v1 with the goalkeeper. And with two defenders closing, while losing his own balance, Kluivert slotted the ball past an on-rushing goalkeeper.

The game winner.

An addiction to the beautiful game and arguably its most exciting competition took hold.

Maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. I was already addicted. My brother and I would watch tapes of old games from the 1990 and 1994 editions of the World Cup. (I still have those tapes by the way) This was pre-MLS and pre-EPL being televised regularly where we grew up.

But there was something about that game that drove that hook even deeper. Like the first time you taste a craft beer after years of stale macro brews. Or when you get that first sip of 12-year Balvenie after growing up on bourbon. Whatever it was, I wanted more.

They made it to the finals the next season and could have been back to back champions if not for a silly defensive error. But to be honest, Juventus had one of their own that let Ajax back into the game. The final had to be settled in a shootout with the club from Turin hoisting the title. And by summer Ajax’s finest products in a generation had been shipped off to distant corners of the continent—mainly Spain and Italy.

I would be lying if I said seeing Ajax making a deep run in this year’s Champions League didn’t have me overcome with nostalgia. And not just for that spring afternoon 24 years ago in May. But for every Champions League campaign after that.

Rushing home from school to catch the last half of what ever game between whichever teams. Begging our soccer coach to delay practice so that we can catch a glimpse of our heros play each other. Jamming in a VHS cassette (I had to look that up because I had forgotten the terminology) and recording over the 1992 slam dunk contest, even if it’s only for the last 30 minutes of the game. Getting to see FC Bayern beat Glasgow Celtic at the Olympic Stadium on the opening match day of the 2003-04 Champions League.

Seeing Ajax in the semifinals does that to me. I’m not even an Ajax fan. Not in the same way, I’m a Liverpool fan, at least. But seeing them do well, seeing them make a deep run, against better funded, superstar filled squads, makes all those memories come flooding back.

And while this team may not be as dominant as the Ajax teams of the past, as, year-on-year, it’s far more difficult to keep up with the big spending Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, they’ve nonetheless made a strong case for keeping their club’s spot in the pantheon of footballing royalty.

A healthy mix of young and old has Ajax two games away from a Champions League Final. But undoubtedly, though, this summer will, just like in the summer of ‘96, see all those bright young superstars in Amsterdam headed off for new challenges—La Liga, The Premier League, Serie A, The Bundesliga. They’ll be Ajax’s missionaries, plying their trade and talent across the continent.

In a way it’s heartbreaking. Imagine what this side could do if they stuck together. (It should be noted that the club made it to the 2017 Europa League Finals with some of the players from this year’s team.)

But that’s the modern game. Heartwarming, heartbreaking, nostalgia-inducing.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

David is the founder of DC Soccer Digest. He lives in Washington, DC.

The Croatian Dream Continues, as England Falters

Wednesday semifinal started auspiciously for the Three Lions. An early free kick goal from surprising standout Kieran Trippier with just five minutes gone gave the impression football might actually be coming home. 

For the next half hour and some change, the Croatians looked shell-shocked. But to be fair, they've been down early before--giving up a goal to Denmark in the first minute of their Round of 16 match. 

But on the stroke of halftime, it seemed the Croatians had settled. The tiny nation may just have had enough fight left to challenge England's youthful side. 

After not putting up much of a rebuttal in the first 45, the Luca Modric led side hammered England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford with seven shots in the first 15 minutes of the second half. 

Just past the hour mark, Ivan Perišić took a late run into the box and got his boot, above a diving Kyle Walker, to Šime Vrsaljko's cross from the right side. Pickford was helpless to prevent the goal.

And facing a bit of shell-shock themselves, the England side almost conceded a second a few minutes later. Perišic's shot hit the inside of the post and Ante Rebic's rebound fell comfortably right into the hands of a panicked Pickford.

Ninety minutes wouldn't be enough, however. And for the third time in three games Croatia would have to play an extra 30 minutes. Curiously, both teams had most of their subs remaining--Croatia with all four and England three. Entering extra time, teams are allowed a fourth substitute.

The first 15 almost came and went without much fan fare. But, in the final minute of the first extra period, Mario Mandžukić latched on to a cross at the near post with pressure from Pickford forcing his shot wide.

The dagger came just three minutes into the second frame. A headed ball from the left by Perišic combined with a momentary switch off by England's defense, allowed Mandžukic to sneak in and finish first time past the diving keeper from Everton. 

England had to finish down a man as Kieren Trippier was helped off with a groin injury. But even if he had stayed on, able to finish, it seemed a bridge too far. The Croatians had outlasted an England side that had so inspired the country and even the rest of the globe. 

As the Croatians celebrated and the Three Lions players stood dejected, one thing was certain England will be back.

The core of this team will eventually bring football home. And the rest of Europe and the World should be very afraid. 

 

Is Messi Crashing Out?

After Argentina's 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Croatia, it seems likely Messi and Co are headed towards an early exit from the 2018 edition of the the World Cup. 

It's certainly true the Albicelestes rely heavily on Messi's to get them through rough patches. After a dismal qualifying campaign and on the brink of being left out of the festivities in Russia, Messi single handedly helped Argentina punch their ticket with a masterful display against Ecuador. 

But so far in Russia, Messi has failed to find the spark needed to overcome whatever is ailing the Argentine side. Against Iceland's resolute defending, Messi seemed unable to breakdown his opponents. He even, uncharacteristically, missed a penalty kick. 

And then came today's match up with Croatia. Outside of an early chance, there seemed to be little creativity coming from the Barcelona player. Without his innovation in the attacking third, Argentina looked lost at sea. It was truly difficult to watch. 

In order to make it to the next round, Argentina will need Messi to channel whatever it was that brought him that performance last fall. Without it, they may be on their way back home much sooner than all of us thought. 

But is it all Messi's fault? Sure, he's the talisman. But it's not like there aren't other superstars on the team. Where have they been? Why haven't they taken the initiative? Why haven't they picked up some of the slack?

Messi deserves more from his teammates. If they don't step up, Tuesday may be the last time we see Messi in an Argentina jersey.