As the footballing world takes fans across countries, continents and to breathtaking highs and lows, Beth Potter takes us on a personal journey of how supporting Liverpool has made her feel part of a community even when living far from home.
Picture the scene...
It’s the 2018 Champions League final. I’m 22, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a campsite bar in a village in Burgenland, in deepest rural Austria.
I’ve come here for a getaway with my choir – a group I joined in a bid to make friends after moving to Vienna for a teaching job four months previously.
We’re on a ‘rehearsal weekend’ in preparation for a concert we’re doing in a couple of weeks; practice sessions have ended at 9pm and I’ve sprinted to the bar to see my beloved Liverpool start the second half at 0-0.
My attempts to make friends since my solo move abroad have been going okay.
But I’m starting to think I should have checked the demographic of the choir before choosing them as my main target for foreign friendship. Who organises a compulsory rehearsal on the night of the Champions League final?
Football-hating philistines, it transpires. And (maybe more pressingly): why a campsite for choir rehearsals?
I’m flanked by middle-aged Austrian dads drinking lager and sitting on chairs, while around me sit their kids in CR7 shirts.
The young ones have reached a state of restless excitement bordering on hysteria which only a day of campsite activities combined with the thrill of being allowed to stay up unusually late can create.
I ponder briefly how I’ve ended up sitting on the floor amongst the ten-year-olds. A few semi-interested choir stragglers are standing in a row frowning at the screen (arms crossed or at sides with a hand shoved in a pocket, shoulders up, beers gripped in manly hands).
I’ve left them for a front-row view, and it feels something like childish regression.
I conclude that I’m happier down here with the kids who, despite being Real Madrid fans, understand that my hatred of them and their team is a precondition of my Liverpool fandom, and will only exist until the 90 minutes are up.
So why have I taken you to Burgenland to tell this story? We all know how this evening ends. We know Salah’s already injured by the second half.
We know Karius is about to let in Real Madrid’s third goal, fumbling Bale’s shot from 30 yards out – compounding the calamitous goal-keeping of the horrific, slow-motion blunder of Benzema’s opener.
We know there’s no happy ending. We also know that this is a long-term tale of retribution and that Salah will score a penalty in the following year’s final, just two minutes into the face-off against Tottenham. But this evening is a sad one for a Liverpool fan. Or, at least, it’s supposed to be.
The main choir group are enjoying a drink over by the bar, backs turned away from the TV, in blissful ignorance of the paroxysms of alternating despair, joy, hope, and agony I have been experiencing since I inexplicably legged it out of rehearsal fifteen minutes earlier.
It’s now 2-1, the Real Madrid fans are getting to me, and I’ll admit by this stage I’m slightly resentful of the fact I’m not watching the match from the comfort of my local Kneipe (pub) in Vienna.
There, on match days you’ll find me in Flanagan’s Irish pub, on Schwarzenberg Straße in the first district.
It’s a bit of a tourist trap, but popular with locals too: a weird concoction of Brits who’ve had enough of the cathedral and want to watch the Six Nations with a pint of Stella, and sports-mad (mostly male) Austrians who like Guinness and follow the European football leagues religiously.
As a general rule, while living in Vienna I avoided places like these, where I could hear English spoken more often than German inside the walls.
But Flanagan’s is different. I have a spot there on matchdays where I stand leaning on the door frame, next to two Üniversität Wien students who sit in the corner every weekend whispering about Klopp’s high press auf Deutsch.
It’s a motley crew in that pub, but apart from choir it’s the only place I’ve found people with whom I have an implicit understanding.
Musicians and football fans have a lot in common. We don’t need to speak to each other, but we roar in unison on cue.
We commune weekly and don’t know much about one another’s lives; you might stand for hours next to the same bloke in the bass section, or the same university students in the sports bar, but never find out about the worries ticking away in the back of their minds, providing a constant background to the music of the match.
And yet, standing with someone during points of intense emotion – experiencing the highs and lows of their week, as they live or die with their football team, or get lost in the music of a stunning cadence – you get a glimpse into the raw truth of their experience.
It’s a rare thing we allow ourselves to feel with people we barely know. But every football fan can pinpoint a moment where they’ve hugged a stranger in jubilant celebration at their team’s brilliant goal, or shed a tear at a painful loss surrounded by their crying, nameless comrades.
Football and music legitimise this expression of a collective emotion which is seldom deemed appropriate for public spaces. Which is why, when I moved away to a country where every thought or feeling had to be translated into a foreign language before it could be expressed – I found immense comfort in the unfiltered, direct, uproarious shouts and cries I could share with other football fans.
For this reason, football is joyous even when, controversially, when your team is losing. This is something I only realised far from home, far from friends, in Burgenland, while watching the Champions League final.
Convenient, maybe, that I should have an epiphany about how ‘everyone’s a winner!’ while my team are being slaughtered in their attempt to win a much-awaited trophy.
But as my heart incrementally sinks while we inch closer and closer to the final whistle, my new choir friends come to sit next to me while I grimace through the added minutes, and instinctively put their arms around me when LFC officially become runners up.
As I shake hands with the Real Madrid-supporting kids and their boozed-up parents, I realise that clichéd footballing platitudes hold their own truth.
Football is all about feeling, and feeling apart of a community, a community even broader than the one each individual team provides.
The game is made in the consolation and solace between fans, and in moments of sensitive understanding between rival groups. Living alone and far away can be lonesome, but I’ve learned that it’s hard to feel lonely when you’re surrounded by people who love something just as much as you do.
I always remember fixtures in a way of thinking about the people I was with, where I was and why I was there. I think there is space for football writing to account for this experiential, personal, emotional side of the game – even in mundane matches far from the intensity of a tournament final.
Because it’s the people who stand side by side with you, live and die with you, week on week, that make football the life-changing communal experience that it is.
The 2018 UCL final is, paradoxically, one of my happiest memories of a footballing community. It made me realise that community and solidarity can be found anywhere through football, even in the simple act of seeing eye-to-eye with Austrian kids for a couple of hours in the countryside.
Follow Beth on Twitter @BethPottzzz