Je t’aime, Liverpool: How to Talk About Love and Your Football Club

This feature talks about how Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool aided a small victory over depression by answering an age-old question: why do people and football fans keep falling in love?
Liverpool
Artwork by Debanjan Chowdhury

August 10 – Ring of Fire

A shaft of light fell on a highlighted passage in the Tao Te Ching: “The teacher holds the student’s head underwater until the bubbles become fewer, but the teacher knows just when to pull the student out. Upon revival, he tells the student: when you’ve craved life less and craved more the greater truth that lies beyond the immediate suffering, you’ll start craving life and its truth as air.” There I found myself, for the first time, asking the right questions instead of the easier ones.

What do you do when you’re burning up – not of, but, because of love – when you’ve had your heart broken? This infernal inferno could make the paint on your moral foundations flake off. Smouldering the mind, clogged by the mild mitral chimney smoke and friction between what you believe in and what your reality is.  The dialogue in your mind becomes two opposing flints constantly striking.

It was at that point when I also began to question if I truly believed in the motto I chose to live my life by eleven years ago; the red wristband inscribed with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ found itself on my shelf beside the books I don’t revisit. I wondered if I had the courage and the cynicism to close one of the longest chapters in my life. I didn’t have the prerequisite amount of ‘hope in my heart’ needed to sing a song that demands it. Why do we support football clubs if not for the ethos, and what of that support when you can’t even believe in yourself? Everything was quiet for a while and the blinds were drawn.

But as long as a certain species of volcanic shrimp, tardigrades and oceanic stragglers are found at the deepest limits of Mariana Trench – adapting to the crushing pressure and oppressive darkness – life will find a way; there’ll always the new season; and a Mo Salah goal around the corner. And it’s there that I find my truth.

August 12 – How to talk about your football club

“I encounter million of bodies in my life; of these million I may desire some hundreds; of these hundreds, I love only one. This other with whom I am in love with designates for me the truth of my desire,” Barthes wrote in one of his essays. He could have just as easily be writing about the football club of your choosing.

The choice is a magical one – what starts off as infatuation,  takes on an often moralistic and an analytical form – the transference of perceived values happen. When times are hard, you count to ten and speak under your breath, reminding yourself why you love your club. It has taken you several serendipitous turns to find the right drive-in movie of your life projected in front of your eyes. You’d like to see the very end of this movie.

The question arises: why does one love a football club? Is it because of the familiar silhouette it casts over a long, hard day? It is in the shape and the pattern of play – the way you can recount every pass, caress, or movement that lead to all your favourite moments together? A mood? The songs? Or the stories that constitute its form, like folds of memory neatly tucked like the contours of your familiar? The answer, of course, is F) All of the Above.

For me, sports is actually a chance to have other human beings push us to excel.

– Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society

The clues are everywhere. There’s the myrmidon James Milner, highest grosser of assists leading to goals in Champions League history, whose square-jawed Stakhanovite sincerity would make Clark Kent raise a glass of fortified milk in salud. His 102 passes against West Ham are the highest made in gameweek one. When you and I see James Milner, we do not see a multi-millionaire footballer, but the culmination of 22 years of persistence. He is all too aware of his technical limitations, as are we, and all the moments where he could have chosen to give up and didn’t, have added up to the one where he wears the armband for the most storied football club in the world.

There’s Sadio Mane, who wouldn’t be out of place as an L.A. private-eye, in one of Raymond Chandler’s crime noir novels. He enjoys the thrill of the chase:  running himself into corners, only to trip his markers with the tightest of turns, making the trickiest of getaways – dead-ends to him are what muddy water is to an electric eel.

His mother in Senegal shrieked, warning him of the cruel path the greenhorn Sadio was embarking upon when he phoned in from Egypt to tell her what he’s going to pursue as a career. There are stories of African football’s slave trade that would make sphincters clench in unison. Both professions (footballer or a private eye) navigate the murky underbelly of a weary, wary landscape where human beings are seen as mere commodities, means to an end, expendable. But Sadio was always too quick and clever.

The number 10 jersey – a medal of honour in football, earned only by players who think three steps ahead – means a hell lot more to Sadio than most. When he scored two goals on Sunday and thumbed at the name and number on his back, you could tell. It was akin to Philip Marlowe shining his badges with brasso and a velvet cloth, and putting it back on the mantelpiece for all to see. He’ll keep doing this all season.

When you and I look at Sadio Mane, we see a man wearing a powder blue suit with a dark blue shirt, fedora and patterned socks grinning like a torch, inviting the next challenge.

Others may see a team sheet – we see individual stories of triumph over lazed obscurity – each unique. Out there on the arena, you’ll find the greater truth.

August 14th – The lure sheds its decor

Waiting for your favourite football club to play every year is like receiving your loved one at the airport – it is both a wait and a journey. Calculating the time it’ll take for the flight to be dismounted, add that with the time it takes to get to and from the baggage carousel, finding the trolley and then the right gate – only longer. You stand with a cup of coffee – careful not to tilt it when checking for the time. And even if you do, it is forgiven, because we are all a bit clumsy in love. (We are just glad kick-off is just moments away.) We are all clumsy in love, but we needn’t be.

The human condition states that the closer you are, the more complacent you get. Saying ‘’I love you’’ at words’ end, in a way, does not only signify affection, but also a fatigued affirmation. The failure of language closes upon itself with a lack of imagination and a cosy catharsis. When we are lazy with the language of love, we are implicit in the act of deceit we commit on ourselves.

A lover, conventionally, is a master of tautology – the saying of the same thing twice over in different words. Such is the affliction that like the snake that eats its own tail, he becomes a figure of Nietzschean futility. It is then better to fumble and to stammer, to search for words that weren’t there a moment ago, like a conjurer, than to feign nouns and adjectives, like unwashed knotted kerchiefs coming out your sleeves.

Football journalists, like unimaginative Romeos, barter in hackneyed wisdom, ruled by the tyranny of tautology and peddle in platitudes to placate the game they love. Instead, tantalise yourself as a lover, as a writer, as a fan. Disavow the readily apparent – we are perusers, not parakeets. Let us stand back, see simple-minded stereotypes, labels and oppressive obviousness wrestle themselves into exhaustion. Pay attention, wait for the glimpse of the alternative to unravel. This is how you love and talk about what you love.

The attempt must be to extricate oneself from this cycle; be it for the aesthetics or merely for the spite of it (but with a measure, a healthy distance and without verbal fisticuffs). The grain of the football writer’s voice will always be more resounding than the medium – “express not the message but the message’s transport” – concert baritone Charles Panzéra proved it for the ages.

Neither football nor love will ever stop to explain – they merely pause to make allusions. There is a nuance to be found here: a passage of play (in football) has bountiful iterations, rhythmic tics, urgent stammerings and pleading intonations. The speech moves incrementally, it meanders, moves in straight lines, and often doubles back. The passage’s proclamations, like a lover’s discourse, can die in the middle, or even the start of a sentence, yet there’s a sincerity in the attempt to express – to reach for the beauty at the end of a sunset. It is with that same besotted solemnity for the form that writing and dialogue can escape the drudgery of cookie-cutters and pre-planned content laid in front of us for cheery, passive consumption.

To simply say, “I love my team/I love you/This is what happened” does a disservice to the limits of critique, and to the poets, the playmakers, the wistful flops, the misunderstood mavericks, the freaks, the Kenny Daglishes and the Cleopatras.

August 15th – Why do we keep falling in love in August?

Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone/ Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon/Show me slowly what I only know the limits of/ Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn/ Dance me to the end of love

– Leonard Cohen, Dance Me to the End of Love

Where do songs come from? They come from an ordeal of abandonment; language is born of absence. We transmit ourselves to our football clubs. We give football writing the guise of journalism in order to hide the embarrassment of our pursuit of what others deem to be low culture, criminally unaware that Goethe’s Werther talks about the same concepts of fallibility, loyalty and giddy infatuation.

There should be a time for loneliness and some space for soliloquies. The poignant pause and poetry can only exist as a consequence of a lack of the significant other. From April to August we are far removed from football, and a secret-half of ourselves. We mask our mourning by distraction and the ease of forgetfulness. For football writers, lovers and fans, absence becomes a practice of waiting for the next meeting (often towards the start of the goodbye in February-March, the anticipation is such that nothing else gets done).

Leonard Cohen believed the lover’s language is the hovel for cured liars, reformed thieves: for second chances. Barthes believed the experience of the absence of the loved other  “is the price the lover must pay to the world in order to be reconciled with it” again. In other words, it opens our eyes to the wider vista.

On first reading, Barthes’ confession sounds eerily alike to that of a long-suffering football fan: “Despite difficulties, discomforts, doubts, despite impulses to be done with it, I unceasingly affirm love within myself as a value. Though I listen to all arguments which are employed to demystify, to limit and to rectify, in short, to depreciate love, I persist. I counter whatever “doesn’t work” in love with an affirmation of what is worthwhile. This stubbornness is love’s protest. It has the wealth of good reasons for loving differently, for loving better, for loving longer.”

What is worthwhile in football and in life are good memories. What is stubbornness or nostalgia is merely the label given to the act of reconciliation, in loyalty to those memories. I will always remember how Steven Gerrard rose higher than Icarus and Bellophoron’s last flutter, challenging the AC Milan’s Olympians and affirming my undying love for Liverpool football club with a nod to start a comeback that made a rag-tag team of try-hards into Europen Champions; as I will never forget my last kiss.

It’s, therefore, crucial to have a good memory, for Barthes says love needs two affirmations. The first is at the start, characterised by a dizzy dazzlement and the consummation. In time, a lull brings in rogue winds of resentment and frayed boredom. It is then that the second affirmation calls upon the memory of the first. It says, “I desire my love’s return and not its exact repetition.” It says, let us learn from the mistakes of seasons past; it says “let us begin again.” (We all need a Daniel Sturridge comeback story in our lives.)

Now, if you see me walking down the street, you’ll notice my red wristband. And if we were to talk, I’d declare Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool as my second affirmation for love and for life.

Watching Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool play, I feel, should be like taking in the sights of Paris on a September morning – or gazing long and softly upon the one you love. I’ve never been to Paris, but I imagine that is how it would feel.

To quote from Whitman, O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?

Answer: That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.

– Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society

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Léon L.

Music Journalist, Football Essayist, Stand-up Comedian, Comic Book Writer.