Terence Blacker: Why Liverpool's stunning victory left me cold

I love football and I love winning but I watched the big game with dispassion
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The Independent Online

The stands were a glorious sunrise of Liverpool red. Crazed Scousers leapt about and gurned ecstatically at the TV cameras. Stevie Gerrard's voice cracked with emotion as he paid tribute in an interview to those wonderful fans. The lads back in the studio were in bits. This was the greatest football comeback of all time, we were told. Almost certainly, it ranked among the most thrilling sporting occasions in living memory. As the TV commentator put it, it was for this kind of football match that superlatives were invented.

The stands were a glorious sunrise of Liverpool red. Crazed Scousers leapt about and gurned ecstatically at the TV cameras. Stevie Gerrard's voice cracked with emotion as he paid tribute in an interview to those wonderful fans. The lads back in the studio were in bits. This was the greatest football comeback of all time, we were told. Almost certainly, it ranked among the most thrilling sporting occasions in living memory. As the TV commentator put it, it was for this kind of football match that superlatives were invented.

It was when I found myself wondering exactly where superlatives were invented - was there some kind of superlative factory churning out product for ecstatic football pundits ? - that I realised that the fact that the 2005 European Cup had just been won by an English club, Liverpool, interested me only mildly, and moved me not at all.

On the face of it, this was odd. I like football, and I love winning: the coincidence of the two, with the victory of an English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish team over foreign opposition, should have had me leaping about in front of the television. Yet now I watched the season's big game with the semi-focused attitude of that sad and contradictory character, the dispassionate football fan.

Unusually, a clue as to why this might have happened to me - and, I suspect, to many others - was provided the day after the match by Graham Taylor, the former England manager. "Make no mistake, this was a fantastic night for English football," was Graham's solemn verdict. "Liverpool's victory showed that English teams can use sophisticated tactics to overcome some of the most accomplished sides in the world." There is a small, technical problem with this line of argument. Of the 14 players who appeared for Liverpool on Wednesday night, precisely two were Englishmen, the same number as there were Frenchmen, and Spaniards, and Czechs.

If Liverpool had been playing Real Madrid that night, the foreign team's English contingent could have outnumbered the home team's. As for sophisticated English tactics, they were the work of the team's Spanish manager, Rafael Benitez.

The fans, of course, were English. Indeed, it is this disjunction between, on the one hand, attitudes in the grandstand, which are to do with partisanship, family, local and national pride, the purging of personal disappointment by involvement with your team, and, on the other, the attitudes of those on the pitch and in the boardroom, which are to do with money, which makes English football so uneasy and discontented at the moment.

Clearly, the game is big business and plays by brutal capitalist rules. The big clubs ruthlessly bully and plunder the smaller ones. A Russian billionaire essentially bought the championship for one team but when another millionaire bought Manchester United, there were tearful claims that football's soul was being betrayed. Caught between the past and the present, between sentimentality and profit, the sport is in a muddle.

Of course, once the fog of nationalism is lifted from one's eyes, the way a game is perceived on our behalf by national TV becomes uncomfortably clear. Our commentator will be enraged when the ball hits an opposition player on the arm and no penalty given; when one of our own players tumbles theatrically and a penalty awarded, not a word is said, not a replay shown.

Penalty shoot-outs, scandalous and unfair when we lose them, are magical entertainment when we win. The unsportsmanlike clowning of our goalkeeper is applauded as clever gamesmanship. The same man who was mocked in the press throughout the season is now unblushingly described as the hero of the night.

In other words, the distortions, bias, double-standards and small-mindedness of which we are supposed to disapprove in everyday life is the very stuff of football commentary.

"Unbelievable. Incredible. Brilliant." The Prime Minister, never slow to assume centre stage at times of national super-sentimentality, has communicated his feelings to the Liverpool manager Benitez. The whole country was proud of him.

In a way, the 2005 European Cup was indeed the celebration of a Blairite vision. The day was won by a great international brotherhood that transcended national barriers. A wonderful rainbow coalition of players - Polish, French, Norwegian, English, Spanish, Finnish, Czech, Irish, German and (briefly) Australian - worked together with skill and passion to score a famous victory.

The fact that the name and geographical location of the winning club happened to be English was only truly relevant to its happy, loyal, blinkered fans.

terblacker@aol.com

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