Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of the Liverpool Football Club, famously said that football is “much, much more important” than life and death. Well, I don’t know about life and death (sorry, Bill), but in Thailand, football is sitting with your friends and family on weekends to watch a game that’s being played 10,000 kilometres away. So it is that at nine o’clock on a Saturday night in Bangkok you’ll find us – me, my mother and my younger brother – sitting glued to the screen on the edge of our seats. My mother, a housewife in her 60s, is a Manchester United fan, my brother barracks for Arsenal, while I am a Liverpool die-hard. Turns out our household supports three of the most popular English clubs in Thailand.
For my brother, it started with the magic of Thierry Henry. It was the Frenchman in the iconic red and white of the Gunners, sliding on his knees across the White Hart Lane pitch, tearing up the wings, and scoring goal after goal like a beautiful force of nature. When my brother was around thirteen, he decorated a wall in our house with an Arsenal poster and built a shrine for his team. There were Thierry Henry DVDs, Arsenal books and a rickety model of London Bridge.
As for my mother, it started young as well. The premier league was the first foreign league to be broadcast live on television in Thailand and for this reason alone, families like my mother’s have grown up watching the games together. “I remember my father watching Manchester United on TV when I was little,” she recalls. “I remember seeing George Best rounding the keeper and putting the ball into the back of the net … That image has always stuck with me.”
It all comes down to that, really – the image that sticks in your mind. More than any other, the English premier league is made up of moments and narratives which exist in a universal consciousness. For me, with Liverpool, it was the 2005 Champions League victory in Istanbul when they came from 3-0 down to beat AC Milan and win the club’s fifth European cup. I was twelve and had just become interested in football. I wanted a team to support and like most football fans in Thailand, only premier league clubs were objects of my interest. At first, I started reading up on the history of various clubs; I fancied myself ‘edgy’ just for looking up Newcastle United and Leeds United. But somehow, no matter what club I considered supporting, that Liverpool victory loomed large. The event seemed mythical and Steven Gerrard sounded like a hero who wasn’t just a footballer but a general who led from the front, refusing to back down when all the odds were against him. It was no surprise, then, that my final choice came down to two rival teams who are so different and yet so similar: Manchester United and Liverpool.
In the end, when I sat down and watched a match between Manchester United and Liverpool, before I knew it, I was cheering for the team from Merseyside. Somehow, I was already sold on the whole thing – the traditions, the anthem, the underdog tag. That Istanbul victory and the story behind it has inspired a new generation of young Liverpool followers, like me, who were not yet born during the club’s glory days in the ‘80s.
Another of these supporters is Tee, a friend of my brother’s who has been a Liverpool fan since he was thirteen years old. Like me, the seed was planted on the night Gerrard lifted ol’ big ears in the Ataturk Stadium. “The comeback in Istanbul has been a source of inspiration and I grew up admiring Steven Gerrard since then,” says Tee. “Although I have never been to Anfield, I love this team and the atmosphere in the stadium.”
To non-local fans like myself and Tee, Anfield is still seen as one of the few holy grails of football stadiums. It is a shrine, a church, a once-in-a-lifetime experience – all rolled into one. When I had the good fortune to go there for a match in 2015, I stood at the back of the Main Stand looking at the Kop and tearing up during “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. It must seem bizarre to the club’s local fans; it makes sense that scousers from Liverpool would support either Liverpool or Everton, but it is more difficult to understand why people halfway around the world would support a club with which they share no local affinity. I would always tell them that it is because of the soul of the place, the soul of the Kop, maybe.
Jamie Carragher touches on one of these intangible qualities in Simon Hughes’s Ring of Fire. The one quality which a Liverpool team must possess, he says, is defiance. “You have to be defiant, because that’s the way Liverpool people are,” says Carragher. “Liverpool people identify with defiance, and when belief is generated from that, it becomes too much for opponents.”
In 2011, Spanish striker Fernando Torres broke my heart (I shed real tears) when he moved to Chelsea. His first game was against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. Daniel Agger kicked him to the ground and we beat them 1-0. When the final whistle sounded, captain Gerrard turned to the away fans and lifted both his fists in celebration. I had that image printed out and plastered on the wall of my tiny flat in London. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that that image of defiance got me through my first year of university.
Pako Ayestaran, the Spanish football manager, tells Guillem Balague in A Season On The Brink that there is “a famous Catalan expression [that] ‘Barcelona is more than a club’. Well, to me, Liverpool fans are more than just fans”. This emotional aspect to Liverpool – both the club and the city – is undeniably a unique selling point for a club whose footballing prowess has fallen behind that of new-money clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City. There is an argument to be made that the image of the Kop with banners and flags in full-throat to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” has done a better job of selling the club overseas than the football that’s been played on the pitch. Liverpool fans, being “more than just fans”, have hung on despite the team not having won a major trophy in years. Some days, it can feel like a one-sided love affair.
It hurts because it all comes down to one thing. The league. Twenty-six years is a long time to go without winning it. As long as the title remains elusive, new generations of Thai football fans will keep slipping through Liverpool’s fingers. Liverpool winning the league would be nothing like Chelsea or even Leicester City winning it. The emotion. The relief. It will also confirm my belief that all the suffering, the pain, and the near-misses will be worthwhile in the end.
So we hope despite ourselves. It is not even a bright, flaming kind of hope. Sometimes, it is just a smidgen of a hope, locked away somewhere in the back of our minds. If you’re a football fan who’s incapable of hoping at all, it might be time to pack it in. At the start of every season, my head always says, Maybe our days are over, but my heart keeps whispering something else. Why not? Why not? Why not?
Visit Pim’s blog or follow her on Twitter at @PimKaprao.