Hilary Castles

In the summer of 2006, when I had just graduated high school, I found myself exploring the streets and picturesque landscapes of Tuscany for six weeks. Six weeks that also happened to coincide with something special; I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it?

My first exposure to actual football culture came immersed in a country whose very heartbeat is in ninety-minute intervals. For the first time in my life, I experienced the passion and solidarity that the tournament could bring to a nation full of not just Italians, but avid fans of the beautiful game. All the shops and restaurants had TVs on. Who knows, maybe even the churches had them; I was too busy exploring and partying.  Everyone watched the games. Everyone waited with bated breath during penalties. Everyone cheered. Everyone cried.

It wasn’t until I caught the first USA match that I started to get really into it. Some of the other students from my high school and I began making a habit out of catching the later games at the pizzeria and gelateria after classes let out. One morning our high school teacher/chaperone came in and plopped a newspaper in front of me. There I was pictured in black and white ink in my Sum 41 tshirt (it was the mid-2000s ok?), wide eyes fixed on the screen in front of me, a cup of gelato forgotten and melting in the humid Livorno air, completely unaware that someone was taking my picture.

Well, at least I can say that I bought at least one newspaper while I was in Italy…

I grew up in a household with a Germanophile; my mom lived in Munich in the 1970s. So naturally, other than the USA, I rooted for Germany, the host nation, with a history of winning. I liked the odds. I’ll never forget the night of the semi-final Germany v Italy. It was our going away party held at the principal of our Italian school’s home. I remember sitting on the patio, all of us crammed around a tiny TV, eating and drinking and buzzing over the game. Everyone went crazy when Italy went through. I sat there, eyes watering, in my Michael Ballack kit, and someone leaned in and asked me if I’d brought a change of clothes because we were going to the piazza to celebrate.

I couldn’t help but get swept away in the blue, the fireworks, the blur of lights as cars and vespas and everything in between whirled around Livorno’s Piazza della Repubblica. Prior to our final week in Rome, my only blue item of clothing was a tshirt, perfect Azzurri blue with a polar bear on it that said, “Polar bears don’t drink cola, that’s just silly.”

So the moment I got to Rome, I scoured the streets and bought whatever knock off jerseys I could find. For ten euro each, I got the likes of Del Piero, Materazzi, Henry, Kaka, and a few others. Of course by then I was rooting for Italy, but a lot of the hype and the appeal for me had been cemented by the stories of individual players. I didn’t have an allegiance to a team necessarily, I didn’t have much context to pick one or even follow a particular player. My periphery only included the games I’d seen and the players who’d made a lasting impression, whose stories I could comprehend between every three words of brisk Italian commentary.

The night of the final will forever be one of the most memorable nights of my life. We packed into a spot at the Circus Maximus, surrounded by over a hundred thousand people, and watched the match unfold. The crowd was electric: every tackle, every surge forward, everyone was charged with the collective emotion that could be felt in the air. You can only imagine what it was like during the infamous Headbutt.

Pre-Final, waiting for the game.
The night the players returned, see: Polar bear shirt

Being in Rome for the celebration was incredible. Every emotion that I felt that night is intrinsically connected to how I feel about football. Every win is a taste of that ultimate glory, and every loss is a shadow of the greatest heartbreak.

My journey forward was slow. I started college and had little time to watch anything except marathons of Battlestar Galactica and Lost. By the time the 2010 World Cup rolled around, I was determined to watch as much football as possible and learn as much as I could. After the tournament, I started to follow Bastian Schweinsteiger’s club career. And luckily for me, by 2012, broadcast and streaming made it a lot easier to watch European games. At the same time, it gave my mom the ability to rekindle her support for FC Bayern Munich.

I followed them with interest, but not passion. I watched games when I could and highlight reels of Basti’s play and skills. I caught big Champions League games and other major tournaments. By 2014, I was committed to watching every game of the World Cup and inhaling as much information as I could. I fell in love with the USA team, emboldened now with a new perspective and a better understanding of the performances I was seeing. Once again I found myself somewhere special for the final, a pub in San Francisco surrounded by Die Mannschaft fans and able to celebrate a spectacular tournament and a memorable game.

From then on I made it my prerogative to watch the Bundesliga as much as possible. I didn’t really root for any one team; I liked following the players that I knew. It was there that I saw Roberto Firmino, and additionally, Jurgen Klopp. When someone got me to start watching the Premier League in early 2015, I went into it with an open mind. I decided not to pick a team just yet and instead followed a few teams outside the top six in hopes of catching all manner of different kinds of games.

By January 2016, I was swept up in the allure of the league. I felt like I had my footing and was starting to understand not only the lay of the land but the identities of the teams. I’m a writer by nature, a storyteller, and nothing gets me like a good story. For me, it was about the journey. It always has been. And even though my first full season had a helluva story in Leicester City’s winning title race, there was something else pulling me in a different direction. Another story, a chapter just beginning.

While I’d gone into watching the league with the hope that I wouldn’t pick a top six team simply because they were popular, Liverpool had always held a bit of my attention. With the notable addition of Jurgen Klopp, of course, I had a mild familiarity, but it was also Emre Can (remember, I have roots with Die Mannschaft!) and Bobby Firmino who kept catching my eye. Firmino’s dance from midfield to the final third, his savvy dribbles through defenders and skills on the ball held my attention long enough for me to see other pockets of magic pop up during LFC games.

But it wasn’t until I came home from work one day and opened Twitter that I even considered really supporting the club. “That was the best game I’ve ever seen” and similar sentiments were popping up all over my feed on the heels of the Europa League semi-final against Dortmund. The next day, I found the replay and I sat in awe watching magic unfold as a team put their heart and soul into an astonishing performance for the ages.

What a team, I remember thinking. What a story.

So I did some more research (liberal arts junkies are good for some things), and watched the 2005 Champions League Final. What a team. What a story.

I kept going back, farther and farther, through heartbreaks and almosts, and legends on the pitch, to tragedies and community, and the anthem repeating “Don’t be afraid of the dark.” Jurgen Klopp and his team embodied so much of what I felt in my heart, a scrappy romantic view of the game, a determination to not only win but create something beautiful along the way. The more I watched, the sooner I realised that I was seeing something special, not just on the pitch, but among the supporters. The fanbase is remarkable; a family from Merseyside spread out across the globe, supporting not only the team but also each other.

I may be late to the party, but I feel like my journey was worth it. As a lot of my fellow Americans have to pick our club teams based on things other than geography, I can only say that for whatever reason, I waited. I followed players around different teams, but it wasn’t until I felt a solidarity with the Reds, a union of heart and soul and grit and substance, that I became a true supporter.

Finding your team is sort of like falling in love. There are lots of different ways to do it, I’d imagine. I feel like my love for Liverpool FC was a slow progression from keen admiration to a lifelong commitment sealed with highs and lows, the sweet silver song of a lark, and the unrelenting burden of hope in my heart.

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