We’re inching towards the last weekend without Liverpool football in the two thousand and eighteenth Year of Our Fowler and I’m certain most fans share in this sentiment. The international break serves as no real break for players in top leagues and as an annoyance for fans. Getting closer to seeing more club football, then, is all that’s on the minds of many.
However, it’s impossible to reflect on the international break - one in which many of Liverpool’s most talented players have been called up to serve for their respective national teams - without confronting issues regarding immigration, nationalism, and xenophobia both within England specifically and here in America where I sit as a fan. Reading the updates from the international break and seeing the names of many Liverpool first team stars gracing the line ups of national teams across the globe, it’s clear that Liverpool’s squad is incredibly cosmopolitan.
Which is to say that Liverpool Football Club as presently constituted does not exist outside of the influence of the broader questions regarding immigration/migration that are raging in the UK and America. In fact, just this week it was reported that the FA was considering placing restrictions on the number of foreign-born players that clubs can carry in order to increase the number of British players in the Premier League. In America, eyes are turned toward the nation’s southern border as a caravan of refugees makes its way northward from Central America.
The links to Liverpool Football Club in both stories are relatively obvious: what would a restriction on foreign-born players do to a club like Liverpool whose Best XI often includes automatic starts to the likes of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Virgil Van Dijk, and Alisson Becker. Our squad looks different if we couldn’t call on them or foreign-born players that often make it into the starting line-up like Naby Keita, Xherdan Shaqiri, Georginio Wijnladum, and Fabinho. All of it being helmed by a German manager in Jurgen Klopp. Thinking about how things like intense poverty, violence, or war are major driving forces for migration, it’s hard not to grapple with the parallels in the stories of the brave people walking thousands of miles in search of safety and peace, and the experiences of refugees like Dejan Lovren.
We’ve said it often here at The Liverpool Offside: sport does not exist in a vacuum. To be more direct: politics is not easily compartmentalized or segregated from culture. Because politics, by definition, is the way a people chooses to organize its society. And sport, involving people and taking a central in society, necessarily is wrapped in this.
My hope is that as we draw a close on this international break, Liverpool fans - and football fans in general - might hold close to the notion of their favorite stars representing their home countries and understand that while their experiences aren’t the same as Central American migrants fleeing violence or the Rohingya fleeing genocide or Syrians fleeing war, they still very likely recognize the challenges present in the lives of foreign-born people building a life far from home. And so it should necessarily cause us as supporters to interrogate the ways in which our own perceptions of foreign-born people, support of specific policies regarding immigration, and support of particular philosophies all work together to build a society that might welcome them.
Because I often look askance at comment within the broader Liverpool fan community that might be in support of xenophobic rhetoric or sympathetic to anti-immigrant policy and wonder how those perceptions can co-exist alongside support of a team whose world-class attacking line are all foreign-born. How does supporting a Muslim ban equate to truly welcoming and loving Mané and Salah? How does rhetoric that casts people from South and Central America jive with a reality in which Bobby Digital is celebrated as one of the most industrious and unique of strikers? How can we reconcile these parts of our fandom and allegiance to destructive philosophy and policy?
I get that using the entry points of our footballing idols is a tricky proposition: it’s easy to love someone for their labor or see something brilliant and make space for an individual, while retaining problematic perceptions of the wild group. My final hope would be that people would use this easily accessible entry point into the issues of migration as a way to relate on a more intimate level with what drives migration globally. Because we need not look far to know that leaving the land of one’s birth is a difficult choice for many. There are many articles of footballers like Jesus Navas or the broad understanding that English players just don’t often abroad that point to how, even in world football where you’re dealing with people making elite money, choosing to leave your support system and the comforts of home are difficult choices.
Could we not, then, extend that same empathy towards the people who come to our neighborhoods and community from elsewhere and see in them the same thing that would drive us away from home? A desire for peace. A hope for a future. A dream of security.
As we watch the last weekend of international duty move past us, let’s take a moment to challenge our own internal biases about the people who come from elsewhere. Let us lean into the identity of Liverpool Football Club as a club built, like its city, by the hard earned work from hands that extend beyond its shores. And like our team, may we embody that same sense of welcome to our brothers and sisters from abroad. We are a global club. I pray that we as a fandom truly work towards owning that label.