March 11th, 2020.
Atletico Madrid. Second leg. Anfield. Champions League knockouts. Liverpool down 1-0 on aggregate.
Everything was set up for it to be another classic European Night at Anfield. Except for the fact that it wasn’t. Instead of a famous European night, it became an infamous one.
Instead of something metaphorical being “in the air,” there was an actually thing floating around the tight confines of Anfield: the novel strain of coronavirus, COVID-19, a virus which we were all beginning to become intimately aware of.
Although not technically tangible, we all felt the weight of the unfolding pandemic. There was a tension beyond the usual pressures associated with a knockout cup competition. Those pressures boiled over even before kickoff; the great man Jurgen Klopp himself told some supporters who were reaching out for a high-five from the boss, “Put your hands away, you fucking idiots!”
Despite this, the game went ahead as so many others had in this hallowed ground over the decades. Liverpool, even put themselves in a position to go through, thanks to an extra time goal from Bobby Firmino. The let off from that goal was perhaps the last moment of “normal” many Liverpool fans experienced over the last year.
Moments later, the world seemed to flip upside down. Atletico scored. And then scored another. And then a third.
This wasn’t how the script was supposed to go.
The worst was yet to come. Football stopped altogether, as did much of everything else. Worse still, over the next month, an estimated 41 deaths were traced back to this match. Death tolls, the world over, skyrocketed. Over 2.6 million have died globally, and countless others will be suffering long-term consequences of the illness. And despite vaccinations finally starting to become available, we are still far from this crisis being over.
When football finally came back, it felt like a blessing. Liverpool fans, in particular, had a long-overdue trophy lift to look forward to.
However, the novelty of watching “behind closed doors” football (which somehow sounds better than “soulless exhibitions”) slowly faded away. I’ve previously compared it to eating fruit out of season, devoid of all the flavor that you’re craving. I know I’m not the only fan struggling to remain as invested under these circumstances.
It’s clear the fans aren’t the only ones struggling to remain invested.
From the start, we’ve seen some rather bizarre, lopsided results. Occasionally they’re quite funny. Barcelona’s “you 8-2 see it.” And then Aston Villa’s 7-2 win over Liverpool, “they made us look like Barcelona, har har.” It was apparent that players, even top professionals, were lacking the motivation to continue to put in the effort after going down a couple of goals.
During lockdown—especially since a small group of fans were let in, only to quickly reverse track—Anfield has gone from a fortress to a pile of rubble. When our identity is our intensity, the lack of fans hurts Liverpool more than most. Every intense moment on the pitch is elevated with a rabid and involved fanbase: going wild for a goal or a big tackle, hissing at opponents and the ref, appealing for every throw in, corner, and penalty.
Opponents, and especially opposition managers, love to talk about the “myth of Anfield.” As if Liverpool don’t have a history of picking up incredible results, against all odds, in front of a sea of Red at home.
If anything, this pandemic, from the initial shock of the Atletico result right up to a previously inconceivable six consecutive home defeats, proves just how valuable Anfield—not the bricks and seats that make it up, but the fans that fill it—is.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I missed that Anfield more than I missed the actual football. I missed the fans, in the stadium and pubs around the world, laughing, crying, singing, and hugging together.
We will get that Anfield, and that community, back again. Hopefully when it’s safe to do so.
In the meantime, stay safe my fellow Reds. YNWA.