Why Is Fandom So Important?

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It was a little after 5:00 am in my home in Hong Kong when Jerzy Dudek, the Polish goalkeeper of Liverpool FC, saved a penalty from Andriy Shevchenko, a Ukrainian playing for AC Milan. The save ended the most exciting sporting event you will ever see, secured for Liverpool the European soccer championship for the first time for 21 years, and allowed me to breathe. Within seconds, my wife had called from London, and the emails started to flood in — the first from TIME's Baghdad bureau, others from Sydney, London, Washington, New York. In my fumbled excitement, I misdialed my brother's phone number three times. Then Steven Gerrard, Liverpool's captain, lifted the trophy, and behind the Cantonese babble of the TV commentators, I could just make out 40,000 Liverpudlian voices singing their club's anthem: "You'll Never Walk Alone." And that's when I started to cry.

Apart from the big, obvious things — love, death, children — most of the really walloping, sock-in-the-stomach emotional highs and lows of my life have involved watching Liverpool. There was the ecstasy of being in the crowd when the club won the European championship in 1978, and the horror of settling down in my office for the 1985 championship game against Juventus, of Turin — and then watching Juventus fans get crushed to death when some Liverpool supporters rioted. Through long experience, my family has come to know that their chances of having a vaguely pleasant husband and father on any given Sunday depend largely on how Liverpool fared the previous day. But what on earth makes this — let's admit it — pretty unsophisticated devotion to the fortunes of men I've never met and don't really want to so powerful?

Fandom — the obsessional identification with a sports team — is universal. The greatest book ever on the psychology of being a fan — Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch — written about a London soccer team and happily translated into a film about the Boston Red Sox. Particularly in the U.S. it seems possible to be a fan of a team that's based miles from where you have ever lived, but I suspect my fandom's origins are more common. I didn't have much choice in the matter. Both my parents were born in tiny row-houses a stone's throw from Liverpool's stadium. My father took me to my first game as a small child, and from the first moment I saw what was behind the familiar brick walls — All those people! That wall of noise! The forbidden, dangerous smells of cigarettes and beer! — I was hooked.

We fans like to describe our devotion — the word says a lot — in religious terms, as if the places our heroes play were secular cathedrals. It's easy to see why. When you truly, deeply love a sports team, you give yourself up to something bigger than yourself, not just because your individuality is rendered insignificant in the crush of the crowd, but because being a fan involves faith. No matter what their current form may be, your team is the best — and if it doesn't prove that now, it will soon. Belief is all. As Brooklyn Dodgers fans said in the 1950s: Wait 'til next year.

But as you get older, it becomes harder to believe — to think that today's disappointments will soon be redeemed. Yes, the Dodgers won the World Series in 1955; but they aren't ever coming back from Los Angeles. Loss of faith can set in. That, however, is when you appreciate the deeper benefits of being a fan.

For me, following one soccer team has been connective tissue of my life. I left Liverpool to go to college and have never had the slightest desire to live there again, but wandering round the world, living in six different cities in three continents, my passion was the thing that gave me a sense of what "home" meant. (My father helped; 30 years ago, when I lived in Chicago, he sent me the Saturday evening edition of the Liverpool Echo every week.) Being a fan became a fixed point, wherever I lived; it was — it is — one of the two or three things that I think of as making me, well, me.

But fandom can do more than defeat distance and geography. It acts as a time machine. There is only one thing that I have done consistently for nearly 50 years, and that is support Liverpool. Fandom is a blessing; it connects you, as nothing else can, to childhood, and to everything and everyone that marked your life between your time as a child and the present. So when I sat in Hong Kong at dawn last week watching the game on TV, I didn't have to try to manufacture the tiny, inconsequential strands that make up a life. They were there all around me. Tea at my Grandma's after a game; a favorite uncle who died too young; bemused girlfriends who didn't get it (I married the one who did); the 21st birthday cake that my mother iced in club colors; my daughters, as toddlers, in their first club shirts; the best friends with whom I've long lost touch.

What does being a fan do for you? It means you'll never walk alone.