Football by Frank Duffy
One of the things you have to get used to when you live abroad, apart from the fact that that they don’t sell cigarettes in tens, and there seems to an absence of pasty retail selling outlets, and even more shockingly, that they’ve never heard of White Lightning cider, is that of nearly all the people you come across, whether they’re heavy drinking expats with a cheap sideline in performance art or animal buggery, aka ‘we were once involved in the entertainment business’ (former Butlins holiday camp reps are notoriously adept at migrating where there are no sex offenders lists), or whether you are talking to one of the indigenous folk who have but the barest knowledge of where you come from, which is a fair trade considering we have no intention of learning their language, is that we are all looking for a connection of some sorts.
Now I’m not talking about that connection, but about the things we look for in others when we first meet, the interests, the corresponding obscure habits, the self-confessed taste for big-budget 80’s action films, and so on. Okay, yes, it is a little bit like that connection, the dance of the perpetually inebriated, as I have often called it; drunk on our new potential partner’s fondness for Bram Stoker and fizzy orange pop, how else could it not be likened to downing six pints of eleven percent proof Polish beer with your hand clapped to your head in feigned outrageousness. Anyway, I digress. But this connection is something we instinctively gravitate to the moment we open our mouths, like prospecting for verbal gold dust, shifting through the small talk and the sarcastic asides meant to demonstrate a wit hitherto unspent, and seizing it till it’s ragged and lifeless or the alcohol and money has finally, thankfully, run out.
And with me, this connection with a lot of the people I meet is bloody football. Footie. The classless game, the beautiful game, a game of two f**king halves, and endless moronic sound-bites, which make my head hurt and my ears bleed.
In fairness I think telling people I’m from Liverpool is what does it. Though I sound as much like a Scouser as I do Scandinavian bagpipe player. Having been brought up in a village on Merseyside it only qualifies that you’re a Scouser when abroad. People always are always asking where I grew up, and I always offer Liverpool. It’s easier that way. It makes me sound more interesting. What? Tell them I grew up in a provincial northern village where hotwiring tractors, and sheep rustling was the norm? No, thank you.
But I was born in Liverpool and half my family (lapsed Catholics except for the immense proliferation of cheeky scamps) live and work there. So, in my eyes, if only mine, I bag Liverpool as my place of origin.
And this is where I have inadvertently shot myself in the proverbial foot so many times in the past. Especially here in Poland. Mention to anyone that I come from near Liverpool, and you can practically guarantee that there response will consist of two words: Jerzy Dudek. They will say these two words with such hushed reverence that I’ve often wondered whether these sanctified words are endowed with possible magical properties…such as Open Sesame, or ‘make mine a double scotch on the rocks’. They will nod so vigorously that I find myself doing likewise; it is as if these two words combine to form a higher form of cultural consciousness which bridges our two distinctively cultural worlds.
Now for those of you not in the football know, for those of you who orbit what I call the world of planet normal, Mr Dudek was the former goalkeeper of the Polish national squad, and formerly the No 1 for Liverpool, most importantly helping them win the European Championship in 2005. His heroic status on Merseyside is only surpassed in intensity in Poland. The Poles are big fans of English football, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool being the big four. So when their former national goalkeeper manages to steer Liverpool to the championship for the first time in over 20 years, you can bet your bottom dollar that my vague proximity to that great city is brought up as often as ‘do you like LFC?’. It cannot be avoided, and if the truth be told, I quite like it. For all my avoidance of anything smelling remotely of patriotic Englishness, I’m somewhat proud of my birthplace, though please don’t ask me about the goddamn Beatles.
And it was this instantaneousness of connection, this sudden leap into each others’ metaphorical arms, which began to reveal something about myself I had up to this point never quite owned up to. You see, the thing is, and I don’t want to sound as if I’m years late coming out the football closet, but I’m not a football fan. Of course I have rolled along in many a conversation acting as if I was, preening my knowledge gleaned from Match of the Day the night before, debated the fallacy of the latest midfield striker gifted the England No 7 jersey, and cried and raged at each World Cup Match failure. But this is expected of every Englishman, especially those abroad. Violent dismissal of one’s roots is one thing, but the roots are so deep, so stubbornly implanted, that if you were to attempt to dig them out, you’d find them curled tight about the Jules Rimet cup, proud and defiant. You just can’t take the football out the Englishman.
Or can you?
The problem with football coming from a city like Liverpool is that it is unique above all others because of one glaring fact. It is not that Everton is the other major team coming from the city (also a big club, and the team alongside Arsenal which has played for over forty years in the top flight), nor that their fans, while heavily opposed to each others’ good fortune (praying for catastrophe and relegation to befall each other like all good supporters are taught from birth), are the only two groups who do not find the time to go out and pleasantly bottle each other to death for daring to wear different tops. Liverpool is so close knit, so begrudgingly respectful, so enamored with its own romanticism, that the familial allegiance of supporting two different teams unofficially prohibits dad from head-butting Uncle Steve into next week. You just can’t beat up member of your own family over football. Not in Liverpool. No, the problem is that anyone coming from outside of England are usually unaware that Everton actually exists. Such as the average Polish football supporter. Now in itself this wasn’t originally a problem. Oh, my knee-jerk reaction was to fully update the ignoble buffoon who had mistakenly made this most erroneous of judgments, that you rest can rest assured on. I guess that was my lovely heritage. But what arose from this was a gradual dawning of biblical proportions. I began to feel less and less cantankerous towards whatever villain had managed to leave Everton out of the football equation, and actually begun to feel sort of…well…indifferent. I told myself I was simply isolated from my weekly fix of football, that I was one of those chaps who would stay up late and catch two hours of lower league football into the early hours of the morning, and that having this amputated from my social calendar was understandable. But I also reminded myself that there had been a period in my life where I’d stayed awake every single night for six months to watch omnibus editions of WWC wrestling (the whore cousin of WWF), and endless reruns of Prisoner Cell Block H segueing into eternity. It was clear I was a man of nocturnal patterns, a hangover from my short-lived university days.
Now for some time I subconsciously debated with that part of myself that was aware, that was prudent and willing to accept defeat, that it might just be a coincidence of which I had yet to unravel. I was stubborn, you see. And so I continued with the great charade.
That was until the European Championship Final of 2005.
It goes without saying that neither man nor beast shall deviate from their team of choice once they have set out their stall and proclaimed their devotion. It as much spiritual endeavor as it is a pointless one. I know two brothers who still argue about one brother’s change of support from Liverpool to Everton in the mid 1980’s. The brother who remained ‘loyal’ has never let the other brother forget that he’d jumped ship when he was just 8 years old. They are both now in their late thirties.
And this is where I finally came of age and could no longer sidestep the obvious conclusion to which was I was heading with such agreeable force and speed.
On the night in question I was one of eighty people gathered before a gargantuan TV screen in a pub in the Polish town of Zielona Gora. That I was a supposed Evertonian, did not come into it. I was every inch the Liverpool fan; small though I am, my vociferous support drowned out three-quarters of the congregation. I told myself that I was only vocalizing such eagerness in salutation to my brothers. But the truth was there, propelling me from my seat, making me wave my arms around, inserting the required passion necessary at times like these.
It could not be ignored any longer.
Never before in the annals of football history had one man laid claim to one football team, and then just as quickly flipped sides like the toss of a dazzling, but petty coin.
But what had once shackled me to annoying bouts of football discussion, of which I expertly proved that one can talk shit with the best of them given enough time and encouragement, now unshackled me and bade me good day and good riddance.
Without realizing it Everton themselves, by being the lesser known of two teams, had allowed me to escape back to the normality I had dreamt about.
So, if you happen to come across me somewhere in the middle of Poland, a chance meeting, an unfortunate sharing of a dilapidated carriage on the antiquarian Polish train service, don’t engage me with tales of Wayne Rooney, or bait me with predictions of England’s imaginative progress into the World Cup Finals next year.
I really don’t care. I just don’t like football.
As the late and great Patrick McGoohan once said: ‘I am not a number, I am a free man.’
My bio: Frank Duffy is a writer from England currently living in Warsaw, Poland. He knows Paul Brazil by default, though it might have been a case of mistaken identity. He writes horror usually, loves evading the pitfalls of a regular job and empathizes heavily with Mickey Rourke on the importance of dogs. He shares a website with his saner alter-ego Steve Jensen on ‘The Journal’. Here: