Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The purity of struggle

22-0
I saw my first Michigan football game on November 20th, 1976. Michigan picked off OSU in the end zone to secure a 0-0 tie into halftime and then came out and scored 22, unanswered, to beat the Buckeyes for the first time in 4 years. I remember being fascinated by the helmets early in the game, with a design so unlike the animal pictures or simple letters of other teams that I'd seen; a simple design that implied uniqueness and the power that came with that; yellow wings on a blue field and lines that could be claw marks or simply the streaks of light as the last thing you'd see as they went racing by. I turned to my dad and asked which team it was that wore them. He said: "That's Michigan." I replied: "That's where I'm going to college."

That's actually a game against West Brom.
I saw my first Liverpool game sometime in April, 1979. It was a replay on CBC of the match between LFC and ManU that had taken place on April 14th. Kenny Dalglish scored just before the half and Phil Neal scored just after it to secure a 2-0 win at Anfield. I remember being fascinated by the all-red uniforms of Liverpool, even though that was the diametrically-opposed color of the hated Buckeyes. Of course, by then, I'd only seen 3 straight wins over the Bucks, so I didn't have quite the visceral response that other Michigan fans would have had. To me, the Reds looked glorious, menacing, dominant, flames alive on a field that burned only when and where Liverpool wanted them to. Of course, they were dominant and would go on being so for much of the decade that followed, just as Michigan had and would. My fandom was born in the bonfires of success, like many people. One tends to follow winners because winners are more fun.

Times have changed. Michigan is just now emerging (we hope) from an extended streak of futility and Liverpool hasn't won the Premier League since the top division was renamed to that, 23 years ago. Michigan has been irrelevant to the national scene in football since 2006 and Liverpool has seen its place in the traditional Top Four of the first division usurped by Manchester City, previously not even good enough to be considered an afterthought, and Chelsea. I'd thought before about how similar my main rooting interests are, since they're both entities and fanbases that have great history and expectations to match, despite current struggles on their respective fields, but a great article by Brian Phillips on Grantland the other day kind of crystallized a few things for me.

Happy, happy! Joy, Joy!
In it, he questions whether the Liverpool fanbase, mired in the tradition of their club and the majesty of that tradition, can handle the ebullient, energetic and, yes, happy Jurgen Klopp. The picture is of the brooding fans of LFC, having famously adopted the grudging respect nature of the home city; its port lessened in importance by the Manchester canal, its musical glories long since faded; the only thing left being its football team (Oh, yes. Fine. Teams, if you stoop to including Everton. /LFC fan) and its heroic record from previous decades.

At this point, the easy answer is: Of course we can! [pause] As long as he wins. The piece echoes the many questions surrounding Rich Rodriguez's arrival at Michigan back in 2008. Could he handle Michigan? Could he handle Michigan since he's not a Michigan Man? Could he deal with the expectations of playing real football, as opposed to that spread stuff that won't possibly work in the Big Ten? Uh, yeah, on that last point? Urban Meyer would like a word.

The tone of disgust in that last paragraph probably reveals my attitude toward most of that glory and majesty routine. The last few years have drained a lot of the prototypical "arrogant Michigan fan" out of me, in part because they've been so awful, in part because my distaste for the injustice of the college athletic system has only continued to grow, and in part because I find it really aggravating to be identified with a lot of people who don't know shit about the game even after decades of watching it. I've gone through a similar transformation with LFC, in that even though I still sometimes think of ManU fans as bandwagoners, there's no denying that they've been one of the best teams in football for the past 25 years. That's a long time to be on a bandwagon. But it's more recent to me because I was watching Liverpool dominate the world for over a decade prior to that. I have the same reaction when people talk about Wisconsin "always being good." While I was growing up, Wisconsin was bloody awful and we routinely beat them by 20 or 30 points. So, no, they haven't always been good. But they have been quite good for over 20 years now, so it's easy for people, especially younger people, to think that way. There are probably any number of younger people out there right now who think that Michigan and Liverpool always suck.

I think that's part of what Philipps was referring to, in that (like Rodriguez) Klopp represents a younger, more modern way of approaching the game and Liverpool is so mired in its history that it makes him wonder if people can enjoy a brand of football that doesn't try to overwhelm you with the ominous nature of how "This is Anfield" but tries to shock and bewilder you and score before you realize what's happening and you're already on the way to the next fixture on Monday.


(As a side note, I've always been really disappointed in the appearance of the "This is Anfield" sign. I mean, really. That's it? Just the words and the shield. Shouldn't there be a picture of Shankly melded with Leonidas, roaring at you with the liver bird embedded in gold on one extended fang: "THIS! IS! ANFIELLLLLD!"? Maybe a little OTT...)

But right there is both sides of my mindset, struggling with each other. The expectation is for the grandiose, the glorious, the dominance. But is that just covering for the club's inability to meet those expectations for most of the past couple decades? Should the implied majesty of the simple sign and the simple phrase be enough, akin to the "This is Michigan" tagline that will be Brady Hoke's one positive legacy for much of the fanbase? By the same token, as much as I can acknowledge the failings of Michigan's program for the past decade, when people dismiss them as irrelevant, I can feel my chin starting to stick out. More wins than anyone in the game, man! Biggest stadium in the game! Best fight song! Most recognizable helmets! Huge TV audiences! Everyone wants to see Michigan, whether they suck or not! Because we matter! Same thing with LFC: Most wins! Most points! Highest average finish for the past 50 years! 2nd highest for the 20th century! The only reason I knew they existed as a kid was because everyone wanted to see them and they showed up on the Windsor station! Because they matter! Man!

It's a fight response because it's touching on something that I grew up thinking was worth fighting for. As Philipps notes, there's a kernel of that in the Liverpool fanbase, as well. If the Reds get back to the top of the football world by hopping on the Klopp Joy train, will the purity of the struggle be sidelined? Is it possible to get to that position of dominance while making the struggle... fun? Does that diminish the seeming righteousness of the whole thing? Or is victory enough?

The question has meaning to me because I've spent most of my life in that mode. Most of my major interests have centered around the struggle to change things, whether it was building a political party in the face of the systemic obstacles and massive corruption of the American system or running a tiny business in a market completely dominated by two players who spammed a genre that we weren't interested in. The struggle, for many years, was my life and was always pursued with the idea that we were doing the right thing, if people would only listen; similarly to how many Michigan fans wax poetic about doing things the "right" way, even if it derails pursuit of a national title, but then go on to extol the virtues of the dominance of Michigan's program, anyway. My two major rooting interests are actually the mirror image of my life's other pursuits, in that they have been dominant, whereas consistency would say that I should be rooting for Purdue and West Ham. But winners are more fun. Or is it the struggle that makes it fun? Is there purity in struggle or is it simply a way to spread a salve over the fact that you keep losing, as I have, so often? I wonder sometimes if it's been easier for me to keep struggling in other areas, simply because when I turned to the sports world, I could go back to being a kid when Michigan and Liverpool simply couldn't lose.


In the end, I can't say that I identify very much with the fanbase that Philipps describes for the Reds, in the same way that I don't identify with much of the Michigan fanbase. I like modernization. I like change. I like looking forward. That's what most of my life has been about. The past, in many ways, seems magical, but it's easy to see it that way through eyes that were 6 and 8 years old. Jim Harbaugh is doing a great job of returning Michigan to some of that past, in more ways than one, given the Stone Age roots of his favored form of offense. But there are enough tweaks in it that it's an odd form of back to the future. I think Klopp will do the same for Liverpool, even if his strategic route is more direct; less borrowing from the past, more pushing into the future. At least, that's my hope. It'll be fun to win again, as we return to the flashing helmets and the flames on a field that won't die and, of course, the glory.

That's our guy. And our sign. YNWA.

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