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Waleed Aly: Australia Loves Its Sport, But England Makes It Magic

I’ve always wanted to go to Anfield.

Over decades as a Liverpool supporter, I’ve dined on the mythology of the place: the atmosphere, the history, the Kop in all its glorious voice and gigantic banners, You’ll Never Walk Alone sung with impossible gusto and in perfect unison with scarves aloft.

It’s not the biggest stadium in world football, but it is among the most magnetic and storied.  And at last, I did it, smuggled in under the guise of being a good father.  My football-mad 11-year-old and me, off to Anfield for the Merseyside Derby: Liverpool v Everton in the Premier League.  Kids are the best excuse in the world.

A stadium with mythology. (Image: Getty)
Tribal infrastructure. (Image: Getty)
Everything in red, down to the seats. (Image: Getty)

I drank everything in.  The city divided between “reds” and “blues”, the pre-match chatter with cab drivers, the way everyone asks you if you’re going to “the match” -- not specified because there’s no need.

But as I did, I couldn’t help but make comparisons with home in the way travellers always do.  How all this compares  with, say Richmond v Collingwood at a heaving MCG?  What do they have in European football that we don’t, and what’s great about the way we do sport here?  And when I thought about this, I found that sometimes the things we’d regard as drawbacks in Europe, were in fact the best things to experience.

A packed out MCG. (Image: Getty Images)
A storied sporting ground of our own. (Image: AAP)

The first thing you notice is the inherently tribal infrastructure.  This isn’t a stadium.  It’s the home of the Liverpool Football Club.  Everywhere you look, it’s red.  The shirts on the fans, the fan-made scarves on sale outside the ground, the banners in the windows of the surrounding pubs, even the bricks of the exterior and of course the seats in the stadium.  There’s a massive club store and a club museum.

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The whole thing creaks with glories, with catastrophes, with layers of history.  On our way here we’d done stadium tours at Arsenal and Chelsea, and the same applies.  Even Arsenal’s new stadium somehow carries the weight of the years before it existed.  There’s something awesome about a stadium so entirely devoted to a single club playing a single sport.  They’re nowhere near as majestic as the MCG or the Adelaide Oval.  But that’s not their job.  Their job is to mark territory and they do it in a way nowhere in Australia quite does.

When's the last time you knitted a Socceroos jumper? (Image: Getty)
Pure devotion. (Image: Getty)

Our great stadiums are inclusive.  Even Suncorp Stadium, which is emphatically about Queensland, pitches a tent broad enough to capture the Broncos, the Reds, the Wallabies, the Brisbane Roar, and the Maroons.  The MCG is where all of Melbourne, even Australia gathers for moments of sporting importance, from World Cup qualifiers, to the Olympics.  It is the home of football and (at a pinch) of test cricket.

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Europe’s football stadiums work exactly because they are exclusive.  Anfield says unapologetically that nothing outside the Liverpool Football Club matters.  And I have no doubt that in the process of rationalising our infrastructure and playing in a handful of stadiums --- less so in the NRL than the AFL -- we’ve lost something great.

Mixed crowds are the pride of Australia, but segregated crowds have more fun. (Image: AAP)

But as a result, we have things they don’t.  There’s something sensational about a clash of co-tenants at a shared stadium.  I love the MCG when it has an enormous crowd evenly divided between the teams.  I love the struggle for supremacy that lasts all day in the stands as well as on the ground, and that moment when one team finally takes an unassailable lead and you can hear the hearts of the other’s supporters break.  European fans almost never experience that.  To feel it, they’d need to go to something like the FA Cup final, but not a single Premier League game works that way.

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What they do have is crowd segregation.  It’s about here that Australian fans put on their smuggest faces.  There’s almost nothing that makes us prouder than the fact that our opposing fans sit together, mostly without punching each other.  I’ve even heard it invoked around ANZAC Day in a this-is-what-our-diggers-fought-for kind of way.  And we definitely should be proud that we don’t have anything like the crowd violence or hooliganism that makes segregation necessary.  But Anfield taught me it isn’t that simple.  Crowd segregation has its charms, too.  It can be a huge amount of fun.

Red and blue supporters face off. (Image: Getty)

European football crowds sing -- well and often in unison.  Each club has its songs, usually about their own great players, sometimes about the opposition.  New songs are written throughout the season as a kind of living history of the club.  So Manchester United fans have taking to singing “You are my Solskjaer” to the tune of You are my sunshine in celebration of their new caretaker manager, appointed after Jose Mourinho was sacked only weeks ago.

On this day, it’s 0-0 in the 94th minute.  Play has stopped for an injury, but the final whistle is imminent.  Everton’s small band of supporters are delighted that their underdog side has secured a draw and let off flares.  Despondent Liverpool fans start leaving.  In a flash, two thousand Evertonians turn to face straight in my direction, point at the departing Reds and sing:

Your support is f*ing sh*t

Your support is f*ing sh*t

Your support

Your support

Your support is f*ing sh*t!

It’s properly funny and surprisingly melodic.  Only to be topped off when they segue to singing “You’re not from Liverpool” to the tune of Verdi’s La donna è mobile.  They’ve completely nailed that.  And in a single line of song, they’ve dismissed the Reds as a global imposter, and upheld Evertonians as the true Liverpudlians, which is brave given they’re outnumbered even in their own city.  In that moment it dawns on me: European football crowds don’t just sing, they sing at each other.

A small stadium distills the passion of rivals. (Image: Getty)

It works because the pitch is small, and the stadiums are correspondingly intimate.  Our larger stadiums roar, but these ones almost allow you to converse.  You feel like you can see each face, hear each voice in the stadium.  That makes you feel buried within the noise, and the atmosphere easily becomes electric.  So when they sing, they’re singing in your ear.  I’m told Perth’s Optus Stadium (which I’m yet to visit) is designed to trap the noise to create a similar effect.

Are intimate sporting grounds the way to go? (Image: Getty)
I'm told Perth's Optus Stadium is designed to trap the noise. (Image: AAP)

But you can’t have all this without segregated crowds.  A mixed crowd can’t sing at itself.  It cannot initiate call and response because these calls have to come from a partisan concentration of fans.  Cheer squads do this in the AFL, but they’re too small and too far apart for it to work in the same way.

The game restarts, and Liverpool end up scoring an impossibly bizarre goal to win it at the death.  Anfield is in raptures and Everton fans start bolting for the gates.  We would return the favour, but we’re too busy celebrating wildly.  And in truth there’s nothing much else to do because we can’t watch the replay.

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Yes.  Anfield doesn’t have a screen.  No replays, no live stats, no half-time “hug cam”.  There’s a scoreboard with the time and the score, but otherwise it’s just you, the crowd and the game.  This is rare in Europe, to be fair, but it’s also true of Manchester United’s stadium at Old Trafford, and it seems a concerted decision to be purist.  All this may change next season when video refereeing comes in, but for now, it’s a fascinating experience because it changes the way you watch.

No big screen and no replays make the game more riveting. (Image: Getty)

I hadn’t realised quite how lazily I’d been watching sport; how easily I’ll reach for my phone to text someone about the game, how relaxed I’d become about missing something while chatting to a friend, relying on the replay to fix everything.

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Here I watched with a new intensity and focus because the thought of missing a penalty or a goal was simply unbearable.  As a result I was immersed in a new way, fully absorbed in every moment, left only with my first impressions.  It heightens the sense that the game is a world apart, completely un-infiltrated by the outside world.  I suspect all this adds to the intensity of the atmosphere because there’s a difference between 50,000 people watching passively, and the same number sealed off from the rest of life and investing in every moment.  It means you watch every game in the same way you might watch a big AFL or NRL final.

Match intensity is ratcheted up to maximum. (Image: Getty)

You can’t have everything, I suppose: crowds are either mixed or segregated; grounds are either intimate or colossal; either there are screens or there aren’t.  Whatever you have, you lose something else.  But honestly, who would rather have thought there’d be a benefit to crowd segregation or a major stadium without a screen?

It reveals that sport lives in the imagination, and in the magical little worlds that we create around the game.  And it’s possible for Anfield and the MCG to be magical in completely different ways, each having advantages the other can only look upon with jealousy.