The last time Liverpool won the league I had just entered secondary school in Singapore. And my dreams of playing football were about to be crushed.
The father thought that football would distract me from my studies. And the principal thought that football would distract us from rugby. St. Andrew’s School, founded in 1862 by the British, had a rich rugby heritage that seemed to be in decline, caught pincer-like between traditional rivals Raffles and the new upstarts at Dunearn.
Harry Tan, an ageing patriarch with viewpoints as stiff as his weak back, one day decreed that he was banning school football so that young athletes could focus on rugby. Upon hearing the news Indra Sahdan Daud, the football phenomenon in our team who would go on to captain Singapore, packed his bags and left for St. Gabriel’s.
So while we played rugby inside the school, we played football outside the school, using a plastic ball that drifted in the wind, on a cement handball court that was primed for bruises and sprains, smack in the middle of Potong Pasir, then proudly the only opposition ward in the whole country.
Potong Pasir was like a third-world enclave in a supposed first-world country: gang fights, illegal snooker parlours, aunties selling cheap cigarettes by the stick to thirteen-year-olds in uniform, facilities in semi-permanent disrepair.
Life outside the “first world” was special in its own stirring, soulful, gong-simi way. Maybe I just want to remember the grit, to romanticise the fleeting moments when I was out of my upper-middle-class comfort zone. Whatever the case, I do know that Potong Pasir offered me a street experience outside school that somehow, weirdly, complemented the Anglican discipline inside.
Years later, when we won the B Division rugby trophy (Under 17s), beating Raffles in the semis and then Dunearn in the final, many were thrilled. 1
Harry, of course, felt vindicated. But I think at that moment some of us realised then that the highs of school sport could actually be matched by the elation from playground football. In our achievement-obsessed country, Harry Tan helped show us, surely unintentionally, that there is more to life than medals.
The last time Liverpool won the league I didn’t get to watch every Liverpool game. The Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) showed a couple of English games a week and Liverpool didn’t always make the cut.
I remember the opening fanfare to “The Road to Wembley”, when teams took the F.A. Cup more seriously; and the one for Serie A football, when the Italian league still had Maradona and more glamour than any other.
Football was a more solitary experience, shared only with those physically around me, my parents on occasion, friends who’d come over, or Mr Yang, the old Malaysian Chinese man who shared my birthday and gave me tuition in Malay, which we’d always cut short so that we could watch VHS recorded football on a 21-inch cathode ray television while eating slices of sour, raw mango covered in chilli powder and salt. I always wondered if Mr Yang told his friends that my mum was paying him to watch football. A few years ago when mum told me “Mr Yang your Malay cikgu passed away”, I remember thinking “More like Mr Yang my football buddy.”
Thirty years ago there was much less instant feedback for football commentaries and criticisms. There were no WhatsApp groups sharing odds before games and man-of-the-match recommendations before the ninety-minutes were up. There were no Facebook groups conducting polls and forwarding memes and drowning me in echo chambers about Jordan Henderson’s value to the club. There was no instant deluge of data on kilometres run or passes completed or number of prawn sandwiches sold to opposition fans; there were no multiple camera angles showing you all the ways Bobby Firmino looks away when he scores or laughs at the camera while walking through the tunnel.
I remember John Barnes, his tight shorts one stretch away from a tear, blazing down the wing, then pulling the ball back from the byline for John Aldridge to score.2 I remember just one camera view, and that memory of that one camera view fills me with Kondo joy every time.
I’d watch games and sometimes rewatch them, listening only to the commentator. I formed some opinions which I then bounced off others over the landline or days later in school. It felt simpler, more stimulating, more rewarding.
Today when I watch football it feels like even before the pass is complete I already have ten opinions on it. I’m sure members of the modern sporting data-ocracy might cringe at my naïveté, my reminiscing of a less intellectual period in football history. But I’m drowning.
I yearn for the simple memories.
The last time Liverpool won the league I was much more religious, much more monotheistic, much more devoted to just one God. My paternal family is part of the Mar Thoma Syrian Christian Church, which traces its roots to Kerala, India. Some believe that Saint (Doubting) Thomas introduced Christianity to India in the first century AD which, if true, would mean that Christianity has a longer history in India than it does in most of “the West”.
So, in the middle of the Malay archipelago, between my Anglican school and my Eastern church, I was convinced that all my non-Christian classmates—Atheists, Buddhists, Daoists, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs—were going to burn in Hell. I generally refrained from sharing this view.
In any case they were all forced into the weekly St. Andrew’s School chapel session where priests would offer them salvation through Jesus. Not the Muslims though, they were exempt from chapel. This exemption irritated some other groups. My Hindu classmates made to attend Anglican chapel would look jealously at my Muslim classmates sitting in the canteen. The occasional resentment of one minority group by another is something I have gotten used to in multicultural societies everywhere.
I was also convinced that all my non-Liverpool-supporting friends were going to burn in Hell. I took great joy in sharing this view, especially with the Everton and Manchester United supporters. They gave me lots of stick in return. Little did I know in 1990 that this would last thirty years.
Weekends growing up, then, were controlled by my two red Gods: the Reds of Liverpool on Saturday night; the reds of Jesus’s blood on Sunday morning.
In the late 1990s, around the time I enrolled in university, my faith in Christianity and Liverpool started to waver. I started to look around. I entered other houses of worship and read their gospels. I started to watch Arsenal and Manchester United. I allowed myself to appreciate the cheek of Cantona, the Kamikaze-ness of Keane; the poise of Pires, the subtlety of Scholes. 3
As my faith wavered, so did my passion. Spiritual exploration necessarily dialled down my fanaticism. I can no longer lose myself in ecstasy to Jesus Christ or Liverpool. I no longer cry when Liverpool lose, and even on occasion find myself uttering some diplomatic platitude about the other team deserving it. 4
I no longer think that non-Christians will burn in Hell; and I no longer mercilessly rip into opposing fans when Liverpool has given their team a hiding.
Some of my friends in Singapore call me lalang, grass, the one that sways in the wind, our term for a fair-weather fan. I like to think that I have become somehow more open-minded, more tolerant. Perhaps that is just my own arrogance.
Sometimes, when in the company of a die-hard Liverpool fan, the kind of fan that has memorised the Joe Gomez song, that knows the name of Trent’s primary school, that has studied every word of Jürgen Klopp and can’t decide if his gospel is more worthy of Business or Divinity School, when I hang with such a die-hard fan, I sometimes miss the fervour, the camaraderie, the belonging of my youth.
I sometimes miss the tribalism I once knew.
The last time Liverpool won the league I was playing Superstar Soccer, a DOS-based game, on a PC. It was a side-scrolling game that featured outrageous bicycle kicks from the edge of the box and a long mono-tonal “BLAAAAE!” every time a goal was scored, the kind of fart that today one might rather assign to a message from the boss. Despite the Internet’s rich history of video game evolution, I cannot find mention of it online. It must have been a predecessor of Konami’s International Superstar Soccer but I cannot say for sure.
By contrast, the other memorable football game in my early 90s stable, Sensible Soccer, lives on. Vice recently said of the overhead scroller that “…’Sensi’ remains the most accessible and user-friendly soccer game around.” Other games I played then include Double Dragon, a side-scrolling “beat ‘em up”; the Ultima series, a role-playing fantasy game; and F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter 2.0, a flight simulator. As a child, the only times I called football “soccer” or thought about bombing Cuba or Iraq is when I played these American video games.
I used to buy the games from an air-conditioned shop in a little arcade along Balestier Road, near the entrance to the Whampoa neighbourhood. Though the glassy shop front paraded big boxes of original software from Lotus and Microsoft, inside was a den of air-conditioned piracy. I would enter on a Saturday afternoon and jostle with other schoolkids for plastic A4-sized folders which contained lists of games: at first just names on dot-matrix paper; later colour copies of the actual video game covers.
Orders would be taken and passed to the technicians (professional copiers?) motoring around in front of bulky machines. They would magically transform those 5 1⁄4-inch and then later 3 1/2-inch floppy disks for us kids: one minute they were blank; the next dressed up on the outside—sticker, paper jacket—and loaded with fun on the inside. These technicians worked with such efficiency that I always wondered if they were kaya toast uncles in their previous lives. Is the disk copying machine their new toaster? When I close my eyes I can still faintly recall that metallic floppy disk smell, which stirs some deep kid-in-the-candy-shop impulse in me. The computer shop was fun, rebellious, and most of all dirt cheap.
I knew many of the pirates in town. Those in Funan Centre put on a bit more of a charade to hide their illicit core business; those in Sim Lim Square less so. Many Singaporeans considered gamers delinquents and the pirates our drug dealers. There is a great sense of poetic justice in the fact that one of our generation’s most successful businesspeople made his fortune off gaming. Every time Tan Min-Liang and the Razer brand are trumpeted in Singapore, we are effectively thumbing our noses at our parents’ generation, the one that told us to stop fooling around and focus on the money-spinning professions: banking, law, medicine, politics. OK, boomer.
I don’t play video games regularly any more. I am not really sure why. It could be because I am older and slower and the competition is no longer just the bloke sharing the keyboard but the kid halfway across the world. It could be because, like the addict for whom every day is a victory, I am afraid of losing myself again, like I have in the past to Fifa, Mario Kart, and Wipeout XL. 5
It could be because every time I play, I am reminded that I am ageing, that I will never again know what it’s like to walk down Balestier Road in the 1980s, KTV bars and bak kut teh stalls hibernating before the sun sets, to an illicit shop in squeaky clean Singapore and return home ready to do battle all night; I will never again know what it’s like to play Superstar Soccer and actually dream, legit dream, of one day scoring a bicycle kick goal at Anfield.
The last time Liverpool won the league I owned one Liverpool jersey and several posters of Liverpool players that I had ripped from my MATCH! and SHOOT! magazines, my main sources of information in the pre-Internet dark ages.
Today at the Official Liverpool Store in Singapore we can get Liverpool bottle-openers, thermos bottles, exercise bottles and of course, for that early morning shot of Klopp, any number of mugs. We can get Liverpool-branded earphones to add to the dozens we’ve collected over the years from our incessant smartphone upgrades. There are Liverpool onesies, bibs and tiny little jerseys if, like the priest holding the infant over holy water, we want to baptise our kin in Red even before they can say “Mama”. For twenty-six-ninety we can buy a silver Liverpool necklace so that the Liver bird can dangle next to Gandhi, Mao or the Cross. (But remember, the Liver bird can only protect you when worn together with the COVID-19 Liverpool face mask.)
We may still be able to find the different New Balance Shoes to match the different New Balance kits. These will soon be Old Balance, however. As Liverpool’s stature has grown, each victory and cup and pithy “This means more” Jürgenism feeding an ever-inflated Liverpool brand, Nike has swotted aside New Balance the same way Van Dijk might Varane. Part of this new intergalactic commercial behemoth is NBA star Le Bron James, who acquired a 2% stake in Liverpool in 2011 as part of an arrangement with Fenway Sports Group, which owns Liverpool and represents James.6
Most Liverpool fans understand that all this is simply the price of entry to one of the world’s most lucrative businesses. Some clubs are financed by oligarchs who privatised the proletariats’ assets as the former Soviet Union imploded; others by Sheikhs born into the right bloodline; and some, as is the case with Manchester United and Liverpool, by business and marketing whizzes with experience maximising the value of sporting brands.
We must pay to play. In 1990, the last time Liverpool won the league, the club offered John Barnes “a staggering £8,000-a-week to stay at Anfield”. That is the equivalent of some £18,000 today, which is less than ten percent of what today’s highest earners like Salah make. John Barnes and his peers, in other words, might have earned ten times as much if they had been born three decades later. And that’s just through football, never mind personal endorsements and other sponsorships. No wonder Gary Lineker is still doing talk shows.
Over the past decade, I have on the one hand embraced aspects of minimalism, lowering my consumption of physical goods. I am comforted by the peace of mind from just having less things, and also the knowledge that I am, in my own tiny way, helping slow resource depletion and global warming. On the other hand, whenever one of these brands from my childhood, like Liverpool or Star Wars, gets dangled in front of me, I lose all restraint. They trigger wonder and nostalgia wrapped up in some larger imagined community of fellow Reds or Jedis. Just one more t-shirt, right?
I don’t mind the sponsorships or the television ads, being told about AXA or Carlsberg or Nivea Men. If my eyeballs pay your bills, I’ll watch.7 But the merchandising bothers me, and I always wonder if there’s another way.
This means more? Ya balls. It also costs more.
The last time Liverpool won the league we were still living by the mantra of one of the greatest managers ever, Bill Shankly: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death…I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
In March this year, with Liverpool two wins away from securing their first title in thirty years, the English Premier League was suspended because of COVID-19. We all feared the worst, that the pandemic might, amid all its other carnage, also snatch away the title from our grasp.
With fans everywhere depressed, Jürgen Klopp emerged to offer perspective: “It’s football. It’s a game…There are more important things in life. So try to stay cheeky a little bit and enjoy it.”
Paeans have been written about him and I’d like to offer mine. It is not that he is a nice guy, I think, but that he is able to be both intense and serious one moment, light-hearted the next; fiercely loyal and passionate while pumping up the Kop with one leap, and then immediately deeply, genuinely respectful of his opponent with a shake and smile; focussed on the minutiae of the tackle or goal in one answer, and then offering a helicopter view of life in the next. Perhaps that’s why he once called himself “The Normal One”.
Jürgen Klopp glides so effortlessly along the intellectual and emotional metres of our life that he will inevitably at some point connect with each of us, whatever our inclination, wherever we sit on whichever spectrum.
And I think for me, that’s why, no matter how cheesy and contrived it still sounds, this means more.
1 On Potong Pasir being a “third-world enclave”. For sure, even when we were kids in school, I think it was fairly obvious to many of us that Chiam See Tong, the opposition MP, was politically disadvantaged in many ways by a system that benefited the incumbent People’s Action Party.
Separately, on “…when we won the B Division rugby trophy (Under 17s)…”. Note that I use “we” loosely; I was mostly an unused substitute aka waterboy
2 It has been thirty years since Liverpool won the league title. And it has also been thirty years since Liverpool’s best player was a black person. John Barnes, a Jamaican British, in 1990; Sadio Mané, a Senegalese, in 2020. It has been years since I wanted to wear somebody’s name on my back. LOVE Sadio. He features prominently in video below.
3 It is not easy watching live English football in California because of the time difference. We would wake early in Berkeley on a Saturday morning, lifting heads off futons or couches still reeking of alcohol and smoke, and drive across the Bay Bridge to a pub called Mad Dog in the Fog on Haight Street, San Francisco, where the festivities would resume with a Full English, a pint of Guinness, and frosty fingers fiddling with “cancer sticks”. Sometimes we would just go straight from the party, especially if it were a rave at a warehouse in Oakland that had left us with glow-sticks and insomnia.
4 I remember crying to bed when Liverpool lost the league to Arsenal on the final day of the 1989 season. I feel sadder thinking about Liverpool losing than about Mr Yang passing. Social media repeatedly reminds me of the Liverpool pain but Mr Yang my guru cum buddy lives only in my mind. I still don’t really understand why an English football team thousands of kilometres away means more than a fellow Malayan to me.
5 Some say “in the zone”, others “flow”, but of all the activities, sacred and profane, that have warped my sense of time, video game addiction is the high scorer.
6 “The first time I stepped on an NBA court I became a businessman,” Le Bron James said, upon announcement of the deal with Liverpool in 2011. James’s 2% stake was valued at US$6.5m in 2011; it is now worth over US$43m.
7 In the 2018-19 season Liverpool earned €94.5m from matchday revenue; €210.9m from commercial revenue (sponsorship and merchandising); and €299.3m from broadcasting revenue.
Below is a fun football video I filmed in early June 2020 to test out my home video rig before the Singapore general elections in July