By Margaret High
Columbus County knows a thing or two about crazy sports fans. I’ve seen baseball moms in action and heard fans heckling referees during my soccer days. I’ve also jumped over a fire on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill minutes after UNC basketball won the national championship in 2017.
And what a week this has been for Columbus County baseball fans, with Whiteville and West Columbus playing for state championships.
While fans here are passionate, very few are aware of a whole other breed: the European soccer fanatic.
Last Saturday was the UEFA Champions League final, a tournament that gets the best professional club teams from across Europe to duke it out every year until only one remains. It’s the Super Bowl of soccer. The 2013 UEFA Champions League final broke the record for television viewers at 360 million. For scale, Super Bowl LII got 103.4 million.
Even though I’ve grown up an avid soccer fan, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into by agreeing to watch the Champions League final with Raleigh’s Liverpool FC fan club.
One of my good friends in college, Hattie Gale, was born in Liverpool, UK, one of the teams playing for the cup Saturday. She regularly invited me to London Bridges Pub in downtown Raleigh to watch the Reds play in the Premiere League on Sundays. Without fail, every Sunday, the same red jerseys were worn and scarves twirled in the air, the same songs sung, the same chants repeated.
In a way, I joined the fandom. I learned the songs about Mohammad Sallah, better known as the Egyptian King, the leading scorer in Liverpool’s league. For the first time in my life, I was cheering for a red team.
Raleigh’s Liverpool FC fan club is intense; yet, it’s a much watered-down version of Europe’s fan clubs. Hattie told me stories about family members who won’t talk to each other because a few of them pull for Everton, the Premiere League equivalent of Duke and Carolina since their soccer stadiums are only eight miles apart in Liverpool.
I’m thankful the Raleigh fan club is less intense. During the Champions League tournament, Liverpool had played FC Roma in Italy and defeated them pretty badly. As a result, two Roma supporters in the stadium nearly beat a Liverpool supporter to death. He remained in a coma for several days. The two Roma fans are being tried for attempted murder.
So the mood going into the Champions League final in Kiev, Russia was tense. The Raleigh Liverpool fan club was abuzz. We were taking on Real Madrid, the Champions League equivalent of the Golden State Warriors with waves of highly paid stars.
You would think there isn’t much of a Liverpool following in Raleigh. You’re wrong.
Roughly 100 people purchased a VIP viewing ticket for the game Saturday. It included an English breakfast buffet, one free pint of beer and a free entry in a raffle for a signed Phil Neal Liverpool jersey. But we all paid the premium for one thing: first dibs at seating once the pub opened.
As a life-long UNC diehard, I’ve gone through two major championship rituals. When a last-second shot by Villanova ripped my heart out in 2016, I was very careful to repeat none of the same actions in 2017 so UNC would bring home the national championship.
I thought I was over-the-top for repeating the Lord’s Prayer during the second half of the UNC basketball game against Gonzaga. Then I met Liverpool fans.
The English breakfast buffet place was full of vintage Steven Gerrard jerseys. Gerrard is the Michael Jordan of Liverpool, a living God who led the team to the Champions League title in 2005 when the Reds unbelievably overcame a three-goal deficit to beat AC Milan in Istanbul on penalty kicks. Heavy Liverpool accents of Brits who had moved to the Triangle echoed throughout the crowded room.
Pints of beers sloshed around as people forked down mouthfuls of baked beans on bread, a common English breakfast eaten similarly to how Americans eat jam and toast. Liverpool flags were draped across people, chairs, and windows. At exactly 11, the president of the fan club stood in a chair and started the Liverpool Champions League chant.
With that cue, everyone at the breakfast headed into the streets of downtown Raleigh toward London Bridges Pub.
It was a sight to see. Some faces were painted red; some had flags flying behind them. All of us were chanting for Liverpool.
People were piling into the windows of shops we passed, pulling out their phones to record the spectacle.
It was such a sight that people from a comic convention stopped to take pictures of us, as if we were the ones wearing crazy wigs and in full costume.
As we approached our loyal pub, there was already a line forming of non-VIP supporters waiting to get in. When the owner unlocked the door, there was an all-out brawl to get in first.
Then we waited for roughly 3 hours. As Hattie and I posted up in our cushy seats, we saw the pub go from 100 to closing the doors at around 350 people. The bouncer stood outside, ignoring the pleas of late Liverpool fans begging to get inside.
Because the game wasn’t shown on ESPN, there were other people who ventured to London Bridges to watch the game. Some boys looked downright confused, like the two who came in, one wearing a Cam Newton jersey and the other a generic ECU football jersey. They were expecting a casual pub with a small crowd, not the horde of us crammed in like sardines.
London Bridges Pub felt authentic. If you ignored the cars driving on the right side of the road, it really felt like we were in Liverpool, packed in a corner and sweating with the world’s craziest supporters. There was hardly a minute without chanting. Everyone had a beer in one hand and a Liverpool scarf in the other.
When a pack of daring Real Madrid fans trickled in, the entire pub stopped and booed. It was like something out of a movie when the record scratches and the crowd instantly goes silent.
At one point in the game, I thought a fight was going to break out as Real Madrid scored a second time, putting them up 2-0. Everyone turned to glare at the Madrid fans jumping up and down. One had his phone up, recording our reactions. A Liverpool supporter quickly tore the phone out of his hands and deleted the video. A fist almost landed from both sides, but cooler heads prevailed.
As it became obvious Liverpool couldn’t come back from a now 3-0 deficit, anger set in.
I’d seen this before in 2016. When the final whistle blew and white and blue confetti flew from the sky celebrating Real Madrid, angry Liverpool fans smashed beer bottles on the floor. One supporter ran outside and kicked a car tire. Tears flowed.
But, in the spirit of Liverpool, the loyal supporters stuck around for the pub to play “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the official song of Liverpool FC. We swayed back and forth, arms around each other in solidarity and forced out the words.
The lyrics could not have been more apt: “When you walk through the storm, hold your head up high and don’t be afraid of the dark, for you’ll never walk alone.”
As I filtered out of the pub into a heavy rain, I walked to the parking deck with a few other Liverpool supporters in silence, the same supporters who hadn’t slept much the entire week leading up to the game and were likely to not sleep that night, replaying all the things that went wrong.
Though I was a relatively new Liverpool fan, I knew I didn’t walk alone.