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Madden: In England, the game rules

Saturday, August 25, 2001

LIVERPOOL, England -- Whoever said soccer is the most physically demanding sport must have been a fan of the English Premier League.

Never mind the players -- you've got to be willing to pay the price just to watch soccer in the UK, because they apparently don't believe in parking lots and escalators. I had to walk two miles to the stadium, then up eight flights of stairs to get to my seat when Manchester United was host to Fulham Sunday. By the time kickoff came, I felt like I'd been shot out of a cannon.

That said, it was worth it. English soccer spectators are fans, not discerning consumers. Passion means more than being cool, and supporting your team for the full 90 minutes means more than dodging a traffic jam. The game matters, not the hype and trappings.

The reason for my weeklong trip -- and the focus of my "real football" fanaticism -- was Liverpool FC, one of the game's legendary sides. Liverpool FC came into my consciousness via me being jaded with most American sports -- how many times can you watch somebody run off-tackle in one lifetime? -- and via the introduction of Fox Sports World into my cable system a few years ago. I began watching the nightly football highlights shows and the occasional game, and I was hooked.

Don't confuse U.S. soccer with UK football. Don't mention Major League Soccer in the same breath as the English Premier League. Know who plays in MLS? Guys who aren't good enough to play in the EPL. If you're bored by MLS, I don't blame you. It has three speeds: Slow, slower and paralyzed. But if you're bored by the EPL, well, you must jump motorcycles over the Grand Canyon in your spare time. EPL football is adrenaline in shorts, with just enough physicality stirred in.

I'm not sure why I began supporting Liverpool. I figured out quickly that Manchester United -- probably the most famous sports team in the world -- was the EPL's New York Yankees, a bunch of arrogant snobs supported by arrogant snobs, a team which wins at least partially based on having the most money to spend. Better to hate them.

When Liverpool gained my interest, they were a club with a glorious tradition looking to rebuild after a decade of struggling. Steelers fans, you're about five years away from that same feeling. Last year saw Liverpool edge back toward the very top by finishing third in the EPL and winning three prestigious tournaments, including England's FA Cup, the world's oldest organized team sports competition. Goes to show what having me for a fan can do.

To put Liverpool's fame -- and soccer's worldwide appeal -- into perspective, consider this: If you travel anyplace outside North America and talk about the Steelers, chances are great that the natives will have no idea what the heck you're babbling about. But they will have heard of Liverpool FC.

Watching a game at Anfield, Liverpool's home park, is unique. There's no scoreboard. There's not even a game clock. But there is a time clock. Since soccer halves are 45 minutes running time, they're leaving things to you to figure out. As for the score, shouldn't you be paying attention?

Everyone at Anfield pays attention. Rapt attention. The PA doesn't blare during play, and there's no JumboTron to manufacture chants. But despite that -- or maybe because of that -- Anfield is a cacophony of sound the entire game. It sounds like Three Rivers Stadium on a football Sunday in the '70s before Steelers fans got decrepit, drunk and spoiled, like the Civic Arena in the early '90s before the big-hair-and-cell-phone brigade invaded Penguins games. Liverpool supporters don't cheer because they're programmed to do so. They cheer because they want to. Is there a more joyous sound than that?

You hear about English football hooligans, fans who go to games merely to fight opposing fans, but that mentality seems to have largely died out. I didn't witness one episode that could even be described as unpleasant while watching five football games in the UK.

In English football, no local spectator wears the shirt of another team. The home team almost never gets jeered no matter how badly things go. Anfield is built in the middle of a residential area, but the neighbors don't complain, mainly because the fans give them little reason to. There's a sense of community around the English football clubs that died ages ago with American sports teams.

I can't wait to be back at Anfield. To sing "You'll Never Walk Alone," the club's theme song, along with 45,000 others who unconditionally love the same team.

With English football, the game is still the thing. You don't go to Anfield to get a bobblehead doll or to see fireworks. You don't leave with 10 minutes left. You don't sit by your car and drink yourself stupid five hours before the game. You don't arrogantly consider yourself part of the show.

At Anfield, you watch the game. You cheer and chant and support Liverpool. You go hard for 90 minutes just like the players. You love the team and care passionately about the result. Then -- win or lose -- you come back and do it all over again at the next home game.

That's the way sports are supposed to be. It just isn't that way in Pittsburgh -- or in America -- anymore.

Mark Madden is the host of a talk show from 4 to 8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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