After the awful fan episodes of Heysel and Hillsborough comes a brutal soccer reckoning, one so outrageous, so unfair that it defies understanding.
Shakespearean stagecraft seemed to hover as the doom that was to envelop Liverpool unfolded almost theatrically in Kiev. For just 30 minutes the Reds were allowed the illusion that all was well. There was a game to be won. Then the unthinkable, the sudden thrust of a dagger into Liverpool’s heart ... the sight of the wonderful, inspirational, Mo Salah, leaving the field, weeping as he went.
Liverpool struggled to adjust, tactically and psychologically, to Salah’s exit. At halftime, the score was still 0-0. Just six minutes into the second half came the second blow. The betrayal. The team was badly let down by one of its own, goalkeeper Loris Karius, whose horrendous mis-play presented Real Madrid with the game’s opening goal -- a goal it had done little to deserve.
Despite the gathering omens -- the unthinkable, the betrayal -- Liverpool steadied itself, tied the game and had, surely, survived the worst of whatever curse was at work.
Could it be that the curse, fickle in choosing its victims, had switched sides? Where was Real’s miracle-worker, the brilliant Ronaldo, a non-factor, almost a non-presence, in the first half?
But the miracle was yet to come. It arrived in the 64th minute, a sudden blinding flash of soccer lightning from Real’s Gareth Bale, an instantly improvised overhead kick, half bicycle, half scissor, that flew into the Liverpool net before anyone -- least of all poor Karius -- had time to understand what was happening.
Real was now leading 2-1 thanks to a goal that seemed cruelly designed to mock all that Liverpool could do. Just to underline the point, Bale struck a second goal 19 minutes later, but it was again Karius, with another colossal gaffe -- this one bordered on the farcical -- who handed Real the goal.
Liverpool, at no point outplayed, had succumbed to bad luck, their own faults, and that Bale miracle-goal. Another view of the strange events in Kiev would have Liverpool defeated not by bad luck and self-inflicted wounds, but by ill omens and a moment of surreal intervention.
However one may feel about omens and curses and suchlike -- personally, I have no belief in them -- there is something about the Kiev game that gives the sensation that it didn’t go according to the usual way of things. After all, why should Liverpool be hit with those four body blows -- the unthinkable, the betrayal, the miracle, and the final act that reduced its performance to a farce?
Doesn’t that seem a bit over-the-top? No other team, in my memory, has ever suffered anything like that in a big game. You could compare it, for sheer failure, to Brazil’s 7-1 loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup. But that was entirely explicable with mundane reasons -- no miracles, no betrayals -- Brazil were simply awful, Germany much, much better.
Liverpool has been martyred before. The appalling Hillsborough incident, followed by the long years during which devoted fans simply kept going, against all the odds, to prove that the “official” verdict of “accidental death” (one that entailed slurring Liverpool fans as drunken and unruly) was a whitewash.
What kept those utterly devoted fans going for those 27 years? Was it something that is reflected in Liverpool’s anthem --
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Tho' your dreams
Be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone
You'll never walk alone
-- from the 1945 Rogers and Hammerstein Broadway musical “Carousel.” Light years from Anfield, of course, but doubtless words to give heart to those fighting an apparently forlorn cause.
But ... as the anthem for a highly successful soccer club? In that light the words take on a mawkish tone. Not to be taken seriously. Richard Rodgers’ music is fine, though there is something of the dirge in it, but I’ve never particularly liked Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics.
If Liverpool plays soccer under a curse, maybe that curse can be found in words that portray it as a club forever struggling as it “walks through a storm” with its “dreams tossed and blown.”
And I’ll confess to a longtime dislike of those other words that are invariably associated with Liverpool. The words of legendary coach Bill Shankly: “Football is more important than life or death.” There are those who insist that Shankly never said that. The Daily Mail claimed to be correcting matters when it said the real quote was “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
I’d call that a distinction without a difference. I find the anthem words maudlin, but Shankly’s words are dangerous, even if he did not intend them to be taken seriously -- I mean, he could not have meant that ... could he?
Even so, death did creep in here, with reports that Karius had received death threats. A horrible development, a modern refinement that makes anonymous nastiness so easy. Why should it be assumed that any threats come from Liverpool fans? Why not from anti-Liverpool types anonymously slurring their rival? That is how repellently clever we are becoming.
The Kiev calvary is over and done, a tragedy for Liverpool, a personal nightmare for Karius, who, I imagine, will leave Liverpool. Time to move on. For Liverpool, moving on, I could wish a new, cheerier, anthem, and a different, less deathly, quote from Shankly. There must be plenty to choose from.