Today is what we used, during the apartheid years, to refer to as South Africa Freedom Day: commemorating the signing of the Freedom Charter at a conference organised by the Congress of Democrats attended by 3,000 people in Kliptown, outside Johannesburg. The name has subsequently, entirely understandably, been transferred to April 27th to commemorate the longed-for day in 1994 when South Africa experienced its first post-apartheid (and first genuine) general election. Today also happens to be my second son, Brendan’s, birthday, which is being celebrated without us this year in Cape Town. One son born on Soweto Day, the other born on South Africa Freedom Day, there had to be a message there somewhere.
This year Brendan was very unexpectedly presented with a birthday present by Chelsea Football Club. He has been a passionate supporter of Liverpool FC from a very early age, in so far as it is possible to ‘support’ a football club from a distance of 6000 miles, and woke this morning to the news that, after 30 years of waiting, Liverpool had finally won the English Premiership title again, courtesy of Chelsea winning a match against Manchester City. He would have had the good sense not to join the Liverpool fans’ ecstatic, Covid-defying revelry last night, had he been there, but he will have been just as ecstatic.
The restart of the locked-down football season this week has made me aware of just how much I missed watching football in the scheduled run-up to the climax of the season. This is a statement my sons would identify with entirely, and my daughters-in-law would find completely incomprehensible. I have to confess that I was unashamedly delighted by this outcome too, and not just out of empathy for my Liverpool-supporting sons, son-in-law, and grandson. Why confess? Because – and, safely buried this far into a blog, I can probably get away with saying it – I have been a Manchester United supporter ever since the Munich air disaster in 1957. Manchester United supporters would generally rather see anyone in the entire universe win anything that their own club can’t win, just as long as it isn’t Liverpool.
My loyalty, then, is a bit fickle. What I really enjoy is watching ‘the beautiful game’ played at its most beautiful, and, at football’s best, that term isn’t as absurd as it might sound to non-believers. The speed, the athleticism, the ball-control and the intricate inter-passing; the vision to be able to pick a fifty-yard pass and execute it perfectly; the ability to dribble a ball through a crowd of opponents; the bravery and gymnastic ability of the best goal-keepers – what is not to admire? When football is played by an outstanding team, with all the players playing at the top of their form, it can be mesmerising. Liverpool’s 2020 team has it all, and they have a brilliantly charismatic and likeable manager in Jurgen Klopp, who is also an outstanding football tactician, to bring it all together. Klopp’s team are leading the highly competitive Premier League by a truly astonishing 23 points with a handful of matches remaining; by way of comparison, for those who aren’t followers of the game, Manchester City won last year with a record total but a margin of only a single point over Liverpool. So, yes, Liverpool fully deserved to win, and I’m delighted it happened for Brendan’s birthday.
Being an inveterately political animal, as anyone reading these blogs will have discovered long ago, my sympathies, if not my full-hearted support when they play Man U, have been with Liverpool FC ever since Hillsborough. Sport can elicit a wide variety of emotions, but none I have experienced have ever come anywhere near the emotion elicited by standing in a packed crowd at Anfield singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” while supporters at the Kop end (named after the battle of Spion Kop in the Anglo-Boer war) held banners aloft commemorating the 96 fans who were crushed to death at the Hillsborough ground in Sheffield in 1989. I cannot believe that even the most partisan Manchester United supporter could have failed to feel sympathy for the families and friends of those 96 fans in the face of the police lies and cover-up of their responsibility for the disaster, the unspeakably contemptible coverage of the event by the execrable Sun, and the British establishment’s preparedness, all the way up to the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to believe the story that responsibility for the disaster lay with drunken Liverpool fans. Almost 30 years of dogged determination on the part of the Liverpool fans to see the truth eventually acknowledged, if justice by no means done, was wholly admirable and very nearly enough, in itself, to demand a shift of allegiance.