LIVERPOOL, England — The grass at their feet strewn with glitter, red and silver and gold, Liverpool’s players drew themselves into a long, thin line, arms draped across one another’s shoulders. They know the cue by now: the first strains of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” They know their mark, too: not far from the penalty spot, directly in front of the Kop.
That is where they celebrated victory against Barcelona last May, the win that sent Jürgen Klopp and his team on its way to the Champions League final. It is where they celebrated against Roma a year before that, on the way to Kyiv, and defeat. They stand and they sway and they sing.
And that is what they did, once more, as they exulted in the moment they had waited a month to savor, the moment this club has been waiting three decades to taste: Liverpool, once again, as champion of England.
This time, though, there was one small difference. They were not facing the Kop. Instead, it stood at their backs, festooned with flags, obscured by jets of fire and the thick, lingering fog after a deafening fusillade of fireworks. Klopp, his staff and his players, instead, turned their eyes downfield, staring at a bank of television cameras.
It is no great revelation that these last two months or so in European soccer — that expanse from the middle of May, when the Bundesliga returned and showed the rest of the continent’s leagues the way, to the conclusion of the English, Spanish and Italian seasons in high summer — have been staged for the benefit of television and the revenue it produces.
Soccer returned because it is now less a sport and more an entertainment complex; it returned to fulfill its contractual obligations; it returned to safeguard the income streams that act, at the elite level, as its lifeblood.
It did so as best it could. There have been thankfully few positive results in the tens of thousands of rounds of coronavirus tests the players have undergone. The jam-packed schedule has not resulted in the Armageddon of soft-tissue injuries many had predicted. And, after a slow start in almost every league, the standard has been as high, or as low, as ever.
But there have been times when it has all felt eerie and alien, a sport trapped in an uncanny valley, superficial and shallow, perhaps a little forced, the drama somehow hollow and the hype confected.
The spectacle of Liverpool’s trophy lift on Wednesday could not quite disguise that. The club, together with the Premier League and its primary broadcasting partner, Sky, had done what it could: it had built a stage on the Kop for the presentation, at the end of Liverpool’s suitably silly, refreshingly carefree 5-3 win against Chelsea.
There was a laser show. There were holograms of Klopp’s beaming face. There were, as there always are, glitter cannons and fireworks and bursts of flame. The sensory overload seemed deliberate: The more things that were present, the less time the brain had to recall the 54,000 or so people who were absent.
It worked perfectly on television. Technicians had been working for days to make sure everything was perfectly placed to capture the perfect shot — players in the foreground, fire and smoke and pomp and circumstance behind — with the perfect backdrop.
Inside the stadium, far from the stage, it felt a little more disconnected. There is no great tradition, in English soccer, of the “trophy lift” as an occasion in itself, certainly not with this amount of grandeur. When Jordan Henderson, the Liverpool captain, thrust the trophy into the air over his head, it was obvious who he was doing it for. It was less clear who he was doing it to.
But there is a misunderstanding in the airy dismissal of sport being staged merely for television. Television — and apologies for stating the blindingly obvious — is a medium of communication; a broadcast is a reciprocal exercise. Sport being staged for television means, deep down, sport being staged for the people watching the broadcast. It means sport being staged for us.
And, over these last few weeks, fans of all stripes have proved that it does not diminish the emotion: there were thousands of fans outside Anfield last night, setting off their own fireworks, despite the fact that social distancing guidelines remain in place and that the local police had enacted a dispersal order for the city to try to stop any mass gatherings.
It is not unique to Liverpool. There were thousands outside Elland Road last week, too, where Leeds United celebrated its victory in the second-tier Championship, and there were fans who gathered to celebrate West Bromwich Albion’s promotion this week as well. That they could not be in the stadium did not mean it did not matter; sport staged for television does not mean it does not count.
But Liverpool’s celebration was not only for those fans, the ones on the streets and the ones in their homes. Not long after the final whistle, one section of Anfield, as close as possible to the stage, filled up with the players’ families: parents and partners and children and friends. They had been allowed in, at the last minute, by the safety authorities, as long as they remained inside throughout the game itself.
It was a reminder that soccer — like all sport — is not only about us, the fans. It is also about the players. Their joy was not artificial, but it was, perhaps, more personal than it might have been in other years.
Regardless of the circumstance, and maybe because of it, their joy was bound up in their pride, their sense that they have achieved a dream. “This feeling,” defender Trent Alexander-Arnold called it.
That, as much as anything, is what they play for. That is what drives them, as much as the love and the devotion and the force of the fans. As they stood in their spot, on their mark, they were singing for television — for all the people watching — but they were singing for themselves, too.