On March 24th 1997, Robbie Fowler went down in the box and, when he was awarded a penalty, protested that it absolutely wasn’t a foul. He took an incredibly soft shot on goal—which David Seaman didn’t seem to have any problems saving—and Jason McAteer scored on the rebound. Fowler was awarded both a fair play certificate from UEFA and my undying loyalty, pledged from halfway around the world.
Two years and a more successful penalty later, Fowler received a four-game ban for mimicking snorting cocaine during a Merseyside derby goal celebration. Ten-year-olds in India (or at least, this particular 10-year-old) didn’t have ready access to British tabloids, so I had no idea what he was doing, and probably wouldn’t have cared. Much more importantly, the lack of tabloids also meant I completely missed the Le Saux incident that same year, hearing only that there had been “a clash” between the two, and that Fowler’s ban had been increased to six games.
It wasn’t until years later, when Luis Suárez — my autobiography will be called “A List of Ways Liverpool Has Disappointed Me” — got a longer ban (ten games, for anyone keeping count) for biting Branislav Ivanović than for racially abusing Patrice Evra (an eight-match ban which Liverpool found surprising and disappointing, even asking the FA how Suárez could make racist remarks, as he comes from a mixed race family background) that I even thought about Fowler’s 1999 bans again.
Over those 12 years I struggled to keep my love for the game alive in the midst of controversy after controversy involving sexist comments, homophobic taunts, and racial slurs both on and off the pitch. If it had just been the players, or even fans in grounds that I never went to anyway, my love for the sport likely wouldn’t have changed. But the commentators, and the newspapers, and people in pubs kept telling me, and telling anyone else who raised a skeptical eyebrow, that we were being too sensitive. That everyone deserved a second chance. Worst of all, their attitudes were reinforced by the people in charge of the game. The constant infantilizing of players who engaged in this behavior seemed to raise the hurdle for entry into mainstream football fandom higher and higher for anyone who wasn’t white, male, and straight.
By 2011, I had gone through several stages of football-grief.
The first one, appropriately coinciding with my teenage years, was anger. I was already angry about everything else, so throwing in the bigotry inherent in football wasn’t that far a stretch. I (ironically) got into fights with other people about players’ behavior. I spent a lot of time arguing with people on forums on what we can and cannot forgive, and how the insulting thing isn’t how much footballers are paid, but how little concern they have for other people. I wasted a lot of time.
The second stage involved pointedly ignoring commentators, the tabloids, and everything the FA said. I had a great group of friends who also loved the sport. We settled into a rhythm of rolling our eyes at the most recent antics in the papers, then going back to talking about whoever played last night, and how gorgeous the goals (and some of the players) were. That was the first time I realized the value of safe spaces.
That safe space shrank when I went away to college, with timezones and busy schedules getting in the way of a constantly supportive community. I began seeing the uglier sides of football more than I did the game itself. I kept finding myself in pubs where people were very keen to hear my interpretation of the offside rule, or why I (an Asian woman) would support Liverpool Football Club when it wasn’t my local team, or if I recalled who had captained the 1988 Reds. Even surrounded by white, male friends who shut down these kinds of conversations when they heard them, the communal watching started to grate on my nerves. I stopped watching games in pubs and streamed them at home, with chat windows open whenever any of my friends from home were awake and watching.
Then I stopped watching football completely. I had plenty of excuses: I was back in the US and the timezones were impossible. I was looking for a job and I really needed to concentrate on that. I hadn’t read enough fiction all through college, and I finally had the time to catch up on my backlog of books. It took me a while to admit that, without the sense of community around the game, I had stopped enjoying everything about it.
I still glanced at the scores every now and then, but I had my weekends back and I barely noticed the lack of football in my life. But then Euro 2012 rolled around, and I found myself in the basement of my workplace, alongside the catering staff, yelling at a tiny screen and asking them to fill me in on any players I didn’t recognize.
When the Premier League returned, I felt refreshed — but I also felt prepared. I was more cautious about who I engaged with and the media that I consumed. I found women, and writers of color, to read and to listen to. I only followed a few football commentators on Twitter. I slowly began building a circle of football friends in my timezone. The 2012-13 season ended with Liverpool in 7th place, but the anticipated mediocrity and disappointment that left me almost cheerful at the end. I knew how to handle this. I had been doing it for years.
When Suárez chewed on Giorgio Chiellini in 2014, I watched with gleeful relish (sorry) and didn’t feel remotely betrayed by him failing, yet again, to restrain himself when he didn’t get his way. Something had clicked. I had stopped thinking of players as my players, but as ordinary people with really poor self-control. Maybe it was just that I’d grown up a little.
Robbie Fowler is still in the news (and in some case, is the news), and I still cringe when he dons blackface or uses sexist descriptors in his commentary. There are also still — and always will be — people who think there’s nothing wrong with any of this, who believe the rest of the world is far too sensitive. But it’s a lot easier to ignore them now that more and more platforms are highlighting how ridiculous it is that audiences and football associations pile plaudits on people engaging in racist and sexist behavior.
I sometimes miss the obsessive passion I used to have for individual players, but I’m happier watching the game now than I have been in many years. And I have a lot more time on my hands to devote to being disappointed by the final scores, instead.