Hello, my name is Dušan and I am a Liverpool fan from Montenegro. Without wanting this to sound any more like a meeting of the Alcoholics Anonymous, let me start my story.
I was born on the 11th of January 1989, the very morning Slobodan Milošević was elected into full power in Yugoslavia, and many of his local padawans took up power in Montenegro. I was the first local baby born into a Milošević rule and apparently, the midwife insisted that I should be named after him. Slobodan, a glorious name. My mother (a Liberal back then, which was frowned upon largely) insisted that the midwife should F off. This is all hearsay, of course, as I remember none of it.
My father was also a Liberal and a music and football fanatic of all kinds. During growing up in the late sixties and early seventies, Yugoslavia was a large Communist country that had an atypical affinity for the western trends and culture. British music and style were huge among some (especially the teenagers, adolescents etc.) and my father worked and studied at the same time, leaving him no time to do anything other than follow a trend. So he became an avid Pink Floyd record collector and an Arsenal fan.
Yes, an Arsenal fan. A proper London club. Anyway, fast – forward ten, fifteen years. My father becomes a father but the political climate is already edgy and there are murmurs of war and isolated incidents that lead to nothing, but wouldn’t lead to nothing if they went on. One of his best mates moves away to London as he has a cousin there, and he regularly sends back (before trade and transport sanctions prohibited it) VHS tapes of Arsenal games. My father, at the time, works at the airport as military reserve and twice a month, he comes home with a tape that we put on and watch and probably cheer for Arsenal.
Tapes stopped coming as the country descended quickly into chaos and hyperinflation struck everywhere. Money and food were scarce and I can very vividly remember eating canned meat three times a day for days, sometimes even a week. It was and still is the most disgusting thing I have ever tasted. My father started feeling the strains of living in those times and would, occasionally, get a bottle of wine to soothe his nerves. We rewatched the tapes that we had frequently and would talk during the game and he would explain to me where things went wrong, and how Arsenal were faring at that time (probably included him using a lot of imagination) and so on.
Days went by, the war came and went, and in ’95 there was peace. Tapes started coming again and one of the first that came around my birthday included a certain Robbie Fowler hattrick that my dad couldn’t explain. I was hesitantly in love with a man that didn’t play for Arsenal for a few months. I often wondered when could Arsenal play THAT team again. Will there be another tape or another game like that again? Fantasies were, alas, cut short a few months later.
My father died at the start of April under somewhat depressing circumstances. One day he went to work and took ill; a few of his mates rounded up and took him to a hospital. At the time there were still outbreaks of conflict and small regional skirmishes that bore with them a possibility of injury, so the hospitals (by a state decree of some sort) had a quota of beds that needed to be free and unoccupied by patients in case wounded soldiers need to come in. Right at the entry door, the nurse said they couldn’t take him in, so they brought him home.
I can still see his figure in the doorway, carried by his friends, barely able to walk. They laid him in the living room and locked me on the balcony, thus giving me a perfect view of what was going on inside and rendering me unable to go anywhere. I remember the cold and the rain and that my bare feet were bitterly cold and that I tried to keep warm by walking around a bit, in tears. I remember they called an ambulance and nobody came until it was an hour too late. I remember a lot of that day, and still sometimes revisit my memories. For strength, you know.
An event like that normally changes people, and my childhood was effectively no more. The threads that held it together during and after the war were cut, and I just couldn’t get myself to watch a game of football anymore. For a period of two – three years I avoided the tapes, TV, playing out of the house and any sort of childhood friendship that I had. I read a lot and stayed in my room, oblivious to the world around me. Many years later, after my grandfather died and I went to college I recognized that period as a normal process of coming to terms with a loss. At that time, I couldn’t recognize those around me, let alone a psychological coping mechanism to be what it is.
Let’s skip some of those years for obvious reasons, and go to the summer of 1998. My uncle would drop by sometimes and take me out at that time. He was a local poet and an overall genuine saint. Maybe I am overreacting a bit, but let’s say that I have a soft spot in my heart for him. Trying to make my day somehow, he took me for long walks that usually included ice cream and a few stories to take my mind off whatever I’ve been thinking about. We walked for a long time and decided to rest in what was seemingly a restaurant that I don’t remember and is now probably gone. My uncle ordered some french fries and a salad made of cabbage and asked the good lady that worked there to turn on the TV.
It was a game. A game! I was shocked, almost stunned to see the grass, hear the noise and the commentator. I examined the graphic like it was from out of this world. A minute or two went by before I realized that France were playing Croatia and Šuker just scored. My uncle said something along the lines of France eventually winning and I asked myself how he knew that. I asked him why does he think that and he said: ‘Just guessing’, with a half – smile that was barely visible under his beard. I remember Thuram’s second, and I remember that I was hooked again. I watched the remainder of the Cup (not that many games really) and, when the season started, I was a regular one more time.
At the time, many TV stations were sanctioned rights to transmit or show games from the big leagues, and that situation got somewhat worse in 1999. Few local stations, knowing that they would pay no penalties, did what they could to show as many games as they could completely illegally. Back then you could watch whatever you wanted; French football, German football, Italian football, Spanish football, Russian football, whatever. Aside from the English, of course. They wouldn’t show English football at all and I often wondered what is the game like there. Is Arsenal still playing in the top flight? What about Fowler? Is he?
Time rolled by and I was at the point where I combined my reading habits with football as much as I could. On the weekends, that is, and often during the week if there were any continental competitions. I watched Liverpool a few times and liked watching them, for no reasons other than the sentimental ones. By now it’s May of 2001. I come back from school, grab something to eat, do my homework and sit and turn the TV on. TV takes a good long time to warm up so I get around to going to bathroom, checking my schedule for tomorrow and even drawing a small tree on it somewhere around the corners. TV comes on and I turn my attention to it. It’s somewhere around 20: 35 CET and a green football pitch appears on the screen. The graphic is a bit dodgy so I don’t see who plays at first. I grab a newspaper and search for the TV schedule. It says ‘Ливерпул – Алавес’. Which roughly means ‘Liverpool – Alaves’.
I sit back on the couch as the teams come out. The game begins and the commentator stops so that the watchers at home can hear Liverpool’s hymn. He says it’s pretty special. I run to the TV to turn the volume up. I like what I’m hearing and leave the volume intact. I walk back to the couch once again. The pitch is green and on it, the men wear red. I had a green carpet in my living room those days and on that day I wore a red jumper to school. The game begins and somewhere during the first few minutes, Liverpool get a free kick slightly on the right side of the box. The free kick is taken and Markus Babbel scores.
I remember thinking: ‘What could go wrong here?’