With all the multi-billion pound TV deals, million-pound paychecks, social networking updates and paparazzi-fueled gossip that seem to be flooding our senses from every direction, it is sometimes easy to forget what football is really about. It isn’t about the money, the celebrity, or the fancy cars and private jets that come with it. What it is in its essence, its truest, most pure form, what the sport really boils down down to, is its ability to create moments. Moments of significance, not for the front pages of newspapers, not moments that can be explained, but moments that can be felt, remain etched in the heart as much as the mind.
When people talk about the Maracanazo, the first fateful day in the history of Brazilian football, when Uruguay beat Brazil to lift the World Cup in the mighty Maracana, the spiritual birthplace of football, they rattle off the statistics. A 173,850-strong audience that viewed 3 goals scored on the 16th of July 1950 to steal the Jules Rimet trophy. But what the history books left out is the pain felt by tens of millions of Brazilians as they huddled around radio-sets in the living room of the one family on the street fortunate enough to own one, listening with bated breath, expecting their national team to do the nation proud. What the books cannot capture is the heartbreak felt by young boys all around the country as their heroes fell short at the final hurdle, as their dreams and hopes were snatched from right in front of them.
Thankfully, such moments can be captured, shared and immortalized more easily in a world inundated with social media. A fitting example, given the flow of the narrative, would be the picture of an old man Brazilian man clutching a replica of the World Cup trophy tight to his chest, as he watched his team get demolished by the Germans in Belo Horizonte, in a match that shall perhaps be referred to as the Mineirazo over the next few decades.
Years from now, we won’t tell our children and grand-children about the ruthless mechanical efficiency of Sami Khedira or Toni Kroos, or the shambolic confusion within a Brazilian defense led astray by a hapless David Luiz. No, we’ll be telling them about what that match meant to hundreds of millions of people around the world. I won’t remember that game as the highest-scoring semi-final in World Cup history. No, I’ll remember it as the match that, perhaps irreversibly, shattered the image of beauty and invincibility associated with Brazilian football.
Anyway, I digress, a habit I admittedly do very little to curb. I want to go back to what I said about football giving us moments that we shall never forget. The reason I want to write about this is that, in less than 24 hours from now, as my fingers scurry across the keyboard, racing to catch up with my train of thought, English football shall provide us with another moment for the scrap-book. It is rather fitting, I must add, that it will involve the player who has made something of a habit out of pulling magical moments from his sleeves.
I am talking, of course, of the moment when Steven Gerrard shall play his final game at Anfield.
Living room critics like you and I have deconstructed his career, stacked up Istanbul, the 2006 FA Cup Final, Olympiakos and all the other times he seemingly dragged Liverpool–and England, on occasions–over the final hurdle and across the finish line by the scruff of the neck, on one side, and measured these against the slip(s), the purported gaping hole in his trophy cabinet created by a lack of league titles, and the complete lack of success for the national team. Triumphantly, we have bestowed upon him our condescending, presumptious verdicts: either he is loved or hated, admired or ridiculed. Either way, it reeks of our judgement of a career, and a man, who cannot be measured or defined by any statistics, metrics or comparisons in our locker. What is even worse is that our views of the player have been coloured by our loyalties to clubs and countries, and that people choose to ignore what he has stood for down the years. Let’s stop scrutinizing the man. He has had 17 years of that. Let’s step back, get off our high horses, and appreciate what we have taken for granted down the years.
There are but a handful of players in the modern generation who have been as important for the 10 players around him, and even fewer who have been as important for the tens of thousands watching in the stands, and the millions more around the world. The footballing abilities of Steven Gerrard will be spoken of in hushed whispers of admiration for decades to come, and we shall tell tales of his glorious conquests–see above–and the innumerable times he made the seemingly impossible happen, by aligning the sheer single-minded force of his will and determination with his footballing ability. He shall be praised for all the commitment he showed to his boyhood club, and to its fans, by ignoring what were surely destiny’s alluring calls, in order to be able to pull on the red shirt he loved, and walk out onto the pitch he loved, in front of the fans he loved. He was, is, and shall continue to be the embodiment of what it takes to be a successful professional footballer, and a model sportsperson. However, the reason his departure across the pond is being celebrated and mourned in equal measure is that, at the end of the day, he has spent every moment of his illustrious career showing us that football is about playing with heart, and for the heart. He played with passion for the badge, and what it stands for. He took pride in what he stood for for the community he belonged to, and at the tender age of 8, when he signed schoolboy forms for Liverpool, he learned the lesson he has been reminding us of every day since his debut in 1998: that the Beautiful Game is so because it is a game of the heart, played for the heart, and one that can only be played by one’s heart. For the last 18 years, he has been the 8-year-old schoolboy living his dream, instead of chasing fantasies fed to him. And that may be his most lasting, important legacy.
I know this is a bit of a cop out, but I have found it quite difficult to encapsulate my feelings about Steven Gerrard, the man, the leader, the legend, in words, which have felt incredibly insufficient. Luckily, another writer managed to do this for me, so I shall offer reprieve from my stumbling, fumbling, clumsy attempts to do the man justice, and leave you with the link to an article that says all that needs to be said.
Remember where you will be when he steps out onto the hallowed turf of Anfield later today. Don’t let the chance to be a part of history slip from between your fingers. Steven Gerrard made it a point not to. He stamped his authority on history, and he wrote his own legend. Let’s honour that legend, and never forget it.