SPORTING LIFE

Full of emotion, Liverpool's dream can become a reality

"Great print," the short man told me every week and we both knew he was lying. Yet I couldn't avoid him. For it was in his shop, in a small, anonymous lane that turned at right angles off Calcutta's most fashionable street, that I found Liverpool football club.

On the walls of an otherwise bare room in 1986, standing at silent attention, was a library of video-tapes. All pirated, all full of jerky images (so much for "great print"), all devoured. He had movies, TV serials and, once in a while, as if to slake my thirst for sport in a nation where so little was telecast, he had football. Almost inevitably, Liverpool football. Not because he owned a special affection for Liverpool but because Liverpool, in those days, had a unique affection for trophies.

By sheer, stumbling accident - quite the sweetest way to start any love affair - I discovered a string of proper nouns which recited together made for a short anthem: Rush, Dalglish, Whelan, Lee, McMahon, Grobbelaar. Eventually I stopped asking for football, only for Liverpool. Eventually I also learnt an early lesson: nothing stays in sport as Manchester United are discovering. Managers err, stars leave, teams stutter, legacies fade, irrelevance comes. Failure, we learn, is the only guarantee.

Liverpool were league champions 11 times from 1973 to 1990. From 1991 to 2013, not once. It is a slow descent from champion to afterthought, from victory to wilderness, so slow that you finish school, attend university, court a girl, find a job, have kids, and there they are, still your team, still losing.

Perhaps it's when you start to appreciate the emotional turbulence of sport and the truth of mortality. Dominant teams reek of a sturdiness yet they are a rope of fragile threads glued together, whose inevitable breaking is the reminder that greatness is an inexact business, a collision of talent, key decisions, timing and patience. This is not science to be replicated, this is art.

For all the cyclical truth to sport - our time will come again - some wheels just turn more slowly. Ask the Boston Red Sox, who waited 86 years for another baseball World Series. If you're a fan, it's like you're locked in a curse and every Prince in boots turns out to be a frog. There is no fairy tale in sport. Really. Just hope.

My strong interest in Liverpool dissipated, not because they slumped but because tastes change and I am not tribalistic by nature. I danced with United, winked at Arsenal, flirted with Barcelona, but there in the background they always were. A red army waiting to rise. And now that it almost has, after the waiting, the wanting, the grieving, it has an emotion to it which isn't exaggerated or superficial or hyped, it's just pure.

It is the best kind of sports story for it is about endings and beginnings, faith and pride, and it is too grand a pleasure to be restricted to mere tribalism: if you cannot, even partially, enjoy Liverpool's run, then really how do you enjoy sport? Or love football? Or the possibility of life? For this is proof of renewal.

It is also a revival of the notion of hero. Footballers don't save lives, they're usually too wrapped in their own. But if the word "hero" is seen to also mean "guardian", then it is not a bad fit for Steven Gerrard. He has a Champions League medal, but this is different, this League measures consistent effort, persistent skill, it is not a few good days, it is many strong days, it is the constant expression of the driven self. It sounds like Gerrard.

In individual sport, often reward can be proportional to effort, but not in teams, where again and again you can invest yourself and find nothing. Finally, this seems Gerrard's perfect time, just don't say it to him. Being "close", he knows, wins no prizes.

Sport, this man with a scotch-taped heart knows, will break you with a goal off the crossbar in the 93rd minute if you stop to celebrate too early. Once, in the 2005 Champions League final, down 0-3, he helped make the impossible possible. It is proof that another team, right now, could make his possible impossible.

How Gerrard must feel, no one knows. To be so gifted and unrewarded, to have hope, give it up and have it returned, to run for his life and now at 33 see a finish line just when he's running out of time, is enough to freeze a man. Or release him into utter greatness.

He has the edginess of a man walking a cliff, about to fall or fly. He also has the look of a man who is powered by cause, who knows it is conviction that matters now not conceit. Almost no recent sporting interview, like his one to Sky after the Manchester City game, has been so deeply stirring, so plainly intense. When the interviewer suggested that surely the title was his now, four times Gerrard seemed to mumble an answer, like a warning, a reminder, a truth, a mantra: "Nothing's ours yet."

There is to sport one, basic, impenetrable reality and perhaps Gerrard gets it: nobody deserves anything. Nobody deserves a title. Nobody has a rightful claim just because they have a hard-luck story. Nobody is worthy of victory because they tried so bloody hard for so bloody long. Nobody deserves it because they played entertaining football, or because it's the 25th anniversary of a horrific disaster.

Sport is not that generous or kind, at its heart it is pragmatic. It is about points, goals, wins. It is about finish lines and final whistles. So Gerrard's team have to go and get it. Finish it. Complete it. For only the team who wins is the one who deserves it. Only the team who wins is remembered. Name on a trophy. Score in a book. Feats on a tape. To be possibly found even in a small shop in Calcutta.

rohitb@sph.com.sg