Liverpool are champions of England, and why the return of sports could kill people

It has been an awful couple of months for nearly all of our planets 7 billion inhabitants. COVID-19 has torn through our world and racked up a body count of around half a million — and that is only the recorded deaths we can confirm were due to the virus. Millions of others have had their lives permanently affected by the virus, whether it is because they have to deal with the longterm health effects of the virus, their lives ruined by a destroyed economy, or just dealing with the general trauma of having so many people in our communities suddenly taken away from us.

The tragedy of the world’s current situation has made it weird to feel bad about other things. My 23rd birthday and even college graduation took place in the midst of the pandemic lockdowns. These are major life events, but there was always this small bit of guilt in my mind for celebrating them. With millions of lives ruined, it felt evil to be celebrating personal accomplishments.

I felt even more guilty caring about the fate of my favorite soccer team.

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Liverpool FC entered the 2019–2020 season having not won the English title in 30 years. While they have the second most overall titles in England, they never had won the current and most popular iteration of the league, the English Premier League.

Things finally started coming together for Liverpool in 2015, though. They hired Jurgen Klopp as their new manager and he almost instantly led them to glory. Liverpool made the English League Cup final in 2016 — losing to English Goliath Manchester City on penalties. He even took the team to a European final in his first half season as manager, meeting Sevilla in the Europa League final. While the season ended without a trophy, the almost instant improvement in results for the team was exciting.

Slowly, the team began to improve. Klopp’s first full season as manager netted a placement in the UEFA Champions League, and Sadio Mane, one of his first signings, turned into a star. In 2017 Mohamed Salah arrived at Anfield and took the league by storm. Then in midseason the team added the best defender in the world in Virgil Van Djik. The team made it all the way to the Champions League final before falling to Real Madrid. They reloaded for an even bigger run in 2018 by adding the best goalkeeper in the world, Allison Becker.

Klopp finally brought his first major honor to Merseyside when the team won the 2019 Champions League, declaring themselves the best club team in the world. Still, though, they could not win the Premier League. Despite only losing one game all season, a string of draws in late spring saw Liverpool fall behind Manchester City and become the best team to ever not win the title in 2019.

In 2020 it finally looked like the Reds were going to bring home the elusive premier league title. Yet again, they only had one loss, though this time they had only drawn one game before the pandemic imposed break as well. They were unstoppable. They were the best team to ever play English soccer. At 23 points ahead of City, winning the title was inevitable.

This led to a weird few months. One on hand, caring about the fate of my teams Premier League aspirations felt trivial as the world slowly fell apart around us. On the other… I just really wanted to finally see them win the league.

I became filled with anxiety as I followed the news surrounding the Premier League. The Eredivisie voided the remainder of their season, deciding not to crown Ajax champions despite them sitting atop the standings. Ligue 1 cancelled their season as well, though they chose to name PSG champions.

If the Premier League had chosen to go the route of Ligue 1 I’d be unhappy, but understanding. Liverpool will have won the title, but it will have ever been stained by the idea that they never *really* won it. Going the route of the Eredivisie would be a disaster. Liverpool’s guaranteed Premier League title would be snatched from them. The greatest team in the history of English soccer would end up with nothing.

Luckily the league did come return to action in June. Liverpool needed a game to warm up, as they played a lifeless, scoreless, draw against their crosstown rival Everton. They were back to form after that, though, hammering Crystal Palace 4–0. A day later, goals by Christian Pulisic and Willian at the Etihad would see through a Chelsea victory over Manchester City. The Reds had a 23 point lead over City with 7 games to play, making it mathematically impossible for their rivals to catch up to them.

Liverpool had won the EPL, and set a record by doing it with nearly 2-months worth of soccer left. They finally did it, and they did it in a fashion no one had ever seen before.

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I was skeptical to the idea that “sports can make things better” in the midst of a pandemic. The idea that sports can help make things ok during a national tragedy seemed a little odd, to me, but I do understand it more now that soccer has returned.

Watching Liverpool once again became a big distraction from everything else happening in the world. I had something to actually look forward to again every week. Instead of my days at home being wasted by playing YouTube videos in the background while I play video games and take 3 naps every day, I had something to schedule my day around. There were scores to check again, story lines to keep track of and upcoming match ups to read about.

But, is that a good thing?

Pandemic related lock downs in the United States are over for the most part. The return to “normal” across the country has led to a spike in cases. States like Louisiana, Texas and Florida are seeing new cases at rates they had never seen before, and there is likely no chance their governors will impose more lock downs to protect the citizens of those states. Many college are even planning on resuming in-person classes next semester. Bars and restaurants are opening, pools and other summer hot spots are as well.

This will lead to the surge of cases growing even more. More people will get sick, more people will die.

Sports are also set to return in the United States. The NBA, WNBA and MLS all have planned return dates. Even the MLB managed to put their labor issues aside and come to an agreement to play a reduced 60-game season in 2020. The NFL reportedly also plans to return on time in September. Just like the rest of the world, sports will slowly begin to reenter American life.

Unlike the rest of the world, America has not at all done anything to solve its issues with COVID-19. New Zealand has effectively removed it from their population. Countries like South Korea and Germany have intricate testing and contact tracing systems in place that make it safe for the people of those nations to slowly go back to normal. Even Italy and England — whose responses to the virus were a disaster — have managed to pull things together.

The return to sports in other countries has also come among continued lockdowns. While the EPL is back, bars and restaurants in England are still closed. Other that New Zealand, pretty much every other nation that was struck by the virus is still under some sort of lockdown, and will be for the foreseeable future.

America is returning to sports as we return to everything else as well. Some are even speculating College Football and the NFL will allow fans for their returns this fall. And sports are a distraction, which is a disaster in the current state of American media.

The press in this country will often forget about things after a few weeks. COVID-19 remained on our national conscious for so long because it forced us all to be at home all day. To compare, the opioid crisis killed over 100,000 people between 2017–2019 and barely lasted more than a few days in national headlines — if at all.

We are attempting to return to normal before we made it safe to do so. A return to normal means our focus goes away from the virus, and instead to sports, celebrity gossip, making fun of Donald Trump, or whatever other stuff we used to waste time previously. Meanwhile, the body count of the virus will only increase. The people most likely to die are the poorest and most vulnerable of our population, and they become quite easy for the media to ignore (just look at how little the opioid crisis was covered).

The return of sports in America will be a welcome distraction to the current hellscape of a world we live in, but that may be the worst thing imaginable. People will not stop dying of the virus just because we aren’t paying attention to it anymore, and if anything, the fact that the virus will no longer dominate our collective consciousness in the coming months may allow the death toll to surge ever higher.

So as Liverpool wins the Premier League I am both excited to finally see it happen, while also feeling guilty knowing that caring about sports has just become a distraction from a much larger issue. And it is an issue that may take hundreds of thousands of more lives.

Freelance writer. Bylines in American Magazine, SB Nation and Mondoweiss. Culture and Sports.

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