It was a little after 5 A.M. on May 26 in my home in Hong Kong when Jerzy Dudek, the Polish goalkeeper of Liverpool Football Club, saved a penalty from Andriy Shevchenko, a Ukrainian playing for AC Milan. The save ended the most exciting sporting event you could ever see, secured for Liverpool the top European soccer championship for the first time in 21 years and allowed me to breathe. Within seconds, my wife had called from London, and the e-mails started to flood in--the first from TIME's Baghdad bureau, others from Sydney, London, Washington and New York City. In my fumbled excitement, I misdialed my brother's phone number three times. Then Steven Gerrard, Liverpool's captain, lifted the trophy, and behind the Cantonese chatter of the TV commentators I could just make out 40,000 Liverpudlian voices singing their club's anthem, You'll Never Walk Alone. That's when I started to cry.
Apart from the big, obvious things--love, death, children--most of the really walloping emotional highs and lows of my life have involved watching Liverpool. There was the ecstasy of being in the crowd when the club won the European championship in 1978, and the horror of settling down in my office for a 1985 European championship game--only to watch Juventus fans get crushed to death when some Liverpool supporters rioted. Through long experience, my family has come to know that their chances of having a vaguely pleasant husband and father on any given Sunday depend largely on how Liverpool fared the previous day. But what on earth makes this--let's admit it--pretty unsophisticated devotion to the fortunes of men I've never met and don't really want to so powerful?
Fandom--the obsessional identification with a sports team--is universal. The greatest book ever on the psychology of being a fan, Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, was written about a London soccer team but easily translated into a film about the Boston Red Sox. Particularly in the U.S., it seems possible to be a fan of a team that's based far from where you have ever lived, but I suspect the origins of my obsession are more common. I didn't have much choice in the matter. Both my parents were born in tiny row houses a stone's throw from Liverpool's stadium. My father took me to my first game as a small child, and from the moment I saw what was behind the familiar exterior--All those people! That wall of noise! The forbidden, dangerous smells of cigarettes and beer!--I was hooked.
We fans like to describe our passion in religious terms, as if the places our heroes play were secular cathedrals. It's easy to see why. When you truly, deeply love a sports team, you give yourself up to something bigger than yourself, not just because your individuality is rendered insignificant in the mass of the crowd but also because being a fan involves faith. No matter what its current form may be, your team is worthy of blind devotion. Belief is all. As Brooklyn Dodgers fans said in the 1950s: Wait till next year.