October 1, 2021 | LIFE | By Joshua Kalenga | Illustration by Emmaline Hawley
In some ways, the beautiful game ruined my life. The day my beloved Liverpool lost the UEFA Europa League final to Villarrael, I sat alone in my room, pondering whether I’d ever believe in anything again.
But anyone who’s fallen in love with the game knows that it’s a poster child for monogamy. Four years later, I once more sat alone in my room — this time with lifted spirits after some of the most difficult months of my life. Liverpool had just won their first ever Premier League title.
At a time when all that was certain was the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the club’s success felt like a warm, grounding hug from a loved one. My phone buzzed with congratulatory messages from family and friends who could feel how much the win meant to me, even from a continent away. All of a sudden, I felt a few miles closer to home.
At home, in Zambia, talk about the national soccer team is a lingua franca. My memories of the last time I visited the National Heroes stadium in Lusaka are blurred, but I do recall drowning in a sea of green and orange shirts as I walked in, sitting down to the deafening noise of the crowd, and embracing the stranger on my right when we scored.
Soccer has always been a means by which I’ve connected with others. At my high school — a boarding school disconnected completely from the outside world via a ban on cell phones and computers — my soccer friends and I still found ways to connect over our shared passion.
We scoured week-old newspapers in the library for soccer news, peaked into our teachers’ homes to catch glimpses of matches on their TVs, passed notes around during class with scribbled lists of our favorite players.
When we weren’t talking about soccer, we were playing. In many ways, playing the game has always felt like a meditative experience for me. 90 minutes to block out the rest of the world. I find it fitting that many legends of the game — Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho, Diego Maradona — played as though they were ‘one’ with the ball.
I gave up on my dream of becoming a professional soccer player as a young boy after coming to terms with my ability (or lack thereof). It was not a heartbreaking decision. I always knew deep down that my favorite places to be were the stands and the sidelines, and I admit to still harboring dreams of coaching at a high level.
Recently, however, I have also found solace in the world of soccer literature. I’ve been reading mostly about soccer data analytics, a dream career of mine. Some people ask me why I want to ‘quantify something that [I] love’ but I don’t see it that way.
To me, caring about something also means aspiring to know as much about it as you can. My head and my heart are usually in conflict, but a white flag is waved when it comes to soccer.
Data is just one way of telling stories about the beautiful game. The sport has also captured my imagination by other means. I will never forget the whirlwind of emotion I felt, watching at 4 a.m., when Liverpool completed a comeback from three goals down against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona.
I confess that I’m a sucker for romance and my idealism makes me more vulnerable to sappy sports drama. However, I believe that there are a million places to see beauty in the world and it’s important to find meaning and purpose in some of them.
Soccer just happens to be the one for me.
Jurgen Klopp, coach of Liverpool FC, put it aptly: “For me, football is the only thing more inspiring than the cinema. You wake up in the morning, and the magic was all real.”