Seated behind home plate inside Fenway Park, John Barnes viewed the ageless home of the Red Sox with admiration. Somehow he seemed familiar with a place he’d never previously visited.
“I like it,” he said. “I’m a traditionalist.”
Barnes is certainly no stranger to historic stadiums. Now 55, he was one of the most talented soccer players of his generation. Born in Jamaica, he moved to England as a child and rose through the ranks to become one of the greatest players in the history of one of England’s most prestigious teams: Liverpool Football Club. His mesmerizing ability to dribble by defenders and score highlight goals won individual awards and helped his team win trophies. Now retired, he’s an ambassador for the club.
He was in Boston on Monday visiting in the buildup to Liverpool’s preseason friendly at Fenway on July 21 against Spanish club Sevilla. (Liverpool FC and the Red Sox are both owned by John Henry, who also owns The Boston Globe.) And Barnes, who scored 108 goals from his traditional position as a winger in 407 career appearances, can’t help but notice some similarities between passionate fan bases.
“I’ve always felt the teams generally in New England buy into the identity of the area,” he says while watching Red Sox batting practice. “Whereas of course in America I do know that some clubs move, I know you couldn’t move any of these teams anywhere else. The identity that the fans in New England have with their sporting franchises and with the Red Sox in particular is similar to the relationship that Liverpool Football Club has with its fans. That’s what the club is.”
Like the Red Sox, Liverpool has celebrated a recent trophy. The club, which competes in the Premier League and the European Champions League (among other competitions), redeemed a loss in the 2018 Champions League Final by winning this year. The 2-0 victory over fellow English club Tottenham in May represented the crown jewel in an almost perfect season. The lone blemish: Despite losing only once in the Premier League’s 38-game season, Liverpool finished second to Manchester City.
“It depends on what you determine success is,” Barnes explained. “They finished second with 97 points this season. If [Liverpool] win the league next season on 86 points, is that a better season? They’ve lost more games and not played as well, but we’ve won the league because everyone else underachieved. That’s why in terms of what the team achieved this season in losing one game, getting 97 points and also winning the Champions League, it’s incredible. I don’t think you’ll be able to re-create that in terms of not losing matches.”
Now in soccer’s short summer offseason, the teams will soon regroup for preseason. Come July, Liverpool will arrive in the United States to play games at Notre Dame Stadium, Fenway Park, and Yankee Stadium before returning home. While some players have issues with travel-heavy preseason schedules, Barnes views it as an essential duty.
“I always say to Liverpool fans who live there and watch them at home, ‘You’re lucky, because you’re able to come to the game.’ You have other people around the world who support the club as much as you, spend the money to buy the shirts and memorabilia, and they never even get a chance to see Anfield. So therefore you have to pay respect to them and show them love as well by doing things like this with these tours.”
Barnes met with a Liverpool supporters group at Phoenix Landing in Cambridge on Monday. He seemed to understand the experience that international fans go through by supporting a club on another continent.
“Once upon a time it was that Liverpool fans have to be from Liverpool; if they’re from somewhere else, they’re not real fans,” Barnes recalled. “In fact, in many respects, they are more passionate, because why be passionate about Liverpool if you can’t watch them play? That’s real passion. That’s real support. I think it’s only right then that the club moves around to different parts of the world where they have the Liverpool family, and that’s definitely true here in Boston.”