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STEVEN PHILIPP BURNS WAS BORN IN LIVERPOOL ON 25 MAY 2018. Liverpool Football Club is clearly in Steven’s blood. His dad, Tom, even ensured that he was named after club legend and fellow Liverpudlian, Steven Gerrard. Burns has grown up a stone’s throw from Stanley Park, within view of Liverpool’s iconic old stadium, Anfield. Today, however, to mark his son’s 10th birthday, Tom is taking Steven to watch his beloved team play in the flesh for the very first time. In Adelaide, Australia.

The journey to Adelaide, all things considered, is fairly straightforward and hassle-free. Steven spends most of the first flight to Singapore sleeping, and the second buzzing with excitement, either glued to his Play7, leading his beloved Reds to glory in a digital, make-believe world, or watching endless clips and interviews of the real team via LFCTV on his SenseAll.

His dad passes the journey by catching up on email correspondence and, in a somewhat nostalgic mood for his own childhood, listening to the likes of Oasis and The Coral. As he listens, he remembers back to the last Liverpool match he attended in 2017, a year before his son’s birth. He begins to think about how the game has continued to change in the decade since.

The fact that this should be Steven’s first match – and most likely a one-off experience at that – is a far cry from the match-going experiences of older generations of the Burns family. Steven’s father, Tom, born in 1987, stood on the famous Kop for his very first match in 1992 as Liverpool overcame Nottingham Forest 2-1 in their first home match of the new Premier League, as the English top-flight had just been christened.

He soon became a regular at Anfield, a proud Kopite, idolising the likes of Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Gerrard. He also travelled far and wide across Europe to follow his team. He was there in Istanbul in 2005 as a skiving sixth-form student, then taking almost a week to get back home from a less euphoric night in Istanbul 10 years later after Liverpool had gone out on penalties to Besiktas, and in 2014 was sacked from his job following an impulsive last-minute decision to travel to Madrid for a midweek Champions League group match, only to see then-manager Brendan Rodgers field a weakened side.   

Steven’s grandfather, also called Tom, was similarly fanatical. He remembers being a small lad hoisted up and passed down over the mass of heads in the crowd to the Boys’ Pen at Anfield in the glory days of the late 1960s and early 70s. Kevin Keegan was his hero, and he was at all those European Cup finals when Liverpool truly were the Kings of Europe. Rome, London, Paris, Rome again. Ticketless both times in Rome, they were anecdotes for every occasion.

His great-grandad, Albert, belonged to a different age altogether. He was born in 1942, with Britain halfway through the war with Germany. Right up until he passed away last year, he would regale the whole family, above all his great-grandson, with tales of the Liverpool he had known; tales of the Boot Room, of Tommy ‘The Flying Pig’ Lawrence, of Emlyn ‘Crazy Horse’ Hughes and, of course, of the emblematic and charismatic Scottish manager, Bill Shankly.

Even his grandson, Tom, would be fascinated each time at being reminded of how in the 60s local derbies would be played on back-to-back days: one on Christmas Day and the next on Boxing Day. Continuous moaning from managers of the bigger teams meant that a domestic game in the festive season has not been seen since 2019. It is even claimed in Burns folklore that Albert didn’t miss a league game at Anfield between 1960 and 2011, when he surrendered his season ticket in protest at the state of the Hicks-Gillett regime then in place at the club. Nevertheless, he could not resist following the team for the rest of his days. At his funeral the club’s emotive anthem, You’ll Never Walk Alone, rang out as the coffin was carried out of the church.

As they arrive in Adelaide, both father and son are instantly amazed by the ubiquity of their club. Flashing billboards, club shop, adverts, videos, branded snacks, club-themed bars and restaurants – the lot. Last season it was the illustrious Inter Milan who had held residency here, spending half of their EuroLeague campaign here and in the process painting the town black and blue. However, this time around, little trace of Inter remains as Adelaide is painted red. The home of Adelaide Liverpool for the England Global League 2028 season. Or, as everybody all over the world refers to it, the EGL. This is, let’s face it, the real thing.

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First introduced in 2026 after successful trial runs the previous two seasons of the ’39th Game’ – playing an additional match of the season on neutral and exotic ground – the EGL consists of 16 teams. To make this cut possible, at the end of the 2024/25 season, five teams were dropped and only one was promoted.

The league was created under the banner of creating a way of bringing English football to the entire globe. Cynics have argued that it has long stopped being the English game and this marketing approach is a contradiction in itself. And the fact that Celtic Football Club – both Swansea City and Cardiff City were victims of the five-team axe – have been given a seat at the table has not deterred it from being marketed very much as the ‘English’ Global League. This season they compete as Seattle Celtic – or Seattle ‘Celtics’, depending on who you ask – and are playing their home matches at Seattle’s 69,000 capacity CenturyLink Field, where all the seats have been painted green in the club’s honour. 

The introduction of season-on-season team name changes for those competing in the EGL has been a controversial issue for a few years now – most of all, hardly surprisingly, in the respective cities of origin of each of the clubs involved. Most club owners have tried to appease these outraged supporters by insisting that the ‘club’ name will always remain the same. The change of even the biggest clubs continues to bemuse, baffle and outrage the longtime football supporters.

What was once the north London derby played in north London has this season been played in Seoul and Sydney, while the Manchester derby has been contested in Beijing and Mexico City. Last season these four matches took place in Beijing, Bangkok, Melbourne and New York respectively and enjoyed an accumulated attendance of just shy of half a million people. Ultimately, though, once the idea had been proposed, the insuppressible excitement of residents within or near the respective host cities at the thought of being included in the season ‘team’ name made the change inevitable, financially speaking.

Newcastle were the first to buy into the idea of losing the place name altogether in favour of financial riches, agreeing to ditch the ‘Newcastle’ title in favour of their historical nickname ‘Toon’ when they agreed to the club adopting the name ‘Shanghai Toon’, much to the rage of those from, well, Newcastle. This season they compete as Taiwan Toon, and four other teams have joined them in the decision to ditch their place of origin from the team name: Sydney Hotspurs, Shanghai Saints, Bangkok Villa and San Fran Hammers.

Changing the club’s home colours to red for their year in Shanghai had also been strongly sounded out but the plan fell through at the last moment when it was decided that the black and white combination was something of a novelty in the EGL. Supporters of the club have struggled to protest too vehemently against the club’s management after the team came so close to winning the inaugural 2026 EGL title – 99 years after the club last won the domestic league title.

The season dates have gradually been shifted and this is the first year that the season can truly be sold as ‘Season 2028’, as the organisers have long desired. The campaign begins in February and is wrapped up in time for Christmas. Mid-season intervals have been introduced for European-based international tournaments.

For example, this season there has been a hiatus for the 2028 European Championships in Germany – the tournament reverting to having just one host country following two editions of the host duties being shared across several countries. Likewise, there will be a mid-season break for the 2030 World Cup taking place in England, 64 years after the country last hosted the tournament. The 2026 World Cup in China, however, simply took place throughout January.

The SKY Champions League continues to be the stellar competition of so-called European club football. Paris are the current champions, having broken Manchester City’s two-year hold on the title. The tournament continues to be played in the original home stadiums of all the clubs involved, although if certain managers get their way, this could also get moved to either Asia or else be changed into a month-long competition in February, with a format similar to that of the international World Cup.

The Huawei Euro League has grown in prestige in recent years with the winners now awarded – ludicrously – a bigger financial reward than the winners of the Champions League as well as automatic qualification to the Champions League for both finalists.

 


ENGLAND GLOBAL LEAGUE 2028

Adelaide Liverpool

Bangkok Villa

Birmingham Shenzhen

Everton Kuala Lumpur

Manchester Beijing United

Manchester Mexico City

Queens Park Manila Rangers

San Fran Hammers

São Paolo Leeds

Seattle Celtic

Seoul Arsenal

Shanghai Saints

Sydney Hotspurs

Taiwan Toon

Yokohama Chelsea


 

Gone are the days where a stadium tour for a visitor simply involved being shown the ground before being left to peruse the club museum. Now, live streams are fed through to the training bases when possible, ex-players are utilised to give many of the tours and, most surreally of all, realistic match-day surround-sound is blared out – something which is also utilised during many youth games played at UK home stadiums – as special real match footage is projected on o the pitch via holograms.

And, of course, two EGL games a season are still played at the original home stadiums, though it is no longer the first and final games of the season due to complaints in the inaugural season that most of these final games were, in fact, dead rubbers. A weekly rotation system now determines which team has the UK-based match. 

Inevitably, Sky Sports offer packages to armchair supporters which brings them closer to the action than ever before. Last season saw the introduction of PlayerVision and will be available for every player from next year. Cameras in the dressing room capture pre-match, half-time and post-match team talks, following which the likes of Brendan Rodgers, Roy Keane, Adam Lallana and an increasingly weary-looking Harry Redknapp discuss the relative strengths and weaknesses of each exchange and tactical instruction.

GoogleLive has combined with the EGL to offer vantage points from various areas of the stadium to try to offer the experience of the match-going fan as well as the possibility to contribute to the in-stadium singing, which is instantly transmitted into the surround-sound systems in place in all EGL stadiums.

Back in Adelaide, the day of the match passes by in a loud, bright, and somewhat hazy blur. Liverpool Adelaide, sitting third in the table, are up against Shanghai Saints, who linger above the relegation places. In the morning, Tom finds the amount of pre-match build up on local news channels remarkable and, hearing the Australian accents discussing the match with so much assurance, has to remind himself that this is actually his club, Liverpool, that they are talking about.

A few hours later, outside the stadium, food from seemingly every corner of the world is available and the screens, which seem to be everywhere, show footage of Liverpool’s season so far. Tom decides against buying his son a half-and-half Liverpool-Saints shirt to commemorate the special occasion. Thankfully, Steven seems happy enough in his new mid-season crimson red Liverpool shirt, which cost his parents the best part of £200.

The stadium is a sea of red. Steven looks around, mesmerised to see so many people together supporting the same side as him, while his father looks in vain for a section of away supporters somewhere amongst the Liverpool support. An Aussie-tinged ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ is belted out once the two glass screens containing the teams have slowly disappeared to reveal the line-ups, to a backdrop of various pyrotechnics, music and introductions from the on-pitch stadium announcer.

Liverpool finally open the scoring on 70 minutes and both father and son leap from their seats, Steven in delight and Tom in a mix of delight and relief, having been nervously asking himself if it was really possible that he could have taken his son across the world for a goalless draw. Once the initial rush of joy passes and music blares out over the tannoy, Tom realises the lack of interaction amongst those around him, as so many seem to now be staring at their screens, recording the moment on their phones.

A well-taken second Liverpool goal to wrap up the victory is scored in the closing moments by Trent Alexander-Arnold, the only player who remains on the scene from Tom’s last game in 2017. Tom applauds but can’t help feeling that the moment of sheer delight has passed and will probably never return. Steven, however, is beaming and sings along to the chants with the crowd.     

UK-based supporters of most English league clubs do not have to travel to the other side of the world to see their team play. And, it seems, most of these are extremely happy about it. Take Leicester City supporters, who since 2020 have been playing in the second tier and on only a couple of occasions have they flirted with the prospect of a promotion battle.

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“It was amazing, the year we won the Premier League. Incredible memories that I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren about,” says Chris Nimmo, Leicester fan. “Honestly, best time of my life. Vardy, Mahrez, Ranieri, it was incredible. But now that they’re all playing in Japan and God knows where – it feels so soulless. It’s just for money. I’d much rather be down here in the Championship, following my team, up in Sheffield, down in Bournemouth. Being at the game. If we get promoted then I won’t be able to watch my team properly. I’m not saying I’d rather get relegated than promoted, but… ” he tails off, with resignation.

Of course, on some level, the chance to compete with the best is missed. “The sad thing now is that we don’t get to go on away days to the iconic grounds, like Anfield, St James’ Park, Old Trafford. But then again, even their own fans hardly get the chance these days.” 

Swansea City supporter, Ryan Williams, sees the situation similarly. “Getting relegated has been a blessing in disguise. I haven’t missed a Swansea game in about 15 years but would I be able to even get out to watch them once if we got into the EGL? No, I can’t see it. Not at all.”

The recent EGL setup has thrown up some bizarre stories too. With official training bases of almost half the non-London clubs in the EGL having been relocated to London to ‘attract top talent’, it can be difficult to decide just who exactly is a local player. Take talented ‘home-grown’ Newcastle full-back Kyle Richards, who came through the Newcastle youth ranks and joined the first-team squad at their London base four years ago as a promising 16-year-old.

Now 20, he explains how being generally based in London and having so many international commitments means he hardly ever gets to go back to his hometown. “It’s a bit strange, to be honest,” he admits, in his strong Geordie accent. “Luckily my mum and dad moved down to London with me, but if anything that’s meant I’ve got back up home to the north-east even less. I haven’t seen some of my best mates there for a couple of years, maybe more. But that’s just the way football is these days, I suppose. I can’t complain.”

There is also Danny Verts, now captain of Sheffield United, safe from the heady heights of the EGL. A product of the Manchester City academy, great things were expected of him, however his fear of flying meant that playing in the EGL was not a feasible option. City employed psychiatrists and tried all sorts of methods to coax his fear out of him but it was all to no avail. Few dispute that his talent could have seen him play week-in, week-out in the EGL but, as a result of his fear, he has also been the victim of ridicule from both the press and opposition fans.

On the flight back home, Steven rewatches the match in its entirety and video calls his friends and family to tell them all about it. Tom spends much of the time looking out of the window, reflecting on the experience. It has been important to give Steven the opportunity to see his team. He can’t help thinking, though, that going to watch the local team has taken on a somewhat strange journey over the years. Just like the sport itself, which was what made him take a step back from the game in 2017.

It was not specifically the fact that his season ticket had surged up in price every season, nor was it because Manchester City had spent the best part of £170 million on defenders in one calendar year, or because Paris spent this same amount on an 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé, or because contracts had clearly come to have nothing to do with loyalty. It was because of all of this together: football had gone too far, a shameless mission for the rich to outdo the others with their riches.

Greed and extravagance had become the driving forces and the supporters, like Thomas, who had always been there, had finally grown disillusioned. It meant Steven only got to his first match aged 10, in Adelaide. It could be a very long time until his second 

By Eamonn Foster