Champions League semi-final comebacks show unique pull of 'tribal' football

Liverpool FC and Tottenham FC players celebrate reaching the Champions League final
Liverpool and Tottenham players celebrate reaching the Champions League final

Football is tribal. The pleasure comes not only from winning but from seeing others lose.

You can love your team and yet detest one a few miles away in the same city supported by people just like you.

But sometimes football connects us rather than pushes us apart. Things happen that only make sense if you are one of those in love. You see the success of others and you understand how it feels, and you share a piece of it too.

The last two nights of Champions League football still defy most logical explanation. The tactical stuff will come, and it will be fine, and fascinating. For now it is all about the emotions: of disbelief; of despair and hope swapping places with each excruciating minute; of extreme stress and giddy joy.

If you support Liverpool or Spurs you will spend the next few days floating along on a warm golden glow. If for whatever reason you loathe them, you will still understand what they are going through. Only sport can create antipathy and empathy from the same frozen moment.

Spurs fans cavorting in their little corner of mayhem high up in the Johan Cruyff Arena after their improbable late coup against Ajax, bedlam in the swaying ranks on the Kop as Barcelona were pulled apart at Anfield. Ajax's players scattered on the ground like red and white skittles.

These images are specific to the nights and the matches, yet they are universal too. If you have watched football you have lived through those same moments. You can put yourself in there, even as your allegiances place you thousands of miles away.

Liverpool players celebrate in front of fans
Liverpool's players celebrated in front of fans after Tuesday's famous victory over Barcelona at Anfield

Football gives you rivals and it gives you friends too. We all remember certain people from our past purely for the teams we know they support. A goal goes in and you think about someone you haven't seen for years and the pleasure or pain that will be flooding through them.

You see Lucas Moura tuck his left-footed shot into the corner of Andre Onana's net or you hear the incredulity in 5 Live commentator Ian Dennis's voice as Divock Origi sidefoots casually home, and you know what it will be doing in front rooms and cars - to people you have cared about, and to people you have never met.

It's why houses get shouted down and sleeping kids woken up. It's why the texts and WhatsApp messages start flying around and you dive on to social media to see your own reaction mirrored in those of strangers.

You own the moment when it is your team and you take part in it even when it is not.

All sports like to lay claim to these things. Each has its own charms and unique rhythms and seismic moments. A last-wicket stand in Test cricket, a late long-range penalty in rugby union. A putt to win the Ryder Cup, a kick down the home straight to win a 10,000m race.

Something about football is different. How fine the margins are, how quickly great deficits can be overcome.

Hakim Ziyech's shot hits the post and stays out. Trent Alexander-Arnold walks away from a corner and then has a sudden second thought.

Moments that matter, moments that seem to and then don't - Ousmane Dembele sidefooting straight at Alisson in the 96th minute at the Nou Camp with Barcelona 3-0 up and the goal gaping, Jan Vertonghen's header deep into the final minutes in Amsterdam clattering the crossbar and bouncing safe.

You get miracles in other sports. Europe come back from 10-6 down in Medinah to win it with the final putt on the final green. Japan beat South Africa in the Rugby World Cup. Scotland walk off at half-time at Twickenham 31-0 down to England and 40 minutes later lead by seven points.

Only football could make it happen twice in 24 hours. Only football has the universal hold to make so many sit up and take notice and be unable to look away.

Spurs were gone after three games of the Champions League group stage, when they had gathered only a solitary point. They needed implausible late goals against PSV Eindhoven, Inter Milan and Barcelona to make it further. In the last minute of their quarter-final against Manchester City they looked to have lost it all anyway to Raheem Sterling's brilliance.

In this semi-final alone they needed three goals in 40 minutes having managed none in the previous 140 and conceded three. They were driven on by a midfielder, Moussa Sissoko, who only recently was considered an expensive flop, and taken to victory by a hat-trick from a man who would never have started had Harry Kane been fit.

Liverpool, needing four goals without reply, without not one great striker missing like Spurs but two, up against a team not packed with burgeoning talents like Ajax but those at a peak that few others have touched: World Cup winners, Champions League winners, probably the single greatest player of all time.

Ajax players dejected at end of game
Ajax players looked devastated at the final whistle on Wednesday

A love affair with football is supposed to indicate a lack of perspective, a stunted emotional development. React like that to something you have no control over, that fundamentally does not matter, and you are a child, a dupe.

Those on the inside know the opposite is true. It generates your emotions, it sets them loose.

Maybe you should hug your best mates round the neck and scream in their faces more often, but you don't. Probably you should cry in each other's' arms for bigger things than a late goal in a game that isn't even a final. You can accept all that and still understand that football brings it all out and in ways that nothing else does.

It is brutal. When you see what Moura's goal did to Ajax's youngsters and those aghast in the stands, when you imagine being in Catalonia watching everything in Liverpool unfold as it did, you can feel those connections holding you to them too.

And you see a little of yourself too in Mauricio Pochettino, damp-eyed and wet-kneed on the pitch at the end, carried along in a mess of emotion and dumped out helpless at the final whistle, in the reaction of Glenn Hoddle, who understands better than most that this is not life and death.

We own football but it owns us too. Sometimes you have no choice but to give in. You can't fight it, not in a week like this.