United and Liverpool fans find the line
SEPT 22 — Feelings of jealousy, envy and antipathy between supporters of sporting superpowers are inevitable, and in many ways the explosive relationship between clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool is one of the best things about watching sport.
When these two teams meet, you know that it means a great deal to everyone concerned. Players are left with no option but to give absolutely everything they’ve got. You know how much the losing team will hurt; you know the joy that the victorious fans will derive.
This isn’t the everyday, humdrum mediocrity of West Brom against Norwich (no offence): this is special; this is something that people will remember for years to come.
As opposed to the marketing-generated fake excitement that engulfs much of our popular culture, Manchester United against Liverpool is real, authentic passion and emotion that genuinely and deeply matters to participants and spectators alike.
If you love sport, you’ve got to love that.
The problem, however, is knowing where to draw the line. How can you tell where a healthy sporting rivalry has gone too far and become socially unacceptable? When does loving your team and loathing the opposition — widely regarded as tolerable if not virtuous qualities in a fan — overstep the mark and become morally repugnant?
It’s not a straightforward question to answer. Let me illustrate the complexities with a couple of examples.
I’m a Southampton fan and remember going to a local derby against our bitter enemies Portsmouth a couple years ago. It was a knockout FA Cup tie and the first time the teams had met in a few years, so naturally there was a great deal of excitement.
Now, I loathe Portsmouth. I can’t tell you how much I absolutely despise them — that’s just part and parcel of being a Saints fan — and I was ready to give them the most fearful abuse I could muster. But when I arrived at the ground and happened to have a seat amongst the most hard-core of devoted supporters, it quickly turned into a very unpleasant experience.
The majority of the Southampton fans around me weren’t even watching the game — they were solely concerned with hurling vicious and vulgar abuse at the Portsmouth supporters. No humour, no self-awareness: just nasty verbal violence. The football was largely irrelevant.
I arrived at that game hating Portsmouth, really hating them; I left the game realising I didn’t hate them that much and thinking that the fans around me had taken the concept of local rivalry too far.
Another example. For many years, Arsenal fans have enjoyed singing various derisory songs about Tottenham. One of the most popular starts with the line: “My old man said be a Tottenham fan...” before quickly becoming unprintable. Nobody has ever seriously objected to that song — it’s all just part of the terrace “banter.”
But then Sol Campbell, Tottenham’s captain and star player, defected to join Arsenal. When Tottenham fans reacted by repeatedly abusing Campbell with a barrage of personal insults, they were condemned for crossing the line.
But where is that line? How can we know that Arsenal fans and their “old man” song stopped short of it, whereas the Tottenham fans had crossed it?
There’s no simple answer. There’s no code of conduct, no published document that clearly states what can and cannot be acceptably sung or chanted, or how or when. There never could be, because much of the meaning and impact of our rival-taunting comes from the subtleties of tone and context.
And what’s more, the line of acceptable behaviour regularly moves in accordance with shifts in the values of society — an OK chant for one generation becomes very much not OK for the next.
It’s not just a case of bad language. Arsenal’s song contains three strong swear words in the space of a sentence — but it’s also funny. It is delivered with deliberate comedic effect.
So too is the song beloved by Southampton fans — amongst others — that encourages fellow fans to “get your father’s gun and shoot the Portsmouth scum.” The lyrics are vile but the song never generates public condemnation because it’s expressed with a sense of levity. Somehow, it doesn’t cross the line.
This whole issue is very much in the news at the moment after last week’s public unveiling of new evidence about the Hillsborough tragedy, exonerating Liverpool fans whilst strongly condemning the actions of the police.
Last weekend, just after the evidence had come to light, Manchester United fans reacted by singing their well-worn songs about Liverpool, including this one: “Never your fault, it’s never your fault; always the victims, it’s never your fault.”
On the face of it, this appears to be a relatively inoffensive ditty in the wider context of football chants: it was sung in a cheerful and non-confrontational manner; it doesn’t contain any swear words; it doesn’t question anybody’s parentage or sexual preferences; and it doesn’t pose the threat of getting a gun and shooting “scum.”
However, it caused an enormous uproar because, in indirectly and subtly suggesting that Liverpool fans were actually at “fault” for Hillsborough rather than being the “victims”, it was adjudged to have crossed the line.
Everybody waded in. Players, reporters, social commentators — they all had their say, and they were united in their condemnation. Even Sir Alex Ferguson felt it necessary to express his disgust, strongly requesting that his team’s fans refrain from such behaviour in the future.
Whilst accepting the guilty verdict, Manchester United fans’ groups pointed out that Liverpool supporters have been guilty of similar behaviour for many years by stretching out their arms in imitation of aeroplanes, in direct reference to the Munich disaster. “If we can’t say Hillsborough was your fault,” they were implying, “Then you can’t taunt us about Munich.”
And, of course, they are right. It is wrong for Liverpool fans to sneer about an aeroplane crash that killed innocent people, just as it is wrong for Manchester United fans to suggest that Liverpool fans were responsible for the deaths of 96 of their own supporters.
This weekend (tomorrow, 8.30pm Malaysian time) the two clubs meet at Anfield. Whatever happens in the game and however fiercely the action is contested, after the furore of the last two weeks I don’t expect to hear any chants about victims or to see any impressions of aeroplanes.
And that’s because the parameters of acceptable behaviour have been publicly debated and a firm conclusion has been reached — nobody has been left in any doubt as to what can legitimately be done or said to express their hatred of their rival. For the moment, we know where the line is.
But the issue will inevitably re-emerge at another game, maybe with other teams, maybe in another country. This isn’t the end to football fans taking things a step too far. It will happen again.
The problem is this: being able to understand the line of acceptable behaviour requires people to think for themselves. Which is something that football fans — or any people in large groups, in fact — just aren’t very good at.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.