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Fanatical about ‘the beautiful game’

18 May 2011

The friendly rivalries of football can spill over into hatred, says Paul Vallely

I think I may have crossed a line at the weekend, and I’m not altogether happy about it. I’m talking about a football match — except that I’m not. I’m talking about something wider, and deeper, I think. I say that in the hope of retaining any readers who are not interested in football, as I wasn’t until a few years ago.

It changed for me when my son, at about the age of seven, became interested in football. I thought it would be a good dad-and-lad bonding activity to go with him. That was four years ago, and I seem to have caught the bug.

Living in Manchester, as we do, or Trafford, to be more precise, a friend asked me why I had not taken my son to watch Manchester City. There is a myth in these parts that true Mancunians support City, and that it is only outsiders who support United; Cockney Reds they call the supporters who get the train up from London to support United week by week.

It is a fond delusion of City supporters. The United ground holds a third more than theirs; so, even deducting the outsiders, that still leaves a vast majority of local people, as you can hear in the accents. Anyway, I didn’t take my son to the match; he took me.

From early on, I learned that there is something binary about the identity of the football supporter. You do not just support your team, you also revile or denigrate your opponents. But I had learned that with my head, not my heart.

For United fans, the main rivals, rhetorically, were their cross-town correlatives, City. The worst football chants were about our fellow Mancs, but the real opposition was Chelsea, Arsenal, or Liver­pool. City were just a joke team with failure written into their DNA.

Not any more, though: thanks to the oil-bonanza billions of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, of the Abu Dhabi royal family, City have not just assembled a squad of international stars, they knocked United out of the FA Cup, which they then went on to win last weekend.

Watching the match, I found myself rooting against the Sheikh’s band of extravagantly overpaid mercenaries, and cheering on the other team, Stoke, and feeling galled when they lost. Be careful you don’t become a bitter Red, a fellow supporter warned. It was a chastening admonition. Previously, I had fallen into a concentric paradigm of supporting. I quite liked the idea of City’s winning, so long as they were not playing United. It was all good for the place where I live. But then something shifted.

So when does healthy rivalry become un­healthy? We know too well that it can from the parcel bomb sent to Neil Lennon, the manager of Celtic FC, along with the physical assault on him by an opposing fan who ran across the pitch to hit him.

Football in Glasgow has become bound up in the vituperative sectarianism between Celtic’s Catholic supporters and Rangers’ Protestant ones. Sport has become the vicarious vehicle for carrying the bitterness of Northern Ireland over to the mainland. Binary opposition has become more than a way in which people define their identity. It has become a pathology.

When is that line crossed? It is when competition ceases to benefit all those involved, because healthy competition can promote the common good, just as obsessive rivalry can destroy it. It is something to do with a loss of a sense of proportion. It is what happens when irony evapor­ates, and we forget that it is, after all, only a game.

So, when a City fan at the gym said of the FA Cup win, and United’s record-breaking 19th victory in the English League: “Great for Manchester, isn’t it?” I replied that indeed it is. Now I just have to learn to mean it.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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