The FA Cup may well be the oldest football cup competition in the world – a fact that television viewers will doubtlessly be reminded of around three hundred times over the next seventy-two hours or so – but football supporters that don’t have to habitually wipe rage-induced spittle from the corner of their mouths could well be forgiven for approaching this weekends fixtures in the Fourth Round of the competition with a degree of trepidation. The draw for this weekends matches was as kind as it was unfair to the Football Association. A flagging competition needs a “big” match in each round, and it got it in the form of a trip to Anfield for Manchester United. But this match is more than just a renewal of old rivalries and an opportunity to claim a place in the last sixteen of a venerable – if somewhat grubby, these days – cup competition.
We don’t need to go over the Suarez affair or Liverpool Football Club’s terrible handling if it yet again. That much is, outside of the red half of Liverpool and the madder elements of those of the opinion that political correctness has gone mad, a given. What is, however, perhaps worth reflecting upon is the extent to which this particular football match, to be played by two national and international institutions, and which should be a showpiece occasion for the Football Association and – let’s face it – the nest of vipers that is the Premier League may well end up being remembered for many of the wrong reasons.
Somehow or other, Liverpool versus Manchester United has become a football match at which societal norms and common decency take a back seat, at which a race to the bottom over who can conjure up the vilest song has produced a whole subset of furious chants which frequently have little to do with anything other than a shared and mutual loathing. It has been said that this tendency has been diluted in recent years, but the events of the last four months or so should ensure that any hopes of that being the case today will be diluted to such an extent that they become an irrelevance. Whether about the deaths at Hillsborough, Heysel or Munich, or relating more specifically to individuals, today will like be a simultaneous race to the bottom coupled with a scramble to assume some sort of moral high ground. How many people, we may wonder will claim outrage over some song of petty, tribalistic bullshit before launching into their own or having already done the same?
There are many supporters that will tell you that the football world should be grateful for this, that this match remains one of the last bulwarks against the gentrification and sanitisation of modern football. It’s an argument that would be more appealing if it wasn’t for the nagging suspicion that, rather than merely moving the moral goalposts for a day or two, this match has a tendency to remove them altogether. This is compounded, of course, by the manipulation of threads of common decency. The calls of moral outrage over songs about Hillsborough or Munich sound pathetically hollow when you know that a mirror image of this shit is concurrently being flung in the opposite direction. Even for those that can stomach such songs, the hypocrisy of the “he said, she said” nature of the attempt to seize the moral high ground can be nauseating.
Moreover, the shadow that these two behemoths of English football cast over the rest of the game is so great that there is no escape from it all. Those that wish to remind us of the apparent fact that the number of people that were asphyxiated – had the life squeezed from their bodies – at Hillsborough or that an accumulation of slush on an airport runway meant that a plane couldn’t get attain enough speed leading to it subsequently crashing will doubtless make sure of that. This perpetual cycle that will and can never be fundamentally resolved one way or the other – after all, it survived through Manchester United’s twenty-five years without a league championship and has continued to flourish as their star waxed and Liverpool’s waned – will eat up all before it today.
And yet, and yet. If we can tune out the worst of the excesses of those that choose to behave as if the last few million years of evolution was something that can be dropped at will, there remains something special about this match. It’s Anfield vs Old Trafford, That Night In Barcelona vs That Night In Istanbul, Bill Shankly vs Matt Busby, The Kop vs The Stretford End. There is merit in saying that matches such as todays fizz and crackle with the sort of electricity that is missing from most matches in England these days. And while we may shake our heads at those whose moral compass goes berserk on days such as this, it would be foolish to try and claim that there isn’t something about this match that doesn’t make rubberneckers of us all. The policy that seems like it might work for this afternoon is to try and tune out the mentally challenged and enjoy the occasion, whilst bearing in mind that the only people continuing to describe the Suarez affair as a miscarriage of just are making foolish of are themselves. If physical injuries are minimised, then perhaps the rest of the world can just sit back and enjoy the bizarre rituals if those that loathe a group of people from forty miles up the road, with whom they have far more in common than they ever seem likely to appreciate.
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