The football was always going to be overshadowed on Saturday lunchtime. It has been that sort of a season. At least, though, another gut-wrenching weekend of tribalism and mud-slinging, some good finally seems to have come from the poisonous atmosphere between Liverpool and Manchester United, and perhaps now we can get back to focussing on what continues to be a fascinating season in the Premier League.
It is, of course, partly the fault of the Premier League and the FA that Saturdays match found itself being the source of so much controversy to whom. Introduced as part of the well-meaning but ultimately futile Respect campaign, the pre-match handshake has become a totem for how unsuccessful any attempts to breed a culture of respect into modern football are ever likely to be. It has become just another ritual to be tolerated. Never required when there was something passing for manners on a football pitch, it became a cursory, perfunctory pastiche of actual respect from individuals that are now trained for winning at all costs that nothing else is considered by them.
And yet. Luis Suarez had a choice on Saturday lunchtime and chose not to take it. Moreover, he had led his club to believe that he would swallow a little pride and at least shake hands with Patrice Evra before the match. Even Kenny Dalglish, who had defended his player through thick and thin – to the point that he himself was being widely derided in the media and by the supporters of other clubs – must have had pause for thought on Saturday afternoon and evening over whether he had backed the wrong horse at this point. Evra didn’t exactly cover himself in glory with his over the top celebrating near Evra at the end of the match, but overall it is he that has been the victim in terms of this story, and to continue to suggest otherwise would be at best disingenuous, and this weekend, while there were a good many Liverpool supporters still seeking solace in that conspiracy theorist world in which Alex Ferguson, somehow, owns both the media and Football Association, it felt as if another line in the sand had been crossed. Questions were being asked abroad. Foreign newspapers were running editorials on the subject. This was a genie that, if it hadn’t come out of the bottle before, was all over the world, now.
On Sunday afternoon came the apologies – first from Suarez himself and then from Ian Ayre, Liverpool’s managing director. These were a welcome and overdue relief – proof, perhaps, that the world hasn’t yet completely lost its marbles. These were statements that would, of course, case controversy of their own – the statement made on behalf of Liverpool FC has, perhaps unsurprisingly, enraged the more swivel-eyed element of the clubs support, people who refuse with the zealousness of the true fanatic that somebody representing their club could ever do anything wrong, but for the moderate Liverpool supporter, there was finally something to grasp at, here – a sense that perhaps the club was finally going to engage in some bridge-building rather than digging itself deeper and deeper into its bunker.
There are some that are now questioning whether Suarez and even Dalglish will still be with the club come the end of this summer. It seems a little extreme to expect both to leave the club, but much may come to depend on how the remainder of Liverpool’s season goes. Would a League Cup be considered reasonable compensation, should the club fail to haul itself into the top four in the Premier League table? Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur are continuing to become specks in the distance and, while the continuing slump of Chelsea and Newcastle United’s first half collapse at White Hart Lane on Saturday evening continue to give everybody at Anfield cause for optimism, Arsenal are surely over the first of their mid-season slump and it still feels as f that fourth place is there for whichever club can pull itself together in the closing stages of the season.
Back at Old Trafford on Saturday lunchtime, however, Manchester United supporters also had reason to feel aggrieved when all copies of their fanzine Red Issue were confiscated by the police on public order grounds. Although there is an obvious issue relating to whether this type of enforcement should be allowed, the truth of the matter is that they are at present. Whether they should or not, however, is, of course, a matter of conjecture, but actions such as this are an illuminating and arguably alarming glimpse at what the state is capable of should it decide to act in that way. We should all, regardless of club loyalties, be digilant in our support of free speech, and this should include the right to mock rivals. There are reasons why we may have found the page referred to in this magazine – a cut out and, presumably, wave at the players and rival supporters Ku Klux Klan hood – which may be distasteful, but is no worse than most “banter” that is offered on match-days. It feels as if this was something of an overreaction on the part of the police.
Today, though, feels like the right time for a break and a clean start for Liverpool and Manchester United. It is time that the events of the last four horrendous months were put behind us and that the tit-for-tat nature of the fury between the supporters of different clubs be set aside for a while, at least. We have learnt in the hardest and most public way possible over the last few months that racism remains an issue within football – as well, we might reasonably presume, as it still is within society itself in a broader sense. It has been suggested that pressure has been put upon those that run the club. Whether this came from an editorial in yesterdays New York Times or from sponsors is not confirmed, but how the decision was made on the part of Liverpool FC is not, at this stage in proceedings, relevant. What is relevant is the club has apologised, the player concerned has apologised and that this should now be considered the end of the matter. A little peace and quiet on this subject might do us all a world of good.
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