x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Ugliest side of the beautiful game

Being a fan gives one right to speak one¿s mind about a game and not just about anything – particularly if it is sensitive, writes Richard Jolly.

Manchester United supporters attempted to goad Liverpool fans into songs about the Munich Air Disaster during the match on Sunday. Followers of the Anfield club got on to social networking sites to wish Mark Halsey death from cancer. The referee was criticised for red-carding the Liverpool midfielder Jonjo Shelvey, pictured, for a challenge. Paul Ellis / AFP
Manchester United supporters attempted to goad Liverpool fans into songs about the Munich Air Disaster during the match on Sunday. Followers of the Anfield club got on to social networking sites to wish Mark Halsey death from cancer. The referee was criticised for red-carding the Liverpool midfielder Jonjo Shelvey, pictured, for a challenge. Paul Ellis / AFP

The biggest problem in football is not the players, arrogant and overpaid as many are. It is not the agents, greedy and grasping as most seem. It is not the owners, although the motives of some can be questioned. It isn't even the administrators, despite the incompetence of some and the allegations of corruption within Fifa, the world's governing body.

It is the fans. Not all of them. Not even the majority. But the section of the support who ignore the basic, unwritten laws of human decency are the single worst element of the game.

There was something sadly predictable about events at Liverpool on Sunday when tributes to the victims of the Hillsborough disaster were tarnished by the actions of the unpleasant.

Liverpool and Manchester United, England's two most decorated clubs – indeed two of the greatest in the world – behaved impeccably on Sunday. Some of their followers did not.

Hundreds of the United supporters tried to goad their Liverpool counterparts to sing songs about the Munich Air Disaster. Later, whether referencing the Heysel or Hillsborough tragedies that claimed a combined total of 135 lives, they chanted "murderers".

After the game, Liverpool fans on the social networking site Twitter wished cancer and, in at least two cases, death from the disease upon the referee Mark Halsey.

A likeable, lenient official given a difficult game, Halsey has survived cancer. His wife is still battling it. For the record, this view is that Halsey was correct to dismiss Jonjo Shelvey and to ignore Liverpool's appeal for a penalty. But that is not the crux of the matter. Nor were the words of the Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, who disagreed with Halsey's decisions, but did so reasonably.

The cancer was used as a method of attacking Halsey. Did it matter to the vitriolic that Rodgers lost his father, Malachy, to throat cancer? Or that Marina, the wife of his predecessor and the club's greatest player, Kenny Dalglish, has recovered from breast cancer? Or indeed that Dalglish has raised around £6 million (Dh35.76m) to treat cancer sufferers at local hospitals?

Almost certainly not. Those willing to ignore the wishes and the exemplary conduct of Rodgers, Dalglish and Steven Gerrard on one half of the Merseyside-Manchester divide, and of Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Bobby Charlton and Ryan Giggs on the other seem to revel in broadcasting unacceptable views.

Dalglish and Ferguson have picked many a fight, some of them petty, over the years, but each recognises that, inverting Bill Shankly's famous phrase, matters of life and death are far more important even than football. To use the United manager's words, there is a line in the sand you do not cross. Except that line can be washed over by a tide of hate.

In one sense, Liverpool and United are simply paying for their popularity. The bigger the club, by the law of averages, the more morons in their support. But this is not simply about Liverpool and United.

Football's tribalism compounds its problem; from misplaced attempts to claim the moral high ground to the playground argument of "they started it", people are keener to find fault with others than themselves. The internet has given a voice to the hardliners, who sometimes seem to be in a contest to voice the most extreme views before watching them travel around the world.

At some clubs, the more eloquent have a form of legitimacy, a platform to deliver poisonous opinions. That is virtually never used to censure their own, and invariably deployed to attack outsiders.

As the unfortunate Halsey has discovered, there is a scapegoat culture where, rather than admit to the failings of their own team, the easy option is to blame the man in black.

Some supporters exhibit the levels of paranoia of conspiracy theorists, forever thinking the world is against them. Few arguments of why there should be institutionalised bias against their club stand up to even the slightest scrutiny, but that does not stop such theories being produced and promulgated.

But football has long struggled to determine what can and cannot be said. Many a club will abide by the sporting omerta that they should never condemn their own fans.

It took United far too long to voice their disapproval of the thousands of supporters calling Arsene Wenger a paedophile. It is as though they think it would be a self-destructive move to denounce their own followers even if a silent majority of the selfsame fan base are repulsed by the lunatic fringe.

At the same time, footballers often seem to think they should be exempt from criticism. That is not the case. The supporters who pay their wages, either directly or indirectly, are perfectly entitled to boo their own team, to call for the manager's dismissal or to make up chants mocking their own players. That is entirely legitimate behaviour, much as it irks many within the game.

Fans pay their money and are entitled to view their opinion. But only on footballing matters. When it comes to issues like Hillsborough, Heysel, Munich and life-threatening diseases, they have a human requirement to show an appropriate level of respect. And too many cannot.

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