Culture

Football and envy: A green-eyed fact of life

WHEN Liverpool won the Champions League for the sixth time, there were as many bricks thrown at the club as bouquets. Supporters of Liverpool’s closest rivals, notably Manchester United and Chelsea, begrudged the success of the Reds, using all sorts of excuses for why they had won the competition and, unable to be over negative about the team, turned to criticising the fans and their behaviour and revived taunts of old, from high unemployment in the city (“in your Liverpool slums”), to Heysel Stadium and even Hillsborough. Not everyone dislikes Liverpool, but when you have big bodies of fans like United and Chelsea bitterly denying the club any success, it must seem like the world is against them. Certainly, the incessant abuse of a club guarantees that siege mentality builds-up and those on the end of constant criticism become the victim. In some respects, it strengthens their resolve.

We see it everywhere there is football rivalry. Arsenal fans, no great lovers of Liverpool, were urging on Klopp’s team because they couldn’t bear the thought of Tottenham winning the UEFA Champions League. Football fans spend too much time “hating” their rivals or enemies and not enough time extolling the virtues of their own club. Just watch Arsenal fans during a game and how many times they refer to Tottenham, not least in demanding that everyone should “stand up if you hate Tottenham”. Interesting, given that Arsenal are really “Johnny come latelies” in North London and extremely more successful than Spurs and therefore shouldn’t be too worried about them if they were confident about their own standing.

An assured club shouldn’t fret about a local rival as it would be far more “grand” to not worry about the fortunes of another club. Do Real Madrid and Barcelona worry about their neighbours, do Bayern Munich get all bent out of shape about TSV 1860?

But it is unlikely to ever be any different in football. Why? Because the game is, essentially, a very simple function – win, lose or draw. One goal changes everything. The objective is to kick or head a ball into a goal, there’s nothing very sophisticated about it – football is, after all, an illiterate game. Therefore, the result of a victory for one, a defeat for another, becomes the catalyst for taunting, goading, abusing and poking fun. All very basic emotions adopted by the masses. Losers envy winners and try to explain defeat with a dose of “what aboutism” or envy of the victors’ greater strength.

From the very top of the game to grassroots level, football is a sport where the green-eyed monster of jealousy comes to the fore time and time again. The game has always been one where competitive imbalance has governed who wins the prizes and who struggles – the current landscape is extreme, but you can go back 100-plus years to find examples of clubs having financial advantages and wealthy benefactors. Rarely, if ever, has football been a democracy, but it has had “eras” where clubs have risen to the surface – such as Preston North End in the 1890s, Huddersfield in the 1920s, Arsenal in the 1930s, Manchester United in the 1950s, Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s and United again under Sir Alex Ferguson. The most recent drivers, of course, are Chelsea and Manchester City, the most obvious examples of inflated investment in the English game.

Chelsea and Manchester City are the subject of envy, as much as Liverpool are, but for different reasons. Liverpool, along with Arsenal and Manchester United (the traditional leaders of English football) have demonstrated envy far more than any other club, regularly bleating about the injustice of clubs with heavy investment. It’s easy to see why, for after decades of being the game’s royalty their position at the summit was threatened by Chelsea and City. They choose to ignore the fact they have all enjoyed the spoils of being better financed and, effectively, bigger than their peers for years.

Liverpool fans, equipped with their banners proclaiming their history and ethos, like nothing more than to tell the likes of Chelsea that they have “no history”. Actually, before Bill Shankly arrived at Anfield, Liverpool had seen better days. Likewise, Manchester United’s cupboard was bare before Matt Busby was appointed as manager and Arsenal were nothing before Herbert Chapman moved down from Yorkshire. Each club has its pivotal moment when they become transformed from average entities to serial trophy winners – in most cases, the spark for success has been created by an outstanding managerial appointment. For Chelsea and Manchester City, the seismic moment in their history came from the arrival of cash-rich owners. No matter what Liverpool fans think, both clubs certainly “have a history” but it’s just that it wasn’t very successful. If, to quote an old football cliché, you’re only as good as your last result, then Chelsea and City are very successful and Liverpool’s recent “history” has been patchy to say the least. Too much gap between when you created your heritage and today means you’re more likely to hear someone humming a famous Jethro Tull song while standing on one leg – i.e. Living in the Past.

Envy in non-league football is equally intriguing. Any club that has a new ground invariably has its detractors complaining about new stadiums, no atmosphere and not enough this and that. Usually, such criticisms are because club X’s ground is ramshackle, falling down, but sells itself on “character” and “unique ambience”. Furthermore, club X’s fans and officials might try to dismiss their own club’s lack of progress by giving you 101 reasons why a similar venture could not possibly be successful at their club. The envious fan will also suggest that rivals with bigger budgets are the beneficiaries of cash from a dubious source. Today, that might be money laundering, drugs, tax evasion or property development that attempts to game the system.

Of course, the non-league playing budget is a subject of great contention and rarely is the truth spoken. A club chairman with any integrity would not/should not reveal his team’s budget to an opponent. However, the budget becomes something that can massage the ego, either to boast of how much the club can afford, or to play it down and suggest they are getting value for money from a modest outlay. Either way, you cannot believe much of what is said about budgets.

The tension between clubs fuels envy more than any other aspect of the game. There’s nothing wrong with healthy rivalry, it’s an important part of football, but ultimately, it should not deny the winner the spoils – the contest is a two-horse race and there are over 2,000 of them each season in the Premier/Football league. There’s nought so myopic as the committed one-club fan and even the most intelligent football follower gets caught up in the pettiness of what amount to playground spats. Basically, it is all about aspiration – the little club wanting to be Manchester United. Everyone, in their own way, wants the same thing, but the problem with football is that when somebody actually reaches the finishing post, the sniping starts. As Morrissey sang: “We hate it when our friends become successful”.

Photo: PA

2 comments

  1. Great piece Neil. I’ve always laughed at the accusations of ‘no fans’ that the scousers throw at Chelsea. In terms of attendances, the record gate at Anfield would stand as the 67th highest at Stamford Bridge and it was they who created the toxic atmosphere between both sets of supporters that exists today. They rant about the rich owners of Chelsea and City, but fail to mention the backing they received from the Moore’s pools empire when nobody else could compete with them financially. As the saying goes, “appalled by everything, ashamed of nothing.”

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