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Opinion: How can football fans be expected to show respect for the opposition when the players rarely do?

The sport needs to look in the mirror, writes Paul Fennessy.

Luis Suarez's behaviour has been less than admirable since his arrival in the Premier League.
Luis Suarez's behaviour has been less than admirable since his arrival in the Premier League.

IN THE BUILD-UP to Sunday’s clash between Liverpool and Man United, fans were bombarded with relentless platitudes urging them to ensure ‘the spirit of the game’ remains intact.

However, for a while now, a cynical attitude has prevailed in Premier League football, in which teams adopt a Machiavellian and at times morally vacuous win-at-all-costs mentality – a factor that completely undermines the sense of goodwill, which managers and players repeatedly insist the game’s followers should adhere to.

Before Sunday’s match, the teams’ respective managers quite rightly urged both Liverpool and Man United supporters to show respect for one another. And while the majority in the stadium consented to these pleas, there was a minority of fans intent on ignoring any pretence of respect for the opposition.

Sadly, this was no real surprise, given that in the past, certain Liverpool fans have been known to sing offensive chants about the Munich air disaster, while a minority of United’s supporters have often made light of the Hillsborough disaster in unison.

The easy option for all those associated with the so-called beautiful game would be to accept that the sport is inextricably linked to these unsavoury individuals, and to insist that quelling their misbehaviour entirely would be next to impossible – an excuse to not deal with the problem essentially. Yet in truth, football is in dire need of reform from the top down, and it is time its authorities underwent a degree of soul searching.

Ironically, there was a perfect illustration of how low attitudes in the sport have sunk, even among its most eminent representatives, in the immediate aftermath of the United-Liverpool game.

Sky pundit Gary Neville presumably echoed the widespread calls in football for the United and Liverpool players to show respect for one another and act in a dignified manner during the game. Such behaviour seemed especially important, particularly given the current level of sensitivity arising from recent revelations regarding the Hillsborough disaster. Moreover, the hostility stemming from handshake-gate last season was an extra reason for players to be more conscious than ever of the need to conduct themselves in a responsible manner.

Liverpool’s Luis Suarez (left) and Manchester United’s Patrice Evra shake hands prior to kick-off of the Barclays Premier League match at Anfield (Peter Byrne/PA Wire/Press Association Images)

Yet Neville patently undermined the football community’s laudable intentions during his analysis of the game. Reviewing the events leading up to the penalty that ultimately led to Robin van Persie scoring the winning goal for United, Neville singled out an incident in which he claimed a Liverpool player had “to take [the United attacker] down,” inferring that his failure to do so was somehow erroneous. If the footballer in question had acted accordingly, his side would have avoided the subsequent concession of the penalty and consequently, held a greater chance of emerging triumphant from the contest.

For Neville to advocate what is essentially cheating and then to join in in the ringing endorsements and cliches about ‘having respect for the opposition’ and ‘some things being more important than football’ seems extremely hypocritical.

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Moreover, Neville has shown himself to be far less than a paragon of virtue in the past. On separate occasions during his analysis work last season, he has both intimated that diving is a legitimate act, and backed embattled Blackburn boss Steve Kean, along with their owners, despite clearly being in an invidious position with respect to the matter. Yet still Neville remains widely revered for the perceived excellence of his punditry – an indication that he is not the only one who subscribes to these cynicism-fuelled notions.

And no doubt, the ex-Man United player would claim that diving and deliberately fouling the opposition represents a pragmatic ‘gamesmanship’ rather than cheating. This argument, however, seems flimsy at best.

There is a fundamental dishonesty in committing such acts, which surely should not be misrepresented. Moreover, if what Neville is saying is accepted, where does gamesmanship end and intolerance for certain behaviours begin?

If Neville’s words are regarded as legitimate, then perhaps the ill-advised language that John Terry used to abuse Anton Ferdinand can also be dismissed as ‘gamesmanship’. Going a step further, maybe some people will suggest those lurid chants aimed at United and Liverpool players yesterday merely boil down to the fact that those singing them were attempting to put the opposition off their game and thus, they can also be partly justified as ‘gamesmanship’.

Similarly, when Alex Ferguson calls for United and Liverpool fans to behave, these words ring a little hollow, given that the Scot has consistently acted ignominiously over the years, particularly in his bullying treatment of referees and in his stark refusal to acknowledge his players’ wrongdoing, even in cases where they are obviously the guilty party.

The type of dogmatic club-first attitudes that Ferguson, Neville and so many others are regularly demonstrating is ultimately harming the game. Unsurprisingly, their actions are somewhat infectious, and many of the more impressionable football fans have emulated such ill-conceived loyalty to their clubs, at the expense of common sense and decency.

Yet not only have these supporters mimicked the unwavering and at times sinister devotion that these managers show to their employers, they have concurrently taken such behaviour to new extremes – the unseemly effects of which could be heard sporadically at Anfield on Sunday.

Consequently, bad behaviour among players prompts bad behaviour from supporters, and so, to paraphrase a well-known saying: every sport gets the fans it deserves.

Read: Column: The full story of the Hillsborough disaster is still to come>

Read: Mancini can’t explain tunnel bust-up with Balotelli>

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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