The lesser of 400 evils
If we were all really good fans then we’d only be concerned for the fortunes of our own club and that of our immediate rival. There’d be no more moaning to Alan Green that your club doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Seriously, how insecure are you if you need Alan Green’s blessing? Get a grip. When you’re watching two teams you have no connection to, it should be easy to enjoy the game on its merits, taking an objective view of the contest. Except that it’s not easy to be objective, and it’s also quite boring.
We know too much about other football clubs to maintain a detached view. Whether it’s the manager, the owner, the players, or the fans; we see clubs portrayed through the entire spectrum of media outlets, and we form a view of them as a result. Our exposure to the bigger clubs is obviously far greater as we see them on TV the most.
Back in the olden days (the late 1990’s) life was much more innocent. The rule for neutrals was simple: anyone but United. You can still buy this slogan on a t-shirt, but its relevance has declined massively during the past decade, and nowadays the neutral faces a more conflicted set of options. Take the FA Cup final at the weekend. When you end up wanting both teams to lose, you’re in the football fans’ equivalent of a Mexican standoff.
Based on recent reputations, Liverpool v Chelsea represented a contest between loathsome and vile. Prior to this season, Liverpool would surely have had the support of many neutrals over Chelsea. But, while the ‘us against the world’ mentality is not new in football, for many looking in from the outside Liverpool have taken on an increasingly unpleasant form. The behaviour of their players and management has turned many against them who might previously have been ambivalent.
As for Chelsea, that their side includes some of the most unpopular players in England is widely acknowledged. But, having idols despised by other clubs is nothing new, and often serves to strengthen their bond with their own supporters. Eric Cantona was hardly Mr Popular outside of Old Trafford. The difficulty with watching Chelsea succeed in the Cup final stemmed from the behaviour of a section of their fans, who chanted ‘murderers’ during a minute’s silence in honour of the Hillsborough victims ahead of their semi-final. A small minority it may have been, but once you’re aware of their existence, they’re difficult to forget. The thought of those same disgusting fans wallowing in self-congratulatory triumph on Saturday evening was enough to leave you feeling quite ill.
There was a similar conflict when Barcelona played Chelsea in the Champions league. Barcelona are a great side and will be remembered as such, but they are also the only club to consistently out smug Arsenal. Barca be warned though, Schadenfreude is beautiful thing. As their match against Chelsea wore on, there was cruel delight to be had watching their increasingly desperate struggle to find a goal end in failure. But, the satisfaction of knowing Barcelona were mortal was fleeting. It was soon replaced by the horrifying realisation that Chelsea becoming European champions was a serious possibility.
It’s said that in Germany the rule is anyone but Bayern. Some of their domestic rivals might see the benefits of a Bayern victory in the form of extra UEFA coefficient points for the Bundesliga, but would that really counteract the displeasure at seeing Bayern reaffirming their dominance over German football, again? No, surely the only sensible option for any self-respecting Bayern-loathing German is to back Chelsea.
As for Chelsea, even if we ignore the unpopular players and recent behaviour of their fans, the fact they could steal a Champions League spot from the side that finishes fourth well mean a good chunk of Spurs, Arsenal or Newcastle fans will be praying for Bayern. For fans of Liverpool and United, it’s probably more akin to snobbery. They like to deride Chelsea’s lack of history, whatever that means, but a Champions League trophy would enhance their pedigree on the big stage. They don’t want the nouveau riche getting in on their scene.
In this context, the race for the Premier League title intrigues. Who should we want to win? If it’s not anyone but United anymore, does that mean it’s ok to want United to do it? It would almost represent at triumph for the underdog if United were to win it now. A very unromantic underdog, granted. But, it feels disproportionately cruel to deny a title to City fans who’ve seen their team relegated to the third tier while United conquered Europe, and had to suffer some of the dullest performances in the history of world football under Stuart Pearce. No, we should give City this one, but in a year or two, they’ll be on the shit list too. For some fans, they already are.
It seems to be that the expectation of success associated with successful teams means that the moment they win something they become immediately dislikeable. Therefore, if you want to be popular then don’t win things, don’t moan about not winning things, don’t have too much money, and don’t be Stoke. Unfortunately, this means in any major final you’ll probably be picking the lesser of two evils. In this scenario, take comfort in the knowledge in the guarantee that one set of players and supporters will be utterly miserable at the end, and enjoy.
Follow Michael here.