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Hillsborough Chants, Heart Attacks, and Italian Ultras: Forging Respect for Opposition Fans

Liverpool fans were on the receiving end of hateful chants by Manchester United supporters last week, but is there a more respectful way forward for football supporters?

Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images

Liverpool enjoyed a resounding win over arch rivals Manchester United last week in Europa League action, the final 2-0 scoreline kept conservative only due to the heroics of David de Gea between the sticks. If there was a dark side to the match, it was the chorus of chants sounding from the away end as the Manchester United faithful sang early and often a variety of derogatory tunes in their songbook.

Reds fans are used to opposition clubs singing about them — former captain Steven Gerrard captured the record for being the player with the most songs about him outside of his own club — but things take a dark turn when opposition fans think a football match is an appropriate place to sing about the Hillsborough and Heysel disasters. Manchester United issued an apology after the match, stating that these chants don't reflect the values of the club, but not much more was promised beyond a hope that the club can work with their fans to prevent such a thing from happening again in the future.

With Liverpool visiting Old Trafford on Thursday for the deciding tie in their Europa League knock out round, there is concern that travelling Reds might reciprocate their experience last week with their own chants about Munich, the tragedy in Manchester United's own history, as they have in past visits. Time and time again, supporters groups remind us that away fans are responsible for the atmosphere that is packaged and sold as an integral part of the English football experience; these fans are positioned as the best representation of us, and it's more than a little disappointing when they demonstrate the worst instincts of a fan base.

Ian Doyle called for an end to the Hillsborough, Heysel, and Munich chants in the Liverpool Echo on Sunday, citing the very old but very correct adage that two wrongs don't make a right.  He's not wrong that the singing of these songs needs to stop. But in calling for an end to these chants, Doyle excused similar chants that exist on the same continuum. The songs about tragedy are not just inexcusable due to the fact that they're about the deaths of dozens of people, though that's an important factor; they're problematic because they're ad hominem attacks on fans when none are necessary.

Fans sing about Hillsborough, Heysel, and Munich not because they're ignorant of what those songs mean, but because they know it's disrespectful and hurtful. The issue isn't, as Doyle suggests, a lack of education on the matter but an utter lack of respect and empathy for fellow fans. Liverpool fans are routinely mocked for the unemployment rates Merseyside experienced in the 1980s after its shipping industry declined significantly and Margaret Thatcher's policies took their toll on its populace. Those aren't songs borne of ignorance, they're songs designed specifically to kick people when they're down over things that have nothing to do with football and everything to do with their every day survival.

The problem isn't the songs, though they're a factor. The problem is a fan culture that at its worst takes pleasure in reveling in the misfortune of others; the songs are merely a symptom of this culture, though not the cause. The nature of tribalism, of belonging to a group of people with whom you form an us-against-them approach to life, is one that lends itself to this sort of thing as its logical extension. But as fans we make choices about how we want to engage with that fandom, and where some make the deliberate choice to "support" their own team by mocking the dead or the impoverished, others choose a more enlightened approach.

Last week, the Guardian shared the story of Nonno Ciccio, the oldest ultra in Italy. Ciccio is ninety years-old and has been a fan of US Foggia, who have been out of Serie A for over twenty years and currently ply their trade in Italy's third division, since 1937. A veteran of World War II, Ciccio's experiences in a Scottish prisoner of war camp have had a profound impact on his guiding philosophies, stating that "It taught me what it means to have and respect life." Ciccio's passion for Foggia has taken him up and down Italy over the years as an away supporter, carrying with him a banner that states plainly "Peace between ultras."

"I don't celebrate when I am away," Ciccio explained of his travelling support style. "I admire the other fans and support my Foggia by waving my flag, and let the boys know I am there for them. That is my philosophy."

It's a good one. It's not impossible for fans to show each other respect even as their teams do battle on the pitch, and the Bundesliga experienced the ultimate example of that this weekend when a Borussia Dortmund fan suffered a heart attack and died mid-match as his Schwarzgelben beat Mainz 2-0. News of the fan's death quickly spread around the stadium, and Dortmund president Reinhard Rauball commended both sets of fans for their response to the tragedy.

"I can only pay a huge compliment to all of the fans for the way in which they expressed their sorrow and respect in this way, in a unified manner," Rauball said after the match. "I take my hat off to the Mainz fans who, without exception, joined us in mourning and stopped supporting their team.

"The scarves held in the air when You'll Never Walk Alone was sung has my utmost respect. It shows how deeply rooted honour and respect of each other exists and can be expressed in such a short period of time, and I can only take my hat off to that."

That Jürgen Klopp's two former clubs came together to sing the anthem made famous by his current club should set the standard for Liverpool fans in the coming week as they make their preparations for their second match in a week against Manchester United, whether that's at Old Trafford, in a pub, or on social media. It's not an impossible ask to rise above the poor behaviour of opposition fans, no matter how strong the urge to respond in kind to a previous provocation. It's time for a more respectful approach to football.

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