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On the Continued Weariness of Tribal Football Discourse

A global fanbase often has to rely on remote connections to a club, but this certainly has its drawbacks

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Josep Guardiola Manager of Manchester City reacts on the bench prior to kick off in the UEFA Champions League Semi Final Leg Two match between Real Madrid and Manchester City at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 04, 2022 in Madrid, Spain.
Josep Guardiola Manager of Manchester City reacts on the bench prior to kick off in the UEFA Champions League Semi Final Leg Two match between Real Madrid and Manchester City at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 04, 2022 in Madrid, Spain.
Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

In two competitions over the past week Liverpool has experienced polar opposite opposition discourse landscapes.

Villarreal went out against Liverpool in the Champions League semi-final after launching a deserved comeback in the first half of the second leg. Before and after the match, manager Unai Emery was complimentary about Liverpool’s skill level, commenting that the Reds deserved to play in the final — though that his side had much to be proud of after their unprecedented run.

While some in the UK media (well, TalkSPORT mainly, which, well...) were bafflingly disrespectful about Villarreal’s approach, the general feeling was one of mutual respect. Off the pitch, too: Villarreal fans were lovely in the city during the first leg, perhaps best exemplified by Yellow Submarine fan Javier Valle Cebrián, who brought over a “Justice for the 97” flag and was warmly welcomed across the city.

In the second leg, Liverpool fans were surprised when many Villarreal fans stayed after the match to shake hands; a friendly night out, which echoed Liverpool in the first leg, ensued.

While certainly not all matches are (or should be) this friendly, the joy in the football and the mutual respect is largely absent from domestic competition, where the discourse tends to be driven by negative clickbait and “picking sides.” We don’t need to be friends, but surely delighting in our own team doesn’t require constantly denigrating each others’?

Manchester City went out of the Champions League to Real Madrid, but Pep Guardiola’s side remain in the driver’s seat in the Premier League — all the more so after the Reds dropped points at home to Tottenham on Saturday.

Despite their pole position and general quality, Guardiola used his post-match comments to bafflingly discuss Liverpool, and touch on perceived slights on the part of the media.

When Carrie Brown asked Guardiola about the chants of “Campione” outside the ground and City’s generally strong position in the title race, the Manchester City manager weirdly used his time to talk about how Liverpool is treated in the English media.

“Up until one week ago everyone in this country supports Liverpool, the media and everyone. Of course, because Liverpool has an incredible history in European competition, not in the Premier League — won one in 30 years...”

It’s important to note that Brown asked Guardiola to comment on the strength of his own side, and to discuss fan belief in their second consecutive title. He was asked to talk about the mood in the side as they looked to maintain domestic dominance. In this context, the choice to not answer the question and instead focus on Liverpool is in itself is strange, leaving aside the point Guardiola made — itself arguably not at all correct.

In 2019/20 many of us remember the calls for Manchester City to stop Liverpool from winning the title in order to “save football.” This season, no English pundit predicted that Liverpool would win the league, and most predicted Liverpool to finish outside the top two (generally Manchester City, Chelsea, and Manchester United held those top three slots). Mark Lawrenson alone predicted Liverpool would finish second.

In the non-Liverpool podcasts I listen to (plug for Stadio and Wrighty’s House on Ringer FC, where none of the presenters support Liverpool), neutral pundits wax lyrical about the quality of Liverpool and Manchester City — as they should. These are two of the best teams in my lifetime, and their skill can and should be discussed in this way.

Some journalists have criticized Manchester City’s ownership model — as they do to PSG and now Newcastle, and as they did to Chelsea, to an extent. Plenty of fans online certainly use the money spent (and its source and purpose) to criticize the project that Guardiola is leading. That this discussion of sportswashing is taken as anti-City bias feels strange, since no critic discounts the pure quality of this Manchester City side — indeed, while Eddie Howe was asked to speak on the human rights record of his club’s new owners, this has not stopped plenty of press from commenting on the brilliant job Newcastle has done to entirely evade a relegation battle.

It’s important to note that Liverpool get criticized as well — the most recent being Si Hughes in The Athletic on the club’s choice to sell NFTs, where Hughes discusses how the drive to compete at the top of world football can lead to business decisions that are unpopular with fans. While this article was torn apart by Liverpool twitter (any criticism in this tribal landscape is taken as betrayal or conspiracy), I personally believe that criticizing the club from within it’s own media bubble is important; it should not be left to those who don’t support the club to critique choices that they feel disagree with the club’s values, lest you get the very “us versus them” landscape that Guardiola seems keen to posit.

Jürgen Klopp’s comments in response to Guardiola’s outburst suggesting Manchester City is set against the entirety of the English football-watching public is brilliant and simple: Effectively, that all managers say things they wish they could take back in the heat of the moment, and that Klopp does not feel that he has the rest of the country behind him. He laughed it off.

That doesn’t make the narrative — and the resulting discourse on Twitter and on message boards — less exhausting.

On a more serious note: simultaneously to the discussion around Guardiola’s suggestion that Liverpool are well-loved by the media and the country, the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust quietly released a statement denouncing the songs sung in the away end, emphasizing that some things are not fit to be used as banter. Tottenham are not the first supporters’ trust (or club) to release such a statement this season, though many other clubs decided simply to not acknowledge it when the songs were sung.

The national media rarely comments on such things, though regional journalists certainly do.

In this context, can it be said that Liverpool more “well-liked” in the media? There’s no way to tell, but it’s certainly not the impression I get. We do get written about a lot, but then so do Manchester United.

Media structures tend to be cynical, and the clubs that get the most clicks tend to get the most coverage. In podcasts covering English football more generally (and I mention these because they’re less reliant on clicks in comparison to traditional written media) both Klopp’s Liverpool and Guardiola’s City seem to be relished equally for the footballing spectacle they create. Most of the positivity for Liverpool seems to stem from the idea that having a title race is better than not having one: one team winning the league at a canter every year gets boring quickly. I don’t think the media landscape would differ if it were different clubs involved.

Online there seems to be a very simple “to get engagement, go the ‘Liverpool is bad’ route” rule at play, but message boards and Twitter timelines are not real life.

Out and about in real life, I think neutral support is mixed. Plenty of people like Guardiola’s City and especially players like Kevin De Bruyne. Plenty of people like Klopp’s Liverpool and the team he has built (barring Manchester United and Everton supporters, who are very in favor of Chelsea, Manchester CIty, and Real Madrid at the moment).

At the end of the day, though, it doesn’t particularly matter what supporters and pundits outside the club have to say about one’s own club. Arguing about it can be exhausting, for any number of reasons (from the pointlessness to the hypocrisy).

This exhaustion is why, I think, it’s so disappointing to see a manager like Guardiola try to further such a debate. Our clubs are both very very good; as fans, we should be left to enjoy the ride.

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