Offence is a very interesting thing. We all have our boundaries and we all have things that set us off foaming at the mouth with rage, when, most of the time, it’s just words. And it’s interesting to see how the context of those words changes how much offence is caused: think back, for example, to various tragic events throughout modern history. As soon as they had happened, you were receiving sick jokes via text message or email about Jade Goody or 9/11. But had one of those jokes been broadcast or published, it would be an entirely different story. There would be apologies. And resignations. And Daily Mail campaigns.
On Monday evening, live on Sky TV, Manchester City struggled to a 0-1 victory at Ewood Park. It wasn’t really a deserved victory – not that I’m complaining, because the number of times City have lost and not deserved to down the years certainly seem to outweigh the reverse – but that appears to be the last thing that is being talked about this week. And you can see why, as a brand new chant was aired by the visiting fans, regarding the team’s success in the FA Cup semi-final.
It went as follows: “Who put the ball in the Munichs’ net? Yaya, Yaya Touré.”
While I wasn’t at Ewood Park and only heard the chanting second hand, it was pretty clearly coming through the TV’s speakers. And that may not be a trustworthy measure of how prevalent the chants were, after all broadcast sound can be boosted and dropped based on positions of microphones and the levels they are set at, unfortunately it didn’t appear to be a minority of the visiting fans. This was confirmed by one of my friends who was sitting in the away end.
It’s odd, though. The general usage of the word ‘Munich’ to describe Manchester United or their fans had appeared to have died down in recent years. Of course, it hadn’t disappeared completely, but the number of fans choosing not to use it and frowning upon it seemed to be rising. Even Carlos Tevez crossing the divide of the city and choosing blue over red didn’t appear to trigger too much of a revival; while the expected “Carlos Tevez is a blue, he hates Munichs” has been aired, it has, on the whole, been quashed by an alternative version that ends “he hates Fergie”. Plus that tended to be drowned out by the ironic “Fergie: sign him up!”
But then, on Monday night, there it was again. Belted out loudly from the away end; needlessly, too, given that “Who put the ball in United’s net?” scans just as well. Obviously, though, it’s just not as offensive to Manchester United fans.
Which is why the point about offence is interesting. Do Manchester United fans have a right to be offended by it? Yes, of course. Does that mean Manchester City fans shouldn’t sing it, because it causes offence? No, it doesn’t. Does the fact that twenty three people died make it crass, crude and disrespectful? Yes. And that’s where I’m going with this; the Munich air disaster wasn’t a disaster for football, rather a disaster for humanity. There are some things that transcend rivalries, no matter how fierce they are. And this is one of them.
Some will argue that singing “Who put the ball in the Munichs’ net?” has nothing to do with the air disaster, but rather more to do with winning an FA Cup semi final. To an extent, that’s true: the song in no way is an attempt to make fun of the dead. However, the nickname itself is. Is there really that much distinction between singing about the disaster and creating a nickname for a club based on that disaster? Not really; after all, if it had nothing to do with the crash, then why mention Munich?
I’ve heard several fans defend the term because it’s a mockery of United’s treatment of the injured players in 1958, such as Jackie Blanchflower or Johnny Berry, who were evicted from their club-owned houses when it became clear they’d never play football again. Or that the club wouldn’t remove a sponsor from a memorial banner out of respect. Or that Eric Cantona was paid almost twice as much to appear in the 1998 Munich testimonial game than was paid to each of the victims’ families out of the proceeds.
But how many people understand that this happened? How many people understand that some people choose to use the term ‘Munich’ to mock the club’s actions taken after the disaster? Very few; in fact, I’m willing to bet that a large proportion of blues that do use the term don’t understand that, either.
The problem is, though, that young fans see the behaviour as acceptable. They will join in with the songs and use the nickname, without truly understanding the meaning behind it. In their eyes, it’s just a word that is a derogatory name for Manchester United fans. It has nothing to do with death, grief and tragedy. I wonder, too, how many realise that Frank Swift and Matt Busby, both on the plane as it crashed, were former City players.
Of course, it isn’t just City fans. Other clubs, such as Liverpool and Leeds, have had rivalries with United that have resulted in songs about the Munich air disaster and songs where United and their fans are referred to as ‘Munichs’ being sung. United have their fair share of fans who will sing about the death of Marc Vivien Foé or the Heysel or Hillsborough disasters, too. But two wrongs don’t make it right; you can’t take the moral high ground and be offended by opposition fans’ songs about your club’s tragedies and then return fire with something equally as offensive.
I have no desire to defend the actions of those City fans that do sing about Munich, largely because I don’t believe they should be doing it. Whatever the reason for doing it, it casts the club in a bad light; Monday night being the perfect example: a good victory that put City four points clear of Tottenham on level games has been totally overshadowed. Ignored, even.
Think back to February 2008. City travelled to Old Trafford on the weekend of the Munich 50th anniversary and there were great concerns that a minute’s silence would be disrupted by the visiting fans. And it wasn’t; the fans of both clubs paid a fitting tribute to the people who lost their lives in the crash. The City manager at the time, Sven Goran-Eriksson, recently described the day as one of his career highlights and the minute’s silence as a moment of civilisation; a day when respect was paid, regardless of allegiance.
We were impeccable that day, but there’s clearly a long way to go for us to be impeccable every day. It matters not that other clubs do it, we can’t control their fans. However, as City fans, we can control ourselves and we should be able to respect what happened over fifty years ago. We did ‘the Poznan’ for Neil Young, yet we’ll sing about the deaths of others, simply because of the team they played for.
People died. Perhaps we should remember that before we think about some silly little football rivalry, which, when it all comes down to it, is nothing short of insignificant. As humans, we can be better than this.