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Rivalry and enmity are not different points on some sliding Darwinian scale

2012 May 2
by Paul Vallely

The rest of you will almost certainly, by now, have forgotten a football match that took place on Monday. Up here in Manchester we have not, though for reasons that go well beyond the soccer pitch and perhaps say something wider about human relationships.

To football folk the victory of Manchester City over Manchester United on Monday evening’s was not just the most important game in Britain this season. It also may well have marked the turning of a tide, in which the fortunes of United, who have been the dominant force in British football for two decades, ebb even as those of their cross-city rival flow to a new high-water mark. But the events which have surrounded that offer an interesting insight into the difference between rivalry and enmity.

Competition between siblings is one of humanity’s oldest realities. Creation and fall may have come first but the very next thing was Cain and Abel. It is thus one of the foundational stories of Western civilization. Writers have been fascinated by the phenomenon from Shakespeare’s Lear to Bart and Lisa in The Simpsons. And Charles Darwin, saw it as a key component in his theory of evolution. Nature offers some fairly stark examples of that: as baby sharks grow within their mother’s womb, the biggest baby devours all his brothers and sisters; the first-born eaglet kills all his siblings by pushing them from the eyrie as they hatch.

But there is far more to sibling rivalry than two individuals fighting over finite resources, whether or food or affection. It was interesting that United’s manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, in the far-off days when he could afford to be disparaging about Manchester City, referred to them as his “noisy neighbours”. There is something about the concept of neighbourhood which is not quite compatible with the idea of full-throated aversion. There are too many interests held in common.

That was brought home to me at my regular gym session before Monday’s match. My fellow exercisers are equally divided between United and City fans and those with a disregard for the whole business. Yet all, in their different ways, even the latter group, have seen the positives in the rise of Manchester City since it became the plaything of the oil billionaires of Abu Dhabi.

That is clear in the openness of the conversations. Yes, there is the ribbing of rivalry but discussions go deeper. For every City supporter hoping that goals by the ex-United player Carlos Tevez will secure the Premiership title for City there are others who feel his petulance has disgraced their team. Equally there are some United supporters who feel he was badly treated by Sir Alex Ferguson, and wish the player well. There is a wider interest in seeing brilliant football played, even if supporters would prefer to see their team win.

There is none of that in the relationship between United and their longest-standing foes, Liverpool FC. What is on display there is not rivalry but enmity of the bitterest kind. There is a real malevolent animus in the chanting of the United fans – still calling the Merseysiders “murderers” over the 1985 Heysel stadium disaster, goading them over their traditionally higher levels of unemployment and accusing them of “eating rats in your council house”.  The Scousers reciprocate with distasteful chants of their own about Munich; they even make aeroplane noises. There feels more to it than hyperbole.

Enmity implies an absence of commonality. The difference between it and mere rivalry is far more than one of degree. Benefit for one implies harm to the other, in a way entirely lacking from the relationship between the two halves of Manchester, where the success of either, or both, reflects well on the city. If I lived in Glasgow, of course, I might feel very differently. But then mixing football and religion is another matter entirely.

The Church Times

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