Ken Early: Manchester needs football in times like these

Game takes on symbolic and emotional importance for Manchester United players

Manchester United's players and coaching staff observe a moment of silence to remember the victims of the Manchester bomb attack. Video: Uefa

 

“Her name is Ariana Grande isn’t it? I think about 10 days ago, two weeks ago she was in Amsterdam. The wives of some of our players went to the concert with their children. It’s something that really touches us, if it happened in Manchester it can happen anywhere.”

Peter Bosz, the coach of Ajax, had begun his pre-match press conference with a prepared statement about the terrorist attack at the Manchester Arena. “The final doesn’t have this glow that it should have. Tomorrow evening should be a football feast, but because of the events in Manchester, we’re all affected.”

Two of his players, Lasse Schöne and Davy Klaassen, reiterated the coach’s points. Schöne’s wife and child had been at Grande’s Amsterdam gig: “It’s terrible, it’s so horrible,” he said. “It takes the sparkle off what should be a wonderful day.”

With these formalities out of the way, both Ajax press conferences quickly segued into talk about football. It was clear that the men from Amsterdam were intensely focused on the final; for them, the challenge was finding a way to speak about the game without sounding excited to the point of tastelessness.

Mourinho is a planner, and he would have scripted his press conference performance a long time in advance

How the Manchester United players are feeling about it is harder to say, as no representative from the club spoke ahead of the game. Uefa had confirmed shortly after 2pm that United had asked to cancel their media obligations. For once, Jose Mourinho had not backed himself to find the right words.

Mourinho is a planner, and he would have scripted his press conference performance a long time in advance. Had it been prepared according to his usual formula, it would have been a cocktail of attention-grabbing provocations and mischievous insinuations, designed to cast United as the underdogs and Ajax as the red-hot favourites. The day after the attack, the usual formula was no longer appropriate.

That being so, what could he have said, beyond the obvious platitudes?

Professional pressure

You feel sorry for the United players, who were already under a great deal of professional pressure tonight. Whether their season is considered a success or a failure already hinged on the outcome. To this is now added a new and entirely unfamiliar emotional pressure: your city is grieving, you must not let your people down. It’s wrong and it’s unfair to the players, but it’s an inevitable consequence of the way we try to make sense of the world through stories. Manchester United play the final two days after the attack, so the final necessarily becomes part of the story of the city’s struggle to live with the attack.

Yesterday demonstrated the inadequacy of some familiar scripts in an age of massively accelerated communication. Take the script of journalists contacting victims’ relatives for comment in the wake of a disaster. This has always been an uncomfortable part of how news stories are constructed, but in the past it was at least much more difficult for journalists to locate and contact the affected people, meaning that fewer of them ultimately succeeded in doing so.

Now, panicked or grieving relatives find their social media accounts suddenly bombarded by journalists from all over the world, each prefacing their interview requests with near-identical expressions of concern. One or two such solicitations could perhaps have been taken in good faith. Dozens all at once collapse into a hideous farce. But tradition dictates that these quotes must be gathered so the system grinds on, blindly obeying its own outdated logic.

The emotion that flourishes best in the new environment is anger

All day, the collective consciousness of social media was offering up disturbing glimpses of human weirdness. Why would somebody invent a story about there being a large group of lost children waiting to be picked up at a Manchester hotel? Why would people make up claims about having seen gunmen at various other locations in the city? Why would people take photos of strangers from the internet and repost them, claiming that the pictures showed their relatives who had gone missing in the attack? When motiveless malice fuels the proliferation of lies, trust will be the first casualty, quickly followed by pity: both imply a vulnerability that is becoming indistinguishable from foolishness.

Established script

The emotion that flourishes best in the new environment is anger. Terrorist spectaculars have joined school shootings as an established script through which people express suicidal rage. It has never been easier for angry individuals to find angry mobs to join up with. If you searched Twitter for the words “Salman Abedi” after the police had confirmed this was the name of the suspected bomber, you found an extraordinary outpouring of anger, directed both against Muslims and against those who would argue that Muslims are people too.

In this context, it’s not just the essential triviality of a game like tonight’s that suddenly becomes apparent. George Orwell was never more wrong than when he wrote that serious sport was “war minus the shooting”.

The truth is that sport is the opposite of war: it unfolds according to rules that everyone understands. To care about sport, to allow yourself to be emotionally invested in what happens when 22 people kick a ball around for 90 minutes, is obviously to step into a fantasy world.

In normal times, that can seem like the sort of irresponsible escapism that is only possible when people have nothing serious to worry about. Maybe it’s only after something terrible has happened that you also appreciate the calming quality of football, its ritual reassurance. In its regularity and formal predictability, the game is a welcome counterpoint to a reality that is ever more frightening, chaotic and unfathomable.

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