wsc302 As fans of Manchester United and Liverpool traded insults the clubs looked more similar than ever

Liverpool and Manchester United will not play each other again until August at the earliest. We should all be thankful for that. The fallout from last October's confrontation between Luis Suárez and Patrice Evra lasted for more than three months, incorporating secondary flare-ups at an FA Cup tie and the reverse league fixture. New developments were announced on an almost daily basis. Liverpool were accused of harbouring a fascist. Callers to radio phone-ins turned into linguists when debating the difference between "negro" the adjective and "negro" the noun. A pre-match handshake was subject to more forensic analysis than anything since the Zapruder film footage of the Kennedy assassination.

Pertinent points were raised here and there but the cumulative effect was utterly depressing. The central issue of how best to confront racism in football was largely swept aside in favour of dismal one-upmanship, with some of those involved clearly enjoying the opportunity to fling mud. That Evra should be barracked on his return to Anfield, where he was treated as the perpetrator rather than the victim, was greeted by some Manchester United fans as proof of the racist nature of their rivals. But then a section of the United support also sing a blatantly racist song about Park Ji-Sung, scorer of the winning goal in the return league match, which also includes the lines "you could be Scouse, eating rats in a council house".

Some Liverpool fans, meanwhile, took the FA's decision that Suárez was the guilty party as evidence their club is uniquely discriminated against by the football establishment. The fact that Kenny Dalglish was judged by most neutrals to have made a fool of himself for stonily denying that Suárez was in any way culpable seems only to have strengthened this sense of paranoia.

A lot of fans on both sides will have been dismayed, if not entirely surprised, at the general descent into abuse and bluster, but extreme voices will always shout the loudest. Just as they do in each fixture between the clubs where the regular swapping of chants about Hillsborough and Munich confirms the extremists' view of one another. That such outpourings of bile can be routinely defended as "banter" is incredible.

To outside observers, the two clubs can seem strikingly similar. Both have built huge worldwide fanbases that are of enormous commercial value and have led to their being acquired by speculators with a background in US sports. At United, the Glazers remain unpopular with the fans for having put the club into debt to fund their takeover. Liverpool's first American owners were despised for the same reason.

Their successors Fenway Sports Group (FSG) are not likely to be the subject of protest marches while they continue to fund Dalglish's rather haphazard reshaping of the squad. But they seem to have realised, belatedly, that it was a mistake to have allowed him to lead the club's response to the Suárez-Evra conflict, where partisanship emphatically trumped common sense. Alex Ferguson, in contrast, stayed above the fray until his goading declaration that Suárez should never play for Liverpool again after the failed handshake.

When FSG finally stepped in to tell Suárez to accept blame for the non-handshake and ask Dalglish to apologise for his stroppy posturing, it was a result of pressure from business partners. The club's shirt sponsors Standard Chartered publicly criticised Suárez, while an editorial in the New York Times, in which FSG own a seven per cent stake, suggested that Liverpool "needs to repair its global image fast".

That the saga made news around the world shows how, for all the mutual distrust, the two clubs are bound together. United and Liverpool will always be on the same side, for example, in any future discussion about Premier League clubs gaining control of their own overseas broadcasting rights.

Last October Liverpool's managing director Ian Ayre suggested that English clubs should be free to negotiate their own deals as Real Madrid and Barcelona do in Spain. Ayre received no backing, although it was reported that this was more due to bad timing than opposition to what he was saying among the major clubs. In 2003, United's chief executive at the time, Peter Kenyon, floated the same idea. As the clubs try to increase their global support, the nature of their rivalry will be an essential marketing tool. When Liverpool made their apologies Ferguson accepted them with a frank admission: "One thing you cannot take away is that both of us need each other."

From WSC 302 April 2012

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