Former Manchester City maverick Mario Balotelli will be remembered in the English game for many things, but prominent among those various goals, skills and misdemeanours will be his famous celebration after scoring against Manchester United at Old Trafford last season in City’s 6-1 eclipsing of their local rivals. Balotelli slotted the ball home calmly at the Stretford End, turned away with no sign of emotion on his face, and lifted his City shirt to reveal a t-shirt on which was printed the heartfelt plea “Why Always Me?”. The message, after a series of incidents culminating in a row with the emergency services when he set off a firework in his bathroom at home, clearly indicated a feeling that he was being scapegoated to a certain extent. To add insult to his perceived injury, he was booked for the t-shirt display.
Recent events, on top of a long history of prominent stories figuring the controversy and fuss that attend one football club above all others, might lead us to ask a somewhat wider version of the same question.
Why is it always Manchester United?
The furore surrounding their Champions League exit on the 5th March is fairly typical of the controversy the Champions-elect seem to attract, like flies to a bad piece of meat, on such a regular basis that you tend to wonder whether it’s just coincidence or a Machiavellian form of press-management. So “enraged” was manager Alex Ferguson after their defeat, which turned on the dismissal of Nani for what might charitably be termed a high tackle; that he refused to appear before the assembled press after the game. He was “too distraught” apparently, to fulfil his mandatory duties in that regard. To the media of course, a story about a no-show from Ferguson is a much bigger scoop than anything most managers might say in adhering to their agreed obligations. But Manchester United and controversy have gone together like port and nuts for a long, long time now.
Closer examination of the incident in focus this time reveals a worrying lack of consistency in Ferguson’s emotional reactions over remarkably comparable incidents. Nani’s liver-high tackle was described dogmatically as “definitely not a red card”, paving the way for Man Utd claims of ill-treatment and bias. A virtually identical tackle some time before, by Arsenal’s Eboue on Ferguson’s own player Evra, was also punished by a red card, but that one drew praise from the choleric Scot, who stated that the decision was “100% correct”. This apparent self-contradiction is nothing new in the world of Alex Ferguson, or indeed in the wider manifestations of the club who like to brand themselves “The Greatest in the World”.
At the end of the Real Madrid match, enraged home defender Rio Ferdinand saw fit to get up close and personal with the referee who had dared dismiss Nani, sarcastically applauding him at point-blank range. This is a widely-recognised form of dissent, and would normally merit a yellow card. The referee did nothing, and UEFA have since confirmed that no action will be taken against Ferdinand. It would be tempting to ask what sort of message this sends out to aspiring young players, if the answer were not so glaringly obvious. That message is, as ever: Man Utd can basically do just as they like, the game’s ruling authorities being so much in thrall to the club’s global profile – and the markets dependent upon its prosperity – that they will often turn a Nelsonian blind eye to such flouting of the rules, in the fond hope that nobody will notice when other clubs are dealt with more severely for like offences.
It has been said, with some justification, that one of the more hackneyed clichés in today’s game is the regular statement from the Football Association along the lines of “We have looked into (insert name of misdemeanour perpetrated by the Man Utd club or employee here), and can confirm that no further action will be taken.”
This sort of thing has been going on for many years, and while most clubs might shy away from such regular media attention of a not entirely positive nature, Man Utd as an entity appear to subscribe to the old maxim that there’s simply no such thing as bad publicity. They have displayed a talent for remaining newsworthy, certainly on the back pages and not infrequently on the front as well, more or less continually, and dating back to well before their current era of success. The incidents are many, and mostly quite unsavoury – Rooney elbowing a Wigan player and getting off scot-free, dodgy penalties too many to number, the legendary difficulty of seeing a penalty awarded against them and so on and so forth – and yet the default press position remains that the club are pre-eminent in the game for reasons of skill, charisma and courage, an apparent myth lapped up eagerly by the global fan-base, most of whom have never seen the team play in the flesh.
We hear far too much also of Ferguson’s so-called “mind-games”, a phenomenon particularly beloved of the media in this country, but one which appears to consist largely of an elderly gentleman having great difficulty sticking to the path of veracity at those press-conferences he deigns to attend. Madrid manager Jose Mourinho is one who prospers in these psychological duels – in Ferguson’s petulant absence after the game last Tuesday, he stated that “the better team lost”, and walked off, content at having fanned the flames of the Man Utd manager’s fury.
It seems though that UEFA are after all to look into Ferguson’s failure to turn up for the press after this latest controversial occasion. Presumably they will investigate fully, and a technical charge of “Sulking” might just possibly ensue. But it would be unwise to place too much money on such an outcome; it may well be that we’ll yet again hear those old, familiar words “no further action will be taken”.