Are polemics part of the football pantomime?

January 23, 2009

Spats like Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez’s recent run-in with his Manchester United counterpart Alex Ferguson are always guaranteed attention-grabbers.

But while I find stories of polemics between football’s top figures good fun, I sometimes get the impression they’re having us on.

Inter’s Jose Mourinho gave the game away some time ago, admitting he drank wine with Ferguson after matches despite their feuding in his Chelsea days.

Ferguson, especially, strikes me as someone who’s aware that he is acting a role in a pantomime which serves his purposes and helps generate interest in the game.

He cultivates an image of being surly and aggressive, possibly so that the media, referees, players, agents etc know that he takes no nonsense.

But at the news conferences I’ve attended for United’s frequent visits to AS Roma over the last few years, I’ve detected signs that underneath he is actually a sensitive, charming man.

There are little things, like the way he’ll slowly and clearly repeat garbled questions from British journalists that the nervous young interpreter has not understood while giving her an encouraging pat on the hand.

No doubt some of the controversies are genuine. I don’t think Kevin Keegan was pretending to be wound up when he went on his famous “I’d love it if we beat them” rant during his first stint as Newcastle United manager.

But with a lot of the controversies, the party on the receiving end will probably fire back indignantly in public, while privately admitting to themselves that they would have done the same as the aggressor if the roles had been reversed.

Mourinho has already started ahead of Inter’s Champions League last 16 tie against United by calling for Nemanja Vidic to be banned from both legs because of his sending off for violent conduct during the Club World Cup final.

In a separate interview on the same day, he described Ferguson as his “friend”.

As they say in gangster movies, it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.

PHOTO: Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez during a Liverpool v Chelsea match in 2005, REUTERS/Ian Hodgson

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