Brian Viner: Basic human decency demands end to sick jokes about Munich

'Among the dead was Frank Swift, one of the greatest to grace the Blue shirt'
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The Independent Football

Munich. For a simple six-letter word it carries extraordinary resonance, and has done at least since the autumn of 1938, when it became synonymous with an almost criminal degree of gullibility on the part of Britain's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who flew home from a meeting with Adolf Hitler brandishing a piece of paper, signed by Hitler, expressing the "desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again". The Munich Agreement, heralding "peace in our time" according to the deluded Chamberlain, was the political equivalent of the five-year contract in modern-day football, a worthless exercise in wishful thinking.

Now, it might seem flippant to bring football into a consideration of the Munich Agreement - which also amounted to a shameful betrayal of Czechoslovakia if my modern history degree serves me right - yet it is in a sporting context that the word "Munich" resonates loudest. Even then, however, it means different things to different people.

For some, it instantly conjures up a vision of the celebrated Olympiastadion München scoreboard towards the end of a football match, a World Cup qualifier, on 1 September 2001. "Deutschland England 1:5" it said, and the expressions of the England fans beneath are not so much rapturous as disbelieving. Every England fan should have a photograph of that remarkable spectacle. In the one I have there are two blokes next to each other with their eyes closed, as if in quasi-religious contemplation of the fact that for ever thereafter, however many times England might lose to Germany in semi-final penalty shoot-outs, they would be able to say, rather like Humphrey Bogart to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, "we'll always have Munich".

It is sporting tragedy, however, not triumph, with which Munich is most commonly associated. Indeed, Steven Spielberg thinks the word so evocative that he used it on its own as the title of his controversial new film about the murder of 11 Israeli athletes taken hostage at the 1972 Olympic Games by Palestinian Black September terrorists.

Despite the fierce debates about its questionable historical accuracy and moral assertions, Spielberg's film - due to be released in Britain on 27 January - by all accounts stands a good chance of bagging some major awards.

But the chance of a Bafta is not as good as it should have been. It was revealed this week that the preview DVD sent to Bafta members is unplayable on British machines. At the American laboratory where the Britain-bound DVDs were encrypted, someone accidentally pressed the wrong button. Therefore, the majority of Britain's 5,000 Bafta members had not seen the film by the time they were due to vote on Thursday.

Even before I read that story I was wondering how the film might play in Britain. At any rate, if Spielberg were British there is no doubt that he would have found a different title, for terrible as the massacre was, in this country the word Munich has a prior claim on popular sentiment, relating more than anything to the fatal injuries sustained by eight Manchester United footballers and 15 others in 54 disastrous seconds at the end of a runway at Munich Riem Airport, on 6 February 1958.

All of which brings me to today's Manchester derby, and the contemptible practice among a minority of City fans of referring to United players and supporters as "Munichs". In recent weeks the official Manchester City Supporters' Club has gamely tried not only to distance itself from this, but to eradicate it. An open letter to all fans was published in the programme for the Tottenham match 10 days ago.

"Twenty-three men, many of them young footballers yet to reach their prime, perished on the runway of Munich airport," it said. "Among the dead was journalist and former City player Frank Swift, one of the greatest goalkeepers ever to grace the blue shirt. What happened that day transcends football. It transcends rivalry. Death is not a joke; loss is not a way to goad your rivals. Those who sing songs about Manchester United's plane crash in Munich are an embarrassment to our real fans."

It is almost as heartening to read those words as it is disheartening to know that disgusting Munich-related chants will continue, not only at the City of Manchester Stadium but at many other grounds. Stopping it ought to be simply a matter of appealing to basic principles of humanity, but then it would never have started if the Lowest Common Denominator, whoever he is, understood such principles.

What is to be done? There is an argument for trusting in a rudimentary form of self-policing. On the Gwladys Street terraces at Goodison Park years ago I remember a cry of "Munich '58" going up from the home fans as the United players came out for the second half, but being quickly suppressed, in one case by a ferocious-looking man with a tattooed neck who pinned his neighbour against a stanchion and threatened, though not in quite so many words, to drag him on to the moral high ground and kick his head in.

"Maybe, while we're all huffing and puffing in outrage, there's simply no other way.

Who I like this week...

It has to be the Luton Town manager, Mike Newell, as incorruptible as Elliot Ness as he sets out to expose football's shameful bung culture, which the scapegoating of George Graham clearly did nothing to diminish. At the same time, Newell must currently be feeling rather like the little boy who rumbled the absence of the emperor's clothes. On Wednesday evening, he described some players' agents as "parasites" and "the scourge of the game", adding that millions of pounds had gone out of football that would not be seen again. This is nothing more nor less than a statement of the crashingly obvious, and Newell can hardly have expected the furore that followed. But as it intensified he promised to name names, and we can only hope that the less scrupulous agents are not fans of The Sopranos.

And who I don't

Justice Malik Mohammad Qayyum, the Pakistani High Court judge who set a pretty rotten example to those who are trying to root out corruption in football by admitting that he was somewhat lenient to Wasim Akram, following match-fixing allegations five years ago, just because he admired him as a cricketer. If Wasim was indeed guilty of, among other things, accepting a 100,000-rupee bribe to bowl badly in a one-day international against New Zealand in 1994, then if anything his brilliance as a player and his status as a role model should have led to undue harshness, not lenience.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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