SPORTING VERNACULAR No 9 FRIENDLY

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The Independent Online
Three images from the "friendly" encounter between Newcastle and Manchester United at Wembley:

Four Newcastle supporters grab a Manchester fan and swing him out over the Tube tracks.

A Manchester supporter (male) and Newcastle fan (female) take turns to bellow "Red army" and "Toon army" at each other in rhythmic antiphony, noses inches apart and faces distorted with passion.

A Newcastle fan sidles up behind red-shirted supporters and spits expertly at their heads. He has done this so much that he is running out of saliva, which means no one notices and he does not get the fight he is clearly anxious to provoke.

The first two, almost incredibly, were jokey expressions of enmity which quickly resolved into mutual backslapping and laughter - the third was a nasty utterance of real malevolence. But, given the intensity of the rivalry expressed, who could confidently guarantee that the former might not tip over into the latter at any moment? Perhaps that is why the smiles people wear in the presence of these roaring exchanges have a slightly strained look, a reminder that when primates grin it usually means they're frightened.

On the pitch you see similar ambiguities: Cantona wrenches an opponent to the ground, arousing the ear-splitting indignation of the Newcastle crowd. What's "friendly" about that, you wonder, before Cantona, after looking suitably contrite for the referee, walks over to clasp his victim's shoulders, a gesture much closer to self-exculpation than it is to confession. "Look, we're friends," it says, "I can't have fouled him."

In sporting terms, of course, a "friendly" is simply an encounter where the result doesn't really count ("point-less" might be a punning alternative). Watching a "friendly", with its theatre of attack and retaliation, it's possible to wonder whether the unique sort of "unfriendliness" fans display to each other offers one answer - a demonstration of how sport provides a place where aggression, rage and the will to defeat your opponent utterly can play safely in the open. If you're lucky, at least.

Thomas Sutcliffe

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