Touching gesture could ease rivalry tensions

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

Manchester City has sought to ease the simmering tension surrounding its rivalry with Manchester United by making a touching commemorative gesture ahead of its crucial Champions League clash with Bayern Munich on Tuesday.

City, taking part in the competition for the first time, deployed a delegation including senior club officials to lay a wreath at the memorial of the Munich air disaster, a tragic 1958 plane crash that claimed the lives of 23 people, including eight United players.

The incident remains one of the saddest moments in British sporting history and the move by City may serve to improve relations between the clubs that have become increasingly strained.

The emergence of City as a genuine contender for the English Premier League title has stoked cross-town emotions. Midfielder Owen Hargreaves' comments last week questioning the treatment of an injury while he was United player further fuelled the animosity.

Unfortunately, there has often been little sympathy from rival fans over incidents that have befallen major clubs and it is a sad reflection on soccer that sickening and inappropriate taunting still takes place at matches.

Last season, a section of City fans devised a chant about midfielder Yaya Toure that includes the line "Who put the ball in the Munichs' net?" – a reference to the plane crash and to Toure's winning goal in the FA Cup semifinal.

Last week, the vile chants exchanged between United and supporters of Leeds United caused an outcry in the British media and led to calls for offenders to be banned for life from attending matches. United fans mocked their opponents over the deaths of two Leeds fans in Istanbul in 2000, and Leeds supporters made repeated references to Munich.

City's gesture can only be a step in the right direction as English soccer seeks to rid itself of reminders of the dark days of the '80s, when crowd unrest and unacceptable language led to dwindling attendances.

"I think it is refreshing," United boss Sir Alex Ferguson said. "We appreciate that from Manchester City and, of course, one of their own former players was killed in the crash. It shows the game is not as bad as we often think. If that is the case, then well done."

Former City goalkeeper Frank Swift was traveling with the United team in 1958 while working as a soccer journalist for the News of the World and died in the crash.

The United team was returning from a European Cup game against Red Star Belgrade and the plane was attempting to take off in treacherous conditions from Munich-Reim airport when it skidded out of control, crashed through a fence and into a nearby house before catching fire.

The loss of several of the young and talented players known as the "Busby Babes" after then-manager Matt Busby, horrified a nation and stunned the soccer world.

More than half a century later, work still needs to be done to ensure that unsavory incidents such as the recent release of an internet video which shows a four-year-old boy singing what is known as the "Munich Song," a crude chant devised by City fans years ago, are eradicated.

On the field, it is a vital week for both clubs. City could only draw at home with Italian side Napoli in its opening game in the Champions League group stage and must avoid defeat in Munich to avoid falling off the pace.

United meanwhile, also drew its first match and now hosts group leader FC Basel at Old Trafford on Tuesday night.

The next time the Manchester rivals meet is an EPL clash October 23, by which time the EPL race may have heated up even further. But hopefully, thanks in no small part to City's classy action this week, the hostilities will be confined to soccer-related matters.

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