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In this game, pleasure is other people’s pain

"Piqué's net gain at Wembley", noted the Sun. Not one of the newspaper's more inspired headlines, for what was surely the national stadium's most bizarre Cup final celebration since Tony Adams threw Stephen Morrow over his shoulder in 1993.

Morrow, a semi-regular member of Arsenal's lifeless mid-1990s midfield, had just scored the winning goal in the League Cup final; Adams was
his captain. To be fair to Adams, he probably wasn't trying to break his team-mate's collarbone and he did bring grapes to the hospital the next day. The mishap also allowed the papers (Sun subs, take note) to run "Joy today, sorrow for Morrow" splashes, or variations thereof. Still, not clever.

More elegant, if equally odd, was Barcelona's cut-out-and-keep-the-goal-netting frolic after their Champions League victory over Man United
on 28 May. Unlike Adams's ill-judged jape, this wasn't a spur-of-the-moment thing. Someone had remembered to bring pairs of scissors from the Nou Camp stationery cupboard and the Barcelona snippers worked in teams, carrying each other on their shoulders to get at those hard-to-reach parts where polyethylene nylon cord meets aluminium crossbar.

The cutter-in-chief, Gerard Piqué, eventually gathered up the white netting and plonked it on his head like a makeshift veil. The ITV pundit Gareth Southgate made what sounded like a good gag about a wedding dress for Piqué's girlfriend, the Colombian singer Shakira, but the golf-club guffawing of his fellow panellists drowned out the punchline.

Grudge match

On reflection, Barcelona - Messi, Villa, Iniesta, Xavi et al - were so good that they could have carved themselves three dozen sods of Wembley turf, brought down the goalposts with the weight of their celebrating bodies in the style of Scotland fans 34 years ago and shipped it all back to Catalonia, and no one would have dared object. "Trop beau" - too beautiful - declared the French sports daily L'Équipe, a verdict on the football rather than the post-match high jinks, I believe, though my O-level French is too rusty to be sure.

But beauty is a red herring when it comes to understanding the attitude of fervent football fans. Barcelona could have hoofed their way to an ill-deserved 1-0 victory in a game lacking skill, joy or verve, and followers of Liverpool, Manchester City and 17 other Premier League teams would have been delighted all the same. Small-minded? Certainly. Petty? You bet. In a game where (relative) failure is far more likely than trophy-laden success, pleasure is other people's pain.

Some Man United followers believe that they are singled out; that the "Anyone but United" anti-fandom is so commonplace that the acronym ABU is instantly understood. Yet there are few, if any, exceptions to this kind of victimisation.

Nottingham Forest during the Brian Clough era is often held up as an example of a club that is universally admired - everybody's second team. Well, not everybody's. Try to persuade Derby County fans that it was a pleasure to see their newly promoted local rivals win two European Cups and the Championship with the former Derby manager in charge.

What of Real Madrid fans? A BBC radio presenter naively asked a Spain-based football reporter how the rest of the country was marking Barcelona's victory. The answer could be found in Marca, a sports paper published in Madrid, not so much in what was said (it begrudgingly described Barça's football as "excellent") as in the lack of column inches devoted to a victory that would have riled many in the Spanish capital.

Is this kind of hatred healthy? Probably not; certainly not when it morphs into the sectarianism witnessed in Glasgow. But better to exhaust your prejudices through football than to do so in real life.

The last word goes to Javier Mascherano of Barcelona, once of United's arch-rivals Liverpool, who showed he understood this stuff better than most. "I know some Liverpool supporters were disappointed after my exit. They were a little bit sad with me but this is for them."

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?