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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?

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.