Liverpool v Manchester City histrionics are leaving nobody in credit including Klopp and Guardiola

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The Liverpool manager is taking legal action after comments made about him, but perhaps it’s time to step back and see how unedifying all this is.

Perhaps it was always inevitable that football’s increasing tendency towards trash talk would end here. If anything, the news that Jurgen Klopp is preparing legal action in relation to comments made surrounding the clash between Liverpool and Manchester City serves as a reminder of the extent to which the game lives in a parallel universe to the rest of us.

Somewhat predictably, reporting of this latest twist to this particularly tiresome tale has already been a little muddy. It doesn’t seem that Klopp is preparing to sue Manchester City, rather media outlets who repeated claims from the club that Klopp ‘had inflamed tensions ahead of the match’ and that the manager was ‘borderline xenophobic’ in his choice of words.

Defamation is a much-misunderstood word, a catch-all for the publication of a statement which has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to a reputation. For the purposes of litigation, this is broadly divided into two forms: libel, which relates to a defamatory publication which is permanent, including written material (books, newspaper and magazine articles, or material published online), as well as allegations appearing on the television or radio. It can also include publications which are relatively short-lived or fleeting, such as social media posts. The considerably less common slander is more transient by nature, and is usually meant to refer to the spoken word.

There are four main defences available to a defendant in a libel or slander action – truth, honest opinion, publication on a matter of public interest and privilege – and the first two of these seem particularly relevant in this case. Truth is a complete defence to a claim of libel or slander, if it can be proved that the allegations published are substantially true. The burden for proving this rests with the publisher.

Honest opinion is a defence to a defamation claim if the publisher can show that what they published was presented as opinion rather than fact. The basis of that opinion has to be clear and it has to be an honest opinion that anybody could have held on the basis of available information (the so-called ‘man on the Clapham omnibus‘ test).

Do the comments aimed at the Liverpool manager meet the threshold for being actionable? Well, that would obviously be for a court to decide. A court may consider that describing him as ‘borderline xenophobic’ stop just short of that line, or they may consider the insertion of the word ‘borderline’ to be little more than a weasel word, intended to give a fig leaf of legal cover for the intention of calling Klopp a ‘xenophobe’.

It wouldn’t be the first time that Manchester City’s owners have reached for this sort of claim when criticised, either. At the end of the 2018/19 season, when Javier Tebas made comments about the club and FFP, club chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak responded by saying: “There’s something deeply wrong in bringing ethnicity into the conversation. This is just ugly. The way he is combining teams because of ethnicity, I find that very disturbing to be honest.” Tebas hadn’t said anything whatsoever about ethnicity.

Of course, we can to and fro indefinitely over who said what about whom, what they actually meant, and whether these comments may or may not be legally actionable, but there is an important broader point to be made about the increasingly sour relationships between football clubs. Because there comes a point at which everybody needs to pause for breath, take a step back, and consider what all of this might be doing to the reputation of the Premier League and the game in a more general sense.

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It is becoming increasingly commonplace to hear of people in the game saying virtually anything they can think of to deflect from their own shortcomings of a Saturday afternoon. Every referee in the professional game, for example, could probably set themselves up quite a tidy little pension fund were they to sue every social media user who baselessly claimed they were ‘corrupt’ for not giving every decision in their favour.

Both Klopp and Pep Guardiola are part of the modern Premier League’s ingrained culture of perpetual victimhood. Klopp was sent off against Manchester City for berating a referee’s assistant when a foul was not given for a challenge on Mohamed Salah and has since been charged by the FA over his behaviour. Pep Guardiola was also displaying full histrionics whenever decisions didn’t go his way.

Some might argue that these reactions are mere pantomime, exaggerated actions intended just how much they ‘care’ in front of a huge audience who expect ‘passion’ to the exclusion of anything else. That they seem to end up making themselves look a little bit daft is almost besides the point.

It has been alleged that Guardiola was pelted with coins by Liverpool supporters and that the Manchester City coach had its windscreen cracked by an object thrown as it left Anfield after the match. In the other direction, accusations have been made that Manchester City supporters were singing highly offensive songs during the match and that similar graffiti was found in the away section after the match. That a disaster that claimed the lives of 97 Liverpool supporters is still considered fair game for celebratory songs is bad enough; that City have not condemned such behaviour is arguably worse.

But if there’s one feeling that lingers in the fallout of this game, it’s how wantonly and needlessly unpleasant this has all become and the extent to which no-one really emerges from it with a great deal of credit. The refusal of anybody concerned to give an inch in terms of actually taking responsibility for this deterioration only seems likely to ensure that it will continue. The atmosphere will be worse the next time they meet, and no-one even seems very interested in dialling down the rhetoric.

It doesn’t seem likely that much will come from Jurgen Klopp’s reported legal action. The article reportedly at the centre of the complaints already seems to have been removed, and defamation claims can be ruinously expensive to pursue at the best of times. But this does seem like a reasonable place to stop, draw breath, and consider that none of this ‘drama’ is doing anyone any good whatsoever. It’s time for everybody to dial down the histrionics, because it already feels as though things are just going too far.

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