The true zenith of guard of honor culture occurred in July 2020. (I realize that we are ignoring John Terry getting the mid-game treatment against Sunderland when being substituted in the same minute-ish as his shirt number, but honestly life is too short to make yourself that angry. Anyway, I need to save up that anger because at some point he’s going to release that image as an NFT).
With Liverpool winning the title in record time, opponents formed a tunnel and allowed Jurgen Klopp’s players to pass through ahead of seven different league games. With all stadiums fan-less at the time, each guard of honor was soundtracked by the hardly-celebratory patter of 18 men lethargically clapping, most with the look of a losing Oscar nominee. By the fourth away game, even Liverpool’s players must have wanted the whole thing to be kiboshed.
It also led to one of the most glorious modern football headlines, perfectly distilling the use of social media reaction as news, the rise of clickbait culture, the tiring growth of tribalism and the demand to make everything a competition: “Aston Villa showed up ‘ bitter ‘Man City with’ proper ‘guard of honor for Liverpool after winning title ”. Sometimes you do wonder about it all.
At its base level, this sort of thing can be a well-intentioned gesture, warming even. Likely that was the case in 1955 when Manchester United applauded Chelsea for their league title, and the same is probably true when it happened haphazardly in the 1970s. The beauty of the action lay in it being organic and organized by the guard-of-honourers.
But like so much in football, a game now bizarrely obsessed with “classy touch” culture and which has three applause emojis as its official emblem, organic reaction has been replaced by scripted recognition. At that point, the recognition is weaponised by tribalism. And so you get players rated – and, crucially, judged – according to how they clap a group of peers onto a pitch.
So good on Atletico Madrid for taking a stand. In a statement this week, they announced their intention not to formally congratulate Real Madrid for winning the La Liga title ahead of the Madrid derby this weekend. As in England, the guard of honor is a relatively new concept as something expected rather than done off the cuff. As in England, their intention not to do it has caused a ruckus.
Does it make Atletico a team of bad losers? Yes! Losing isn’t nice, losing hurts and losing when your fierce rivals win makes it hurt twice as much. But if you are surprised that Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid might not want to fall into expected line and do not care if you lambast them for it, you haven’t watched them play much over the last decade. Honesty over courtesy.
Does it matter to Real Madrid? Of course not. The gesture only retains any value if it is accompanied by meaning, and it barely retains any value anyway. The glory of triumph lies in the shared experience with teammates. Over time, that can become internalized into a truly personal memory. Precisely none of that depends on the reaction of any outsider, at least of all whether you are clapped onto a pitch.
There are other performative actions that fall under the bracket of common decency, the most notorious of which is the post-match handshake: you should probably do it but nobody other than the non-recipient should care if you don’t. The Premier League’s loss of Mark Hughes, Britain’s most infamous non-handshaker, is League Two’s gain. Again, it only matters because people say it matters.
Plus, an act of well-meaning congratulation has become bastardized into enforced penance. Refer back to that 2020 headline example – the suggestion was that Manchester City didn’t show enough deference to their domestic conquerors and Aston Villa did. In the case of big club vs big club – the only time when anyone seems to care – the guard of honor is an act of enforced humiliation for the vanquished, a piece of manufactured gladiatorial theater. It therefore has no meaning and no use.
Here’s an idea: rival players, coaches, directors, tea ladies et al say “Congrats, mate” to one another before, after or during the game or send each other private messages, if they want. We stop fretting about performative nonsense that we were never intended to witness anyway. Probably not classy enough to work.