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The age of schadenfreude is at its prime

The sight of Steven Gerrard ushering a limp, sobbing Luis Suàrez off the pitch is one of the most iconic scenes of anguish in Premier League history.

Not that his pain garnered any sympathy. By that point, Suàrez had clawed and bitten his way into becoming the land’s most feared and also hated player. For those of a Liverpool persuasion, watching him sink to his knees evoked a warm rush of joy that few goals could mimic.

Nearly 300 years ago, the Germans invented a word for that euphoria: schadenfreude. The British liked it so much, they incorporated it into the English lexicon. It’s the perfect word to denote a complex emotion — taking pleasure in another’s pain.

Nowhere is the word more apt than in the football stands and on the pitch: even Crystal Palace structures happily call that Suàrez tear inducer the “Crystanbul Classic” — a play on Liverpool’s own historic Istanbul comeback.

There’s nothing unnatural or untoward about this. Where you have genuine rivalry you can expect there to be celebration at another’s failure.

But recently, especially this year, it’s been taken to another level. It’s become an obsession, a drug. Chasing the schadenfreude dragon is a compulsion that no one seems able to get away from. It’s transcended what we thought were traditional rivalries.

By all accounts, the early goers at Old Trafford on Sunday, gathered around the concourse televisions, cheered after Sergio Agüero netted against Burnley. This is Manchester City, the noisy neighbours, the neighbourhood nemesis. Yet most red Mancunians would rather they win the league than the Scousers.

Why? Maybe it’s the way that City’s success can be easily put down to Emirati billions. Maybe it’s because the blood feud with the Reds runs deeper than proximity. Or maybe it’s down to the expectation that a Liverpool failure after such a brilliant, draining season will induce an unparalleled, toe-curling high.

It used to be that the two most successful English teams would source their doses of schadenfreude from one-upping each other. After winning their 18th league title in 2009, United fans travelled to Anfield donning Eric Cantona masks — a taunt in response to a 15-year-old jab: “Au revoir, Cantona and Man United … Come back when you’ve won 18!”

Now, at a low point, all the Red Devils can do is hope for failure rather than inflict it themselves. For them, success is no longer the best revenge.

It’s hardly an idiosyncrasy of theirs, either. Who can forget the 2016 Battle of the Bridge? A rubbish Chelsea had barely cared enough to string together two passes all season, but when the chance arose to deprive Tottenham Hotspur of a first Premier League crown, they snatched at it like madmen. The effort incensed Spurs so much, they resorted to literal eye gouges and other loud displays of frustration. The Stamford Bridge faithful were ready to forgive a year of misdeeds, thanks to their team delivering this moment of pain to savour.

Three years later, as the craving for schadenfreude ratchets up, Liverpool find themselves rooting for the failure of another. A sick plot twist. It’s basically schadenfreude lite.

They have no other option … and that’s perhaps a mini tragicomedy in its own right. Despite being on course to achieve what would be a winning total in any season except the last one, it’s simply not good enough.

The last month has forced them to sit on the sidelines supporting a line of lesser teams that would ultimately turn into City target practice anyway. Particularly amusing was their forced backing of United — who, as we’ve said, would like nothing more than to see their rivals fall flat, even if it compromises their own ambitions.

Still, it can’t be worse than sitting at home, hoping Leicester and Brighton can do you a favour, as will be the case in the next two weeks.

Everything is out of whack. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, indeed.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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