LIVERPOOL, England // Sometimes football can display the dignity and decency, the humility and humanity to restore its reputation. Not for long enough, however, because respect gave way to rancour and communality to controversy.
Such is the way when Liverpool meet Manchester United. Hostilities were briefly and beautifully put on hold but supporters contrived to leave a sour taste. Hatred remains the abiding emotion, at least for the minority who can disfigure an occasion.
The fault lay not with the clubs. Before kick-off they paid tribute to the victims of the Hillsborough disaster.
Two ambassadorial figures, the respective captains Steven Gerrard and Ryan Giggs, released 96 red balloons into the Merseyside sky.
Two more met on the Anfield turf, United's record goalscorer Sir Bobby Charlton presenting flowers to his Liverpool counterpart Ian Rush.
Sir Alex Ferguson did a rare joint interview with Brendan Rodgers. In the Anfield stands, three mosaics read simply "The truth", "Justice" and "96"; 23 years on, Liverpool supporters have been exonerated of blame for the tragedy.
"Liverpool did a fantastic job," said Ferguson, who showed respect himself. The problem is that neither he nor most other managers can control elements of their support. Some Manchester United fans urged their Liverpool counterparts to lower the tone with a chorus of "Where's your famous Munich song?"
Instead, they embarrassed themselves and their club; on that occasion, Anfield rose above it. Not at the final whistle, however, when a couple of fans ran towards the United end, mimicking aeroplanes in a visual reminder of the 1958 Munich Air Disaster. And then the travelling Mancunians responded with two of their more tasteless chants: "Murderers" and "Always the victim, never your fault."
Nor, indeed, was the controversy confined to the stands. Jonjo Shelvey accused Rio Ferdinand of getting him sent off although, after flying into a challenge with Jonny Evans, the Liverpool midfielder was the principal culprit.
"A clear red card," said Ferguson, who was confronted by the departing Shelvey on the touchline.
Rodgers disagreed, arguing the United defender's feet were also off the ground. "If Jonjo Shelvey gets sent off, Jonny Evans has to get sent off as well," he said.
Yet Liverpool had excelled with 11 and they did again with 10, taking the lead with a fitting scorer. Gerrard's cousin Jon-Paul Gilhooley was the youngest of the 96 victims of 1989 tragedy, a 10-year-old boy who never came home from Hillsborough.
Like Kenny Dalglish, watching on from the directors' box on his first return to Anfield since his dismissal as manager, his importance extends beyond football, even though they are arguably the club's two greatest players. Gerrard duly volleyed Liverpool ahead, a goal made all the more special for the involvement of a teenager in his first minute of league football. The Spaniard Suso had provided the initial cross.
United's leveller was taken superbly, curled in from an acute angle and via a post by Rafael da Silva after Shinji Kagawa chested Antonio Valencia's cross into his path.
Quiet in the first half, Valencia was not finished. He sped clear from the half way line and was halted by Glen Johnson. "It was never a penalty," Rodgers said. Mark Halsey, the referee, disagreed and Robin van Persie converted from 12 yards.
"Decisions did not go our way today," said Rodgers, who also felt Liverpool should have had a penalty when Luis Suarez went down.
"I thought the best team lost," added the Northern Irishman. In many ways, they were superior. Gerrard and Joe Allen exerted control in the midfield, Suso and Raheem Sterling illustrated their precocious talent and Liverpool only faded after Van Persie's decider.
"We are pleased with the result, but not the performance," Ferguson said. It was the opposite for Liverpool; not since 1911 have they started a season without a win in their first five league games. This was not a day for facts, however, but emotions and reactions. And some, sad to say, were unpalatable.