Liverpool FC never listen to me, and they are usually correct not to. Quite apart from the club being a multi-million pound enterprise with multi-millions of very opinionated fans all over the world, I’m the kind of guy who gets agitated if I don’t have a glass of milk to go with a bar of milk chocolate. Not the kind of person you’d turn to in a crisis. But if only one request of mine could be acted upon in all my life supporting the Reds, it would be this – please persuade Luis Suarez to drop any appeal against his eight-match ban for using racist language against Patrice Evra.
The club have stood behind Suarez up until now, and reading between the lines I think this is because Suarez has been privately quite vociferous at the way he has been treated. He didn’t think it was racist, he didn’t mean it to be racist and to accept the punishment would be to admit he is a racist. Reading Rodney Hinds in the Guardian’s Comment is Free relaying as fact Evra’s claim that Suarez used the term “at least 10 times” would be galling in the extreme for Suarez. Accepting as fact the account of a man whose evidence the FA dismissed as “exaggerated and unreliable . . . an attempt to justify a physical intervention by him which cannot reasonably be justified” when Man Utd made all manner of accusations against Chelsea’s ground staff after the post-match fracas at Stamford Bridge in 2008. Comments from Evra that he doesn’t think Suarez is racist are a case of shutting the stable door after the horse is bolted. Suarez will now be labelled a racist, and Evra’s attempts at who? me? will probably only add to Suarez’s feeling of victimisation.
And make no mistake – Suarez is being victimised. Like so many organisations the FA is happy to sign up to high-profile campaigns to eradicate racism, encouraging clubs to employ the Moses-like cadences of their local George Sephton to read out stirring denunciations of racism (“in all its forms”) at matches. But actually doing something practical about it is a lot harder. No-one wants to be the one who tars someone with the tag of ‘racist’, and that’s even before you consider their hysterical reluctance to antagonise potential English internationals, exemplified by their hiring of some of the finest products of the Old Bailey to appeal on Wayne Rooney’s behalf to Uefa.
To them, Suarez must have seemed like manna from heaven. While ‘El Pistolero’ seems like an engaging enough character in the few interviews I’ve seen with him, he isn’t a high-profile foreigner in the way that (say) Dietmar Hamann was during his life in England. There’s no danger of Luis putting down roots here and managing Stockport County. Then there’s his extended reputation. This is the man who once bit an opponent. This is the man who not only handled a goal-bound effort in the last-minute of the World Cup quarter-final against Ghana, but – gasp! – was unrepentant about it afterwards, thus reinforcing the image of the sly, pinch-the-lace-from-the-ball South American. There was no way the FA were going to let an opportunity like this slide to be Tough On Racism, and be seen to be Tough On Racism. To understand the depths of the cynicism, you only need to look at how they made sure Gordon Taylor was onside (how else to explain the delay over the weekend if not to get soundings from interested parties?) before they announced Suarez’s punishment – the same Gordon Taylor who in 1994 said, of England’s Brave Stuart Pearce’s alleged racist abuse of Paul Ince, that it was “in the heat of the moment . . . Stuart regrets what he said, and he’ll be ringing Paul to apologise. Hopefully that will be the end of it.” Times change – but not so much that Johnny Foreigner doesn’t get the blame.
And yet, while sympathising with the plight of Luis Suarez, the overriding advice to the club remains the same: please persuade Luis Suarez to drop any appeal against his eight-match ban for using racist language against Patrice Evra. For a start, the chances of winning the appeal are practically nil. The FA is not like the criminal justice system with its notions of habeas corpus or reasonable doubt. It’s like a gentleman’s club where you sign up and agree to adhere to the rules, even if some of those rules permit you to be royally screwed. Take the charge of “bringing the game into disrepute”. It ultimately means “anything we bloody well like” and the FA have used it in that manner since the year dot. But even if they abuse that rule or apply other ones in a scattergun fashion, that doesn’t change the fact that they are following their own rules. Remember when Sheffield United objected to the punishment meted out on West Ham United over the illegal contract arrangements they had for Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez? Every effort by the Blades to get a meaningful punishment, i.e. a points deduction, foundered on the fact that the FA had followed their own procedures. The same will apply to Suarez. He was charged with using racial language, he was convicted of using racial language. End of. Any attempt to claim otherwise will have to overcome the fact of him, well, admitting he used language that could be construed as racist and is only going to be seen as being a nuisance appeal.
But even if we ignore the kind of narrow legalese that keep QC’s in the cocaine-powdered wigs to which they are accustomed, you have to ask what the FA were meant to have done. As soon as it became clear that something was said, every eye belonging to those in (for want of a less pejorative term) the racism industry was turned on the FA. It’s all very well putting up hoardings and having high-profile players hosting training sessions in disadvantaged areas, but here was a high-profile player for one of the heaviest hitters in the world using dodgy language. Chris Rock once expressed regret that he had laden one of his acts with the ‘N’ word as he came to realise that people would point to his use of it as an excuse for their own use of it. You can be certain that if the FA had given Suarez a free pass the FA would be accused of introducing the thin end of the wedge. The next person who was charged with using dodgy language would say “well, you let Suarez off and what I said wasn’t that different to what he said”. It wouldn’t matter if this was hypothetical. The FA would still have to face the accusation, and it wasn’t unreasonable on their part to decide that it was better to err on the side of making a harsh example of one person rather than having to defend themselves for setting a lenient example down the line.
Now let’s look at the reaction of Liverpool FC. I’m fairly certain that the rush to defend Suarez is less motivated by naked partisanship – our player, right or wrong – than genuine sympathy for a man who feels he has been wronged. But if ever there was a case for ruthlessly applying the notion that no man is bigger than the club, this is it. There has to be a point past which defending Suarez becomes counter-productive. We are heading down a road where any attempt to cast the FA as the villains will become increasingly problematic. In fact, the longer it goes on the more the FA will be tempted to cast themselves as standing up to racism in all its forms, a line of attack which will lead Liverpool to use the mantra about we being against all forms of racism too BUT . . . the ‘but’ will get more and more hollow with each invocation. Do Liverpool want to be that guy, the one who has many black friends BUT . . .?
Some will say that’s not the point, that an injustice is an injustice no matter who it is meted out to. If you truly believe that then I suggest you give up following football and become an activist for Amnesty International. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve managed to get this far without mentioning John Terry, and I’m not going to mention how much worse his comments would be if he is proven to have said them and how the FA must be praying the problem just goes away – mentioning them there doesn’t count as a ‘mention’. And the only reason I’ll mention him is to ask people to be honest: you’re delighted Mongo is experiencing such discomfort and you hope the sobbing sap is nailed to the wall by the CPS or the FA or the PFJ or whomever it takes. For double honesty points which you can cash in against any future stay in Purgatory, admit that you’d feel none of the above if he played for Liverpool and would be holding a metaphorical pillow over your head going lalalalala every time you hear about the accusations. In short, you can believe that Suarez has been hard done by without having to think it is essential for the club to devote all its credibility to his defence. If that means he flounces off to the continent because we wouldn’t back him every step of the way, then so be it. No man is bigger etc.
Perhaps (hopefully) the conversation has been had behind the scenes. We’ll defend you thus far, Luis, but there has to be a point where we cut our losses. It’s painful, but people will forget. When you see Jan Molby, do you see the fat Dane with the Scouse accent and the brilliant passing ability, or do you see the man who did six weeks of porridge for drink-driving? People’s memories for bad stuff among their idols has the life expectancy of a Wayne Rooney follicle. John Terry’s travails will soon swamp the headlines. We’ll stand by you. But we won’t go over the cliff with you. It’s make-up-your-mind time. For both player and club.