The reaction from Merseyside was predictable, even if the strength of Liverpool FC’s statement was shocking. “Twas always the way on Merseyside,” as one journalist surmised when, minutes after the Football Association handed down an eight game ban to striker Luis Suarez, pending appeal, for using abusive and racist language, the club lashed out at the FA, Patrice Evra and anybody else perceived to have wronged ‘their’ player. Wagons circled.
And while the case remains sub judice until the striker’s appeal is heard, and concluded, the prima face case against Suarez was always far less complex that presented. Indeed, the FA’s charge against Suarez was strengthened by the Uruguayan’s own words. The corroborating evidence, or lack thereof if the Merseyside club is believed, seemed far less relevant from the moment Suarez admitted in the Uruguayan media to using an unspecified racial epithet, believed to be “Negro”. The striker repeated the claim to the FA panel, leaving the three-man committee with little room for manoeuvre. Acceptable or not in Uruguay, any variation of the “N” word in England, or indeed northern Europe, was never likely to be tolerated. In English law ignorance has never been an excuse.
Yet, the reaction from Liverpool came anyway; another in a strategic pattern of action by the 119-year-old club to subvert the course of FA justice via the media. Liverpool’s cry is little more than a smokescreen, with the Suarez-Evra affair rather simple amid all the deep analysis of nuanced language, culture and, of course, race.
Liverpool’s reaction on Tuesday night may still have far-reaching consequences though, both for the club and relations between two of England’s most venerable institutions. Here is a world renown, and widely respected club, smearing Evra, defending the – prima facie – indefensible, while accusing the FA of institutional bias.
“It is our strong held belief, having gone over the facts of the case, that Luis Suarez did not commit any racist act,” Liverpool’s statement read last night – an inflammatory post that was immediately pulled from the club’s official website, only to be reinstated shortly afterwards.
“It is also our opinion that the accusation by this particular player was not credible – certainly no more credible than his prior unfounded accusations.
“Luis himself is of a mixed race family background as his grandfather was black. He has been personally involved since the 2010 World Cup in a charitable project which uses sport to encourage solidarity amongst people of different backgrounds with the central theme that the colour of a person’s skin does not matter; they can all play together as a team.
“He has played with black players and mixed with their families whilst with the Uruguay national side and was Captain at Ajax Amsterdam of a team with a proud multi-cultural profile, many of whom became good friends.”
Indeed, Evra may well have cause to seek legal advice after Liverpool’s reference to “prior unfounded accusations” – a nod to the 2009 case in which Chelsea groundsman Sam Bethel was accused of using racist language against the Frenchman. The accusation, the FA’s record notes, was made by United coaches Mike Phelan and Richard Hartis, and was at no point repeated by the player.
A reference without subtly: ‘Evra played the race card’.
It is also distressing that Liverpool, a club whose achievements are to be respected no matter the tribal rivalry, should fall into the classic racist’s excuse: ‘Suarez cannot be racist, he has black friends and family’. The charge, as clearly laid out by the FA, was never a question of whether Suarez is a racist, but whether the 26-year-old used racist and offensive language. Everything else is irrelevant.
Yet, Liverpool’s statement on Tuesday night also neatly sums up the club’s closed-ranks strategy over the past two months, with journalists regularly briefed on the club’s position, despite the FA’s warning not to prejudice the eventual hearing. Cynically, the Merseyside club is seemingly more than happy to fan the flames of tribalism.
The Telegraph’s Henry Winter, for example, repeated Liverpool’s case almost verbatim as the hearing began last week. Suarez could not be a racist, so the briefing went, because he has played with black players; the language used is acceptable in Uruguay and, quite laughably, Liverpool owner John Henry once held a memorial day for a black ex Boston Red Socks baseball player. Irrelevance, smoke and mirrors.
Suarez’ appeal is still pending, and although the evidence is unlikely to change, it is conceivable that another panel will cut the sanction. That committee could, of course, increase the ban and fine too. Suarez’ eight game ban and £40,000 fine represents little more than a month on the sidelines and three days’ wages. Many in the game will feel, with justification, that the FA’s response to racism is too little, far too late.
Without the reasoning behind the panel’s decision it is, of course, impossible to pass full judgement. Yet, a precedent is now set: use of the “N” word in any variation is unacceptable. For that, football fans of all colours – shirt and skin – will recognise that the governing body, albeit via an independent panel, has finally taken a stand.
Except on Merseyside it seems, where Suarez is not a bigot to be condemned, but a martyr slain at the FA’s door.