Tuesday 15 October 2019

Retreating into tribal warfare

Suarez controversy highlights lack of rational thinking in Premier League, writes Dion Fanning

The debate surrounding Luis Suarez's eight-match ban last week was conducted with all the reason and detachment two toddlers might use to catch their mother's attention.

There were few who considered the idea that the best way to respond to hysteria was with rational argument. If one side was shrieking "Racist!" at Luis Suarez, the other had to scream louder, deny everything, point out, with unintended comic consequences, the many historic reasons why Suarez could not be a racist and attack the other side with corresponding viciousness.

What happened at Anfield in October became tribal a long time ago. When the sentence was announced, unfortunately among those dealing in the most primitive arguments was Liverpool Football Club itself.

There were many reasons for Liverpool to be aggrieved by the English FA's ban. It was clearly designed as a piece of posturing and grandstanding, an attempt to announce to those observing in FIFA and UEFA that English football possesses a moral core they suspect is absent in those authorities.

Suarez's ban was also clearly designed to be reduced on appeal. Liverpool's response may have made that reduction less likely.

The "ecstasy of sanctimony" was rampant. Alan Hansen referred to 'coloured' players on Match of the Day and people called for his sacking, instead of simply reminding him that it is a term which most black people consider offensive.

Many of those who said this shouldn't become a tribal matter, that this was a matter of right versus wrong, were those who felt confident they had right on their side. It's easy to make something a moral issue when you feel you have some moral superiority.

Liverpool summoned righteousness without any of these advantages. Suarez was not a racist, they said and suggested that he was being persecuted. In ludicrously charging him for an obscene gesture and allowing defenders to kick him, the authorities are certainly showing little interest in protecting him. With the Evra incident, however, there was a case to answer.

From the beginning, Liverpool behaved oddly. The call that Evra should be punished if Suarez was found not guilty betrayed their private view that Evra was a troublemaker. In the end, this was also their caustic public view.

Perhaps it was their hostility to Evra that stopped them making a more conciliatory public gesture at the outset.

Suarez had always admitted saying something. He could have held to the view that he didn't consider what he said to have any racial undertones but apologised if Evra was offended. Instead they engaged in extreme denial. It's reasonable to suggest that Suarez exploited the ambiguity of the word he used, knowing it would infuriate Evra and thinking he could get away with it. It's also reasonable to suggest the exact opposite.

The most curious aspect of this case was that Suarez decided to give a version of the truth. People in football, as in politics, say they want the truth. They want straight answers from politicians and they want players not to dive.

If a politician says something resembling the truth, he is usually forced to apologise; if a player doesn't dive, he doesn't get a penalty.

Suarez effectively became the witness for the prosecution when he admitted he had used a word, although which word still remains unknown.

It was a sophisticated position but one which doesn't necessarily mean he's innocent.

Of course, nuance doesn't exist in football. When the judgment was finally announced, Suarez was dubbed a racist by some newspapers. Liverpool insisted he was not a racist and turned it into a pantomime.

Kenny Dalglish has command of his supporters like no other manager in the Premier League but last week, he didn't lead, he turned to the cold comfort of the hardcore support and retreated from sense and good judgment.

Suarez hadn't been charged with racism and was not found guilty of it, as Liverpool pointed out. Few wanted to accept a complex argument that you could say something grossly offensive, something you shouldn't, which referred to the racial origin of a player, and not necessarily spend your spare time walking around with bed sheets over your head while burning crosses. Liverpool could have accepted that Suarez made a mistake, a mistake based on cultural differences, appealed the severity of the ban and offered their full backing for a player who they could insist, with justification, was not a racist.

But they got caught up in the same hysteria that led to the eight-game ban. They made clumsy and imprecise allegations towards Evra which didn't advance their cause, they managed to create a sense that their view was preposterous and, most importantly, they lost.

They lost for many reasons. The FA wanted zero tolerance for any type of racist abuse.

Zero tolerance in any area of crime and punishment is ineffective. Zero tolerance denies any room for mitigating circumstance. It is a form of totalitarianism and the result is usually the hysteria from all sides we saw last week. This message was addressed only in part to racists.

It was essentially directed at English football's enemies. The English game might be full of spivs, charlatans and people on the make; it may have been the engine for the worst type of unregulated capitalism, but in treating racism it has been a success.

Can you imagine a more successful model of perfect integration than footballers in the Premier League? It is a template to which society in general can only aspire. Racism is not a major problem in English football. The Premier League broke down borders a long time ago. Its global popularity ensures that the only question, as Arsene Wenger pointed out, asked of a footballer is 'Can he play?'

Wenger also suggested that there were times on a football field when a player isn't politically correct. It doesn't necessarily mean he is racist. He also suggested there were lines you couldn't cross.

The FA ruled that Suarez crossed that line. He is a player who plays on the margins. No testimonial of his character is complete without including the fact that he is prepared to do an awful lot to win.

The FA sent a message that they are different; and Suarez was the medium for the message. They acted as if they were trying to halt the spread of a killer virus. In fact, given the success of racism awareness campaigns, it might seem that they had found a cure for something which, in English football, is no longer a known disease.

Liverpool refused to accept that there could be anything offensive in Suarez's words despite the pretty obvious evidence that he was intending to offend Evra. This is not actionable in itself, even if we live in a Daily Mail-shaped age in which there is supposed to be a remedy whenever somebody shouts 'I'm offended'.

If Evra, as reported, also accused the referee of booking him because he was black then it might also be reasonable to claim he was an unreliable witness. He may also have abused Suarez in pretty offensive terms.

Liverpool supporters insisted that, if it had been a clear case of racist abuse, they would accept the punishment. What they really meant was if it was different, if it wasn't happening to them, if it was happening to, say, John Terry, they would be happy to back the idea that there should be zero tolerance.

Unfortunately, life is rarely fought in the abstract or on ground we choose. The ground on which we have to stand and fight is usually messy, complicated and full of ambiguities.

Andre Villas-Boas took over at Chelsea saying he wanted his players to be model citizens. Now he essentially says 'not yet' as he reconciles easy words with the reality of managing John Terry.

Loyalty is admirable; taking a stand is necessary at times. Reason and doubt are harder to grasp but every bit as important. Last week, all sides retreated to the comfort of their tribes. It is a place where nothing ever changes.

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