Luis Suarez and football tribalism

by Anthony Painter

Yesterday, Luis Suarez refused to shake the hand of Manchester United captain, Patrice Evra. It was idiotic and undignified. It also meant that for the third Liverpool versus Manchester United match running, the story was not going to be about the football.

At half time, there was a confrontation outside the team dressing rooms. And after the match, Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, called Luis Suarez a disgrace and said he should never play for Liverpool again. And so the pot is kept on the simmer.

Since the incidents that have led to this – when Luis Suarez used racially abusive language towards Patrice Evra in a league game in October last year – Liverpool FC has been living through a disaster of its own making. It did not need an FA independent regulatory commission to realise that Suarez was in the wrong. A cursory glance at the striker’s own evidence and the video footage would show, first,  that an offensive term was used and second that it was meant in a hostile manner.

That should have been enough for Liverpool FC to severely reprimand the player, fine him and suspend him of their own accord. Both club and player should have issued an apology. If Suarez refused, he should have been placed on the transfer list. When this did not happen, its American owners, more aware than most of brand value and propriety, should have stepped in. They failed to.

In the case of John Terry’s alleged racial abuse of Anton Ferdinand, the FA has acted decisively in suspending Terry from the captaincy. When the over-rated and over-priced now former England manager, Fabio Capello, objected he had no choice but to resign. The FA stood firm and lost its national manager as a consequence – good for them. Terry should not be selected for national duty either – a criminal charge has been issued.

Liverpool FC ferociously fought the allegations despite ‘on the balance of probabilities’ – the civil law test that applies to FA commissions – it was always very probable that Suarez would get both a fine and an extended ban. When the judgement was announced the club, stupidly, posted a bizarre and irrelevant defence on its website. It’s defence rested on Luis Suarez not being a racist when that was never the charge – it was one of using a term of racial abuse. Liverpool vowed to fight on. It did no such thing – because it did not have a shred of a credible case.

The players conducted an ill-advised show of solidarity in the midweek game against Wigan on the Wednesday after the judgement had been made just before Christmas. The club was not only in denial but it was determined to demonstrate its denial to the outside world. Still, there was no leadership from the manager, directors or owners. The “appeal” was dropped but the tone was still defiant. Suarez served his ban.

Things spilled over again. Oldham’s Tom Adeyemi was alleged racially abused by a Liverpool fan at Anfield; he was visibly upset following the incident. Predictably, Patrice Evra was booed when Manchester United came to Anfield for a cup game at the end of January. Now everything that is happening in and around the club is seen through a racialised prism – sometimes absolutely rightly, sometimes wrongly. And the club only has itself to blame.

For those not steeped in the vicious enmity between Liverpool and Manchester United, it’s an open and shut case of a club tolerating racial discrimination and prejudice. And actually, while unwittingly they have done, this misses something else which it’s important to consider. The whole context of this situation is an intense tribal rivalry. I say this not to condone but to, hopefully, shed some light.

Football like British society is slowly evolving away from a chauvinistic past. Casual prejudice was once more accepted. Fierce local (and national) loyalties clashed through sport. The violence that had bedeviled football since the 1970s provoked a reaction – football began to clean itself up. Homophobia and sexism are still accepted in football in a way they are less accepted in society as a whole. Racism, unfortunately, is the same though to a lesser degree. Though football is on a journey away from prejudice it still has a long way to travel and, like religion, it is travelling at a slower pace than society as a whole.

Liverpool FC has found itself on the wrong side of this change. It is behind the curve and in the wrong. It is viewing this whole affair as a tribal dispute against an old enemy. It doesn’t help when Sir Alex Ferguson plunges an electric heater into the bath with comments such as he made yesterday about Suarez never being allowed to wear a Liverpool shirt again. The sad fact though is by completely misreading this entire situation, Liverpool has enabled him to keep this whole thing simmering away.

Before the game yesterday, Gary Neville, former Manchester United defender, said something that struck me as important on Sky Sports. He said the involvement, the aggression, the (not so) friendly rivalry, were all part of the game. Actually, he said that – and winning – was what the game was about.

On the field, the game has changed beyond all recognition. Life-threatening challenges are now outlawed. Don Revie’s Leeds Utd could not survive in the modern game. Off the field, grounds have become colonised by the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ and the finicky professional classes. But Gary Neville’s vision of football is the one that most loyal paying, football fans adhere to. It’s about their history, their city, their identity, their rivalries, and their belief in sacredness of who they are. In other words, it has meaning.

These two cultures – modern and communitarian – now co-exist in football as they do in society with the latter still stronger in football’s case. They can co-exist or they can seek to destroy one another. If the recent past is anything to go by, it is the communitarian sensibility that will lose out if it becomes a full-on culture clash. The moderns have the money and power. When it comes to prejudice and hatred these nouveaus are right. But drain football of its tribalism and you kill its soul. However, that can’t mean racism or prejudice of any kind on or off the pitch. There can be tribalism without hatred – even though that sounds impossible to some.

Liverpool FC is a beacon of heroism and tragedy. It has soared and it has suffered. It has wronged and it has been wronged. It is a great club that finds itself acting without distinction. Now, after months of acting in the wrong way, it’s time to put things right: draw a line, admit culpability, and apologise. If Luis Suarez can’t accept that then no player is bigger than the club. That’s the Liverpool way. It’s time for its dignity to be restored.

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15 Responses to “Luis Suarez and football tribalism”

  1. Tris says:

    The trouble is that football is no longer sport. It is business, with ridiculously high wages paid to “stars”, who are for the main part, silly little primadonas, with far too much money and far too little sense.

  2. swatantra says:

    Liverpool have behaved disgracefully; Dalgeish is a bit behind the times on ‘diversity’ and should go before the Club plunges further into the abyss.
    Some of the fans have shown that ‘racism’ as not been kicked out of football but is alive and well. Suarez is a disgrace; he may be 1/8 mixed blood but that doesn’t stop him being a racist.
    At last the FA is cracking down on racism and saying zero tolerance. The Police are more ready to intervene because they too have a reputation to retrieve. The Americans must be fearful of getting a reputation similar to that of Millwall.
    I think Painter has hit the nail on the head. Some of the Clubs Suopporters Managers and Owners have not kept up with changes in society and saying no to racism. They are too quick to exploit their black players but not prepared to accept equality. European especially Russia and the East Europeans are a disgrace and FIFA must surely stp in and impose snctions.
    Football is an absolute mess. Money foreign money has corrupted it. The Govt has to call a Commission into Football, with a purpose of cleaning it up. I am convinced that some of these investors are using football for money laundering purposes. Its criminal.
    Its no lnger a beautiful game but a squalid one inviting gambling and criminal syndicates into it.

  3. Matty says:

    “A cursory glance at the striker’s own evidence and the video footage would show, first, that an offensive term was used and second that it was meant in a hostile manner.”
    Sorry, but that is nonsense. The video footage proves little, there is no lip reading evidence provided, no sound evidence provided (also no witnesses who corroborated the exchange of words – despite De Gea a Spanish speaker being just a few feet away). The body language of the players at the start and the end seems to back up Suarez’s version of events. I have read the whole FA report and really there is not enough proof either way.

    See for more detail

  4. Ultra_Fox says:


    Your post illustrates perfectly the “denial” the writer is referring to.

    The case against Suarez was found to be proven, by an independent commission whose membership was accepted by BOTH clubs prior to the hearing.

    Liverpool had the option of launching an appeal at which elements of the evidence could have been reviewed and challenged. They chose not to take it.

    Subsequently, Evra was again racially abused at Anfield, this time by a fan during the FA Cup tie. No one from Liverpool FC have, to my knowledge, apologised to him for the way he was treated.

  5. Matty, yesterday Suarez tweeted that all was not what it seemed with the handshake. Today he apologises. That’s what the FA Commission means by lack of credibility.

    And yes, I’ve read every word of the FA Commission judgement.

    I’m afraid Suarez is doing enormous damage to LFC. The club needs to remember what it means to millions of people. This is all making it look small and out of touch. The apology is a start but there is still a long way to go given the damage that’s been done. I don’t think the club has yet even begun to understand the long term damage this could do.

    The simple reality is that this probably would have been dealt with effectively long ago had it been a, say, West Brom or Newcastle player on the receiving end. It’s because it’s Manchester United but that doesn’t change any of the facts of the case- which was the concern of the FA.

  6. swatantra says:

    Dalgleish has since apologised for his crass comments … but it doesn’t make things any better.
    The point about shaking hands AFTER the game or event is well made. Too much time is wasted before kick off; and we could do with technology to help the Ref rule of ‘unprofessional fouls’ which are a dsgrace.

  7. NewsFrames says:

    Anthony, you write: “A cursory glance at the striker’s own evidence and the video footage would show, first, that an offensive term was used and second that it was meant in a hostile manner.”

    This is incorrect. Suarez admitted using Spanish term “negro” once, in an inoffensive manner common to South-American Spanish usage. The FA’s language experts said:

    “If Mr Suarez used the word ‘negro’ as described by Mr Suarez, this would not be interpreted as either offensive or offensive in racial terms in Uruguay and Spanish-speaking America more generally” (Para 194 of FA panel’s report).

    The video footage didn’t show any of the crucial dialogue, and didn’t support the finding that it was meant in a hostile manner. That conclusion was based on the conjecture of the 3-man panel, not directly on the evidence. (There is footage of Suarez making gestures which are clearly conciliatory – eg palms up gesture of supplication).

    Please see my 2-part article for further details:

  8. Matty says:

    I’m not in denial at all. Before the verdict, I thought that for Suarez to be found guilty there would have to be one of the following:
    a 3rd party who heard the conversation (strangely enough De Gea, the Spanish speaking keeper just a few feet from the incident heard enough
    a microphone would have picked up something
    lip readers would have lip read something of what was said

    None of the above happened. Fundamentally the case became Suarez’s word against Evra’s. The FA panel leaped upon Suarez’s inconsistencies but when it came to the inconsistencies in Evra’s evidence he was given the benefit of the doubt every time.

    Newsframes is right about the video footage. The body language of Suarez at the beginning of the exchange is conciliatory which would support his version of events (no mention at all of this in the report).

    As for Anthony’s rejoinder about Suarez’s credibility, Evra is just as questionable if not more so. Evra said he was called black to Giggs and the referee on the pitch. To Ferguson he said he the n word was used. Explaining the difference he said he didn’t like the n word so wasn’t comfortable to use it. Consequently video footage has come out showing Evra screaming the n word out of a hotel window in full view of a camera. There are loads more things we could go into but it would make for a very lengthy post.

    Ultrafox is right in that Liverpool didn’t appeal but there were several articles in the press at the time saying that Liverpool should move on, an appeal would drag things on, be damaging etc Also according to the Guardian at the time “It is important to note that Suárez can only appeal against the level of the sanction not the actual verdict.”

  9. NewsFrames says:

    I’ve had an extraordinary Twitter exchange with the article’s author, Anthony Painter. In response to my claim that there’s no evidence (only conjecture) supporting the notion that Suarez was entirely hostile, Anthony wrote: “God that is dumb. Laughably so”.!/anthonypainter/status/169084250870661122

    And in response to my link to an article by football lawyer Daniel Geey (questioning the evidence for hostility on Suarez’s part), Anthony mentioned the two incidents which form the main “evidence” that Suarez acted in a hostile way: the pat on Evra’s head and the “pinch” of Evra’s arm.

    In fact, neither of these constitutes “evidence” of hostility – unless you are a mind-reader. It’s conjecture, not evidence. Evra, for instance, stated that he was not even aware of the so-called “pinch” when it happened – that’s not a particularly good demonstration that Suarez was hostile, and yet it’s the main incident cited (along with the harmless-looking pat on the head).

    Tha lack of evidence here is an important point, because the whole case hinged on the FA panel rejecting Suarez’s account that he was being non-offensive. (in the absence of direct evidence the panel decided that since the exchange was hostile, Suarez couldn’t have been conciliatory).

    Anthony’s article is misleading when it says that Suarez’s *own* evidence and the video footage “show, first, that an offensive term was used and second that it was meant in a hostile manner”. This is false on both counts, and should be corrected.

  10. Just in case readers want to read the FA Commission judgement, the whole thing is here so you don’t have to rely on selective quotes: Suarez judgement. It will help ‘NewsFrames’ to read from beginning to end rather than just random and non-contextualised paragraphs. Always happy to be of help.

  11. Roy says:

    “A cursory glance at the striker’s own evidence and the video footage would show, first, that an offensive term was used and second that it was meant in a hostile manner.”

    That’s the problem with cursory glances. According to Suarez’s evidence he did not mean it in a hostile manner nor does video evidence support that. This is not to take his side or Evra’s – it’s to point out that your sentence is factually incorrect.

  12. Let me add a clarification as there is some confusion about a sentence in the third paragraph speaking to various people on Twitter. It’s the following:

    “A cursory glance at the striker’s own evidence and the video footage would show, first,  that an offensive term was used and second that it was meant in a hostile manner.”

    Let me be clear- the video footage shows that the exchanges were hostile, ie antagonistic. It doesn’t show what was said. The point being that the notion that ‘negro’ was friendly is not credible. The sentence should have been drafted more clearly – my point was that you’d need to refer to both to come to the conclusion that it was abusive – but it doesn’t change the argument. Again, refer to FA Commission judgement linked to above for further detail.

  13. Bruce M says:

    Anthony, your “clarification” is unconvincing. Contrary to your claim, the video footage does NOT show “that the exchanges were hostile” from both parties. Although there is direct evidence cited by the FA panel of Patrice Evra making unmistakably hostile gestures, this is not the case with Suarez.

    Suarez mostly looks bemused rather than hostile. At one point he makes the classic palms-up gesture of supplication. This footage has been widely published – there’s simply no way Suarez was being abusive at this point.

    The FA panel relies mainly on two specific gestures to demonstrate Suarez’s acrimony (a pat on the head and a soft “pinch” of the arm). But neither of these gestures would be recognised as unequivocally hostile. The panel takes a considered view on the matter and decides (in the absence of more direct evidence) that they do indicate acrimonious moments.

    So, even if we accept the FA panel’s view of these gestures, we have a mixture of hostile, neutral and conciliatory gestures and expressions from Suarez on the video footage. But, by a strange leap of logic, you conclude that the crucial exchanges (which were NOT captured on video) must have fallen into the hostile category, thus proving that Suarez couldn’t have used the Spanish term “negro” in its common non-racial, inoffensive sense.

    And, as you put it, a “cursory glance” at the evidence would tell us all this! It looks more as if you’re trying to rationalise a clumsy falsehood after the fact. I agree with all the people who say that you should correct your article.

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