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How Could The Suarez Saga Been Shorter?

Monday 13th February 2012
As Liverpool FC finally take the first small steps to do what they should have done months ago – to attempt to withdraw from an unwinnable battle with a trace of dignity – one uncomfortable truth emerges from the battered landscape of this debacle. We are much further away from the kind of racially tolerant society we may have  imagined we were. Not because Suarez is a racist. He isn't. Or  because football is racist, it isn't. What this sorry saga shows is we are incapable of having a discussion about race without lurching to the kinds of polarised positions that have been responsible for fuelling this fire for months.

Despite the extensive FA report, wall to wall media coverage and more tweets than a menagerie of birds on speed, there is only one single fact in this case - a South American footballer relatively new to this country called a black man a negro in the febrile atmosphere of a Liverpool vs. Manchester United game.

The linguistic and cultural context of that meant this was, at the very least, not a clear cut case of racist abuse, though it is perfectly understandable that Evra felt it was and why Suarez felt unfairly victimized by that notion. What should have happened once a complaint was made was a firm apology from Suraez for any offence caused and a strong message from the club about the need to educate all players on what is acceptable in this country. That might just have been the end of it.

In examining why that didn't happen, it's clear all parties shoulder responsibility for the unholy mess that ensued. It goes something like this:

- Evra's initial claim that Suarez called him the other ‘n' word 10 times was, he admits, untrue. No-one can blame him for making a complaint of what he perceived was racial abuse, but by him immediately exaggerating the claim (from someone who had form for that) hardly gave it the best chance of a sensible resolution.

- Suarez may have felt immediately very defensive as a result. But nevertheless in admitting he had used the word negro, it would not have taken much to have recognised publicly and privately with Evra that however benign he and his countrymen might see that word, others may not see it that way and in this country certainly it is not acceptable. An apology for the offence caused at that point may still have avoided the inevitable chain of events that followed.

- The media, always more desperate for off field stories than on-field (stories about the game itself are only good for one day), but even more desperate not to be seen to be on the wrong side of a race row wasted no time in branding Suarez a racist.

- Football fans, never slow to adopt tribal positions before waiting for the full facts, quickly dashed up the hill to sit smugly with the liberal media on what felt like the moral high ground and the dye was cast. In the court of public opinion Suarez was a lying racist.

- Dalglish and Ferguson wrongly applied that normally reliable football principle of aggressively closing ranks behind their player when both could have acknowledged the issue at hand transcended that.

- The FA, like the media desperate not to end up on the wrong side of this debate set up an exhaustive process that not only dragged this out but failed to unearth any quantifiably new evidence beyond the word of the two men involved. So where room existed for a carefully nuanced finding that could still have fairly banned Suarez for inappropriate but not necessarily racially motivated language, the FA instead were far more definitive than the evidence really permitted on the tenuous basis that Evra was a more reliable witness.This well meaning but dubious process was suddenly held aloft as irrefutable evidence of Suarez's ‘guilt' for those that it suited and as a sham for those that it didn't

- Feeling wronged by the process the Liverpool players, the ones who see Suarez every day in training, showed their support with the misguided ‘t-shirts incident', which inflamed tensions and allowed others to wrongly portray the club as soft on racism. The Club hierarchy incredibly allowed this, either because they were unwilling to do anything, unable or simply unaware it was happening.

- It is hardly surprising given all this that some Liverpool and United fans (though far from all as is patronisingly claimed by sections of the media) assumed their natural positions of standing shoulder to shoulder with player and manager with regrettable chant and counter chant at the FA Cup game.

The cumulative effect of all of this was to systematically entrench positions and polarise opinion further and further at every single stage, leaving no room for any rational middle ground. It has created a poisonous atmosphere with closet racists now feeling sufficiently emboldened to air their deplorable views either on twitter or on the terraces.  The toxicity of the debate reached its inevitable and risible conclusion with Suarez's unforgivable actions on Saturday, (though that in itself only made possible by the ill judged theatre of this empty ritual).

Surveying the wreckage left behind, as a Liverpool fan, I'm appalled that the club I love have allowed themselves to be portrayed as something that they're emphatically not, with a succession of own goals and missed opportunities, whether that is player, manager or owner.

But its hard to escape the feeling that the lessons of this episode are not confined to Liverpool's PR department. Unless or until we have the self confidence to have a mature debate about race and racism when we're challenged to do so, rather than to immediately retreat into the binary and divisive discourse of the last period, we will not move forward as a progressive society. Indeed the effect of the last few weeks have  if anything set us back, doing far more to encourage than to inhibit the kinds of pernicious views we all want to see eradicated.
Gregory Madden

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