Sunday, 12 February 2012

You'll Never Shake Alone

Football is not a sport – it is a language.  Universally appreciated and understood, able on occasion to divide, but more often than not, it can unify people, and their opinions, hearts and minds.  The beautiful game (as it’s often called) may have been witnessed in a frantic 90 minute spell between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford on the 11th February 2012 – but sadly football was the real loser on this day – not because of footballing reasons – but because of missed opportunities to rise above the spirit of sportsmanship so rarely witnessed on a pitch these days.

Let me position up-front – I am a Liverpool fan, since 1997, by choice (not for family traditions, or the sort).  I chose them out of coincidence, not because of history of tophies, or reputation.  No, I just liked the team.  And I did this not realising fully the implication of supporting a team a third of the way through a 20 year trophy drought (in comparison to previous decadence).  Oddly I support them in spite of success (or lack thereof).

Does this mean I blindly support Luis Suarez?  No.

In fact, I thought the ban was the right thing – I think it was complete stupidity on his part to use the word “negro / negrito” in conversation with a player (Evra) who had already pleaded (unsuccessfully) to be a victim of racial abuse on three prior occasions (February 2006, vs. Liverpool, April 2008 vs. Chelsea, unknown date vs. Senegal).  Liverpool were entitled to defend their player – but they should have been working behind the scenes to remove the “red mist” in everyone’s eyes and “get on with it”.

I had hopes that the pre-match handshake ritual for the match at Old Trafford would not dominate the headlines.  When the ritual was dispelled for Chelsea’s match with QPR in the FA Cup in January, I had hope of the same for this game, feeling that “prevention” was better than cure. 

Then Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish both professed in pre-match interviews their confidence of handshakes happening, and underlined the need for the match to be remembered and conducted in the right spirit.

So what went wrong during the handshakes?

Why did Suarez choose not to wait for a response to his initial offer of his hand from Evra?  Why did he not linger for Evra’s response (indeed, had he done, he might have been surprised to find his hand in the Frenchman’s in closure)?  Looking at the footage, one can see Evra is slow to raise his hand to Suarez – but he eventually does – perhaps Evra himself has a moment of doubt.  The conspiracy theorists argued Evra conspired the process to paint Suarez as the loser in the exchange, but I’m fairly sure no-one will have had any concerns to Suarez waiting a couple of seconds longer insisting a handshake.  In fact, had he done so and Evra refused – that would made all the difference to Suarez’s reputation (positively, of course). Suarez could have taken control of the situation.  Instead he yielded to it.

Almost immediately Ferdinand refuses Suarez’s hand – and while Rio maintains the reason as a loss of respect for Suarez, the act contributed by aggravating the whole situation (not to mention bringing Rio into the argument unnecessarily).  I don’t dispute Rio is entitled to have no respect for Suarez – but Rio should have responded the way Rooney chose to, by distancing himself entirely and leaving the situation between Evra and Suarez where it belonged.   

All this took away from a good match – where Manchester United tactically broke down Liverpool very well.  It took some time, but Liverpool’s obvious threat from the flanks (especially Glen Johnson) was slowly nullified by astute pressing from Valencia and Giggs, supported by the forward runs of Rafael and Evra in tow.  Eventually Liverpool were forced to build through the middle, something they aren’t very good at – allowing Giggs, Carrick and Scholes to draw more defenders in, creating gaps for Welbeck, Rooney and Valencia to exploit.  Liverpool forgot their 1st half notes and switched off for both goals from Rooney – and while Liverpool’s consolation goal was fortuitous from a dubious free kick, there was little danger of Manchester United losing their lead.

And then immediately the ugly scenes reared their head again, as Evra, not dissimilar to Emmanuel Adebayor in 2009 against Arsenal, charged down the field to celebrate the win, first jumping in front of Suarez in delight, then to remonstrate with the Liverpool fans at the Stretford End.  Adebayor was fined £25,000 and received a 2 match ban for his similar incident, which was found by the FA to have the potential to cause a public incident2 – and I wonder if Evra will find his way to similar punishment – but even if that is not the case, I immediately ask – what if Evra had celebrated with his teammates, with his fans, away from the lure of heightening tensions amongst crowds – would he not be perceived “the bigger man”?

It certainly was another flashpoint in a match, which I think the entire football world is happy to see the back of.  I don’t dispute many a fan’s disappointment with the Suarez issue when compared (perhaps inappropriately) to the violent conduct of Roy Keane (who admitted in his autobiography that he intended to cause Alf Inge Haland serious injury in a fixture in 2001) and Eric Cantona (who served a lengthy ban after assaulting a spectator, Matthew Simmons in 1995), and while I don’t condone these actions either and agree that they too, foster feelings of disrespect – I would like to tell the Liverpool fans who attempted in vain to raise these points to offer irony did so forgetting that their own player and their own club’s principles were more important.

The reason I say this is simple – we can all keep score of who said what, who did what, and who did – or didn’t – get away with it, but it is a sad indictment on the game we love.  We all have a responsibility here – we should judge our own actions by the same standards as we do our heroes on the field.

I adore football – and I love the team I support – and I am pleased that Liverpool confronted Suarez about his actions in this game, and compelled an apology from him.

I also think people need to accept that while the journey wasn’t perfect, the destination is finally being reached.  Was Suarez charged?  Yes.  Did he accept and serve his ban?  Yes.  Reluctantly?  Unfortunately, yes.  Thankfully, he has expressed remorse for his actions at Old Trafford, and I think that will make all the difference to his long term reputation on this key issue.  Sometimes people learn their lessons the hard way.

After all, as a Liverpool fan, I would rather lose plentifully to Manchester United, with a weakened team trying their best than a side that starts to compromise the values the game is meant to be founded upon just for the sake of one talented player.  Because no matter how talented Luis Suarez is – and he is quite – and regardless of his “history” (I highlight this because he is not the first, nor will he be the last “controversial” player) – Liverpool stands for something. 

I hope any fans who disagree with this realise if Luis Suarez (or any other player) decides that while playing for Liverpool to display a lack of sportsmanship and respect that undermines not only the principles of this club, but the very foundation of this beautiful game, perhaps he isn’t a fit for Liverpool. I recognise that this is a personal issue for Suarez, but he needed to avoid feeding the fire and prove himself the bigger man.

I have confidence in Suarez though, and I have little doubt that he can rebuild his reputation – his apology after the game, and Liverpool’s response have moved swiftly to ignite some hope and confidence that sanity can prevail.  He has immense talent, and I would love for him to unearth its full extent while residing at Anfield.  He has the choice to let his football do the talking.  For his sake – and to some extent, Liverpool’s – I really hope he does.

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