AFTER weeks of obfuscation, shadow boxing, leak and brief, the waters of the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra case finally broke this week, as the FA ended the phony war phase of this hitherto debacle and actually charged the Liverpool forward.

So begins the end game, and commences a nervous wait for those of a true red disposition. Where the fear begins and ends is difficult to fathom. Naturally there is the worry of the practical consequences for the Liverpool team that a potentially sizeable ban for Suarez would effect. Perhaps, though, there is a greater anxiety for supporters who may have yet have to face some demons in reconciling sporting partisanship with what could ultimately prove to be a straight forward moral issue.

That greatest of tenets of British justice, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, is a luxury rarely afforded to those caught in modern media glare. Luis Suarez is finding this out the hard way. The British 4th Estate, whilst attempting to be seen to be treading sensitively in this case, are clearly, for whatever motive, loading the gun for the Football Association.

Thursday morning’s papers united (no conspiracy pun intended), in establishing a presumption of some level of guilt on Suarez’s part. The pre-judgement was largely masked in the mitigation immediately pleaded upon the player’s behalf, but then as equally swiftly debunked, so as to leave a the FA a clean run at vindicating their decision to now charge the Liverpool man.

Suarez, we were broadly assured, had included a racist word during the course of at least one altercation with Evra in the recent Liverpool-Man U clash at Anfield. This assertion was promptly qualified by references to possible confusion over the cultural nuances of the term used. It was possible, all conceded, that the alleged version of the ‘n’ word that Suarez chose, the Spanish word ‘negrito’, can be used in a non flammable context.

At this juncture, serious discussion of just how anodyne the term can be was surely merited. Instead the British press, near as dammit to a man, rushed to quell any reasonable case that there may be for interpreting ‘negrito’ as benign, by qualifying that as Suarez had made his claim in the heat of conflict with Evra that it looked kinda likely/defnitely that he must have, ya know, used the word in a nasty racist way.

Additionally, all papers have cited the 2003 case of Sheffield United’s John Mackie’s suspension for racially abusing a Reading player. Typically the media are seeking to put the two cases in the (ahem) correct perspective by assuring the FA that they needn’t feel the need to be as lenient with Suarez as they were with Mackie (who got a 6 match ban suspended to just 2 games). Why ? – because the honourable Mackie had fessed up to his slur straight after the match in question, unlike the shifty Suarez who still has the cheek to deny doing something that there is no evidence of him having actually done.

The rush to condemn Suarez pre-dates the FAs formal charge sheet being compiled. Earlier in the week, following evident briefings from the Manchester United camp that hinted at fears Evra may have got this one wrong, there were patronising and quasi racist references to Suarez’s ‘background’ – as in ‘to a player from Suarez’s background, the word negrito may not seem as offensive as it would be to a (liberal and educated) westerner’.

In short , the inference was – a peasant from some South American shanty town can’t really be expected to be aware of the sensitivities of racial politics, so we may have to let him away with it this time.

In the absence of balance from most of our journos, something of a serious redress is merited. So then, no apologies offered to those of a Mancunian persuasion if what follows seems shamelessly to be ‘a case for the defence’.

To the task in hand then – let’s get lawyerly on this have a good look at the issue of witnesses and their credibility. First up, it appears that there are only two of them, and those are the protagonists themselves. No one in a crowd of 45,000 heard Luis Suarez racially abuse Patrice Evra, nor did Evra’s team mates, nor the referee or linesmen. Indeed the ultimate witnesses, the myriad cameras around the ground, broadcasting the game to worldwide millions, did not capture anything for posterity or lip readers to contemplate.

So we are left with the two combatants on either side of a fierce and historic footballing rivalry. Suarez, the British press, have gleefully reminded their readership, has a chequered past. Well, truth is he doesn’t actually, aside from one incident in Holland where he attempted to bite an opponent whilst on the field of play. Granted it’s not a great asset to a CV, low level cannibalism, but it is the only ‘moral’ stain on his character. His other foibles are of a sporting nature and are ‘crimes’ routinely committed by a significant number of Suarez’s peers. We’re talking about the felonies of supposed ‘diving’ and one high profile hand ball incident in the World Cup.

However, as the Liverpool Echo noted on February 11th this year :

Less well publicised is Suarez’s charity work which took up much of his spare time in South Africa.

I care about social inequality,” he said. “Whenever I can I love being active part of organisations that promote solidarity projects.

“Football has got this tremendous power of joining people, without any skin, religion and social discrimination.”

So, there is also a cuddlier Suarez who does some charity work and has gone out of his way to declare a commitment to fighting prejudice. Not proof positive of innocence but equally not the hallmarks of a casual racist. Indeed Suarez carries no baggage of this kind with him. He has played in multi-cultural leagues for many years, and has not come close to being accused of being a racist before. His slate, in this respect, is very clean.

What of Evra’s credibility then? He may be a stand up guy who looks out for even more orphans and charities than Suarez could ever dream of, but there are some central facts surrounding this case that don’t illuminate Evra well.

Firstly, despite his allegation of over 10 occasions worth of racist slurs being proffered by Suarez during the course of the match, he didn’t think it was once worth drawing such foul abuse to the attention of the match officials. Indeed he first chose to bring his being wronged to light in front of a French TV crew. Not the exactly the appropriate protocol for dealing with a serious situation he’d had plenty of time to reflect upon.

Furthermore, despite the availability of many witnesses (the crowd, the ref, the players, the cameras), the fact that none were able to corroborate any of Evra’s story suggests quite strongly that at the very least his claim that he was abused on so many different occasions has to at best be a gross exaggeration, and at worst an outright lie.

The ’10 times’ allegation is a key one. It is so plainly a distortion that it must clearly impact on Evra’s overall credibility and is especially light-weight in the wake of leaks concerning the nature of the supposedly offensive term that Suarez may have used.

Admissible or not Evra has had his credibility called into question in the recent past in a relatable incident. He vouched for a Manchester United colleague’s view that a Chelsea groundsman had uttered a racist epithet in his direction in a post match scuffle at Stamford Bridge in 2008.

Evra protested his innocence in the petty violence that ensued, insisting he ‘didn’t touch anybody’ when photographic evidence quite clearly suggested otherwise. Sam Bethell, the Chelsea employee, it was alleged, had called Evra a ‘fucking immigrant’. The FA subsequently banned Evra for 4 matches, exonerated Bethel, and noted that Evra’s evidence was simply not believable. This incident does not a serial false accuser make, but it does not enhance Evra’s standing on the stand.

Perhaps fearing that the Suarez-Evra affair had got somewhat out of control the Manchester United camp briefed away(as confirmed by Daniel Taylor of the Guardian) earlier in the week, pointing to Suarez’s use of the Spanish word ‘negrito’ as being at the route of Evra’s ire. ‘Negrito’ – a word not native to Evra’s French tongue, yet one riddled with a variance in meaning depending upon its application. Despite this, Evra did not once seek clarification of its potential racist intent with the referee.

Regardless of the true facts of this case, one assumes that Kenny Dalglish and LFC officials thoroughly debriefed Suarez and sought to glean his version of events in extensive detail. They must have been satisfied that he could confidently confirm that his use of an ‘n’ word (if he did even use such a word) was in no sense imbued with racist intent. Had there been any doubts surely the safe course of action would have been to persuade the player to confess he misunderstood the seriousness of a term and to apologise.

There, the matter should rest. If Suarez uses a word which he says was not intended as a racial slur and clearly is available to be used by the Spanish speaking without a racist intent, then who are the FA or anyone to contradict him ? It becomes a word against word conflict between Evra and Suarez. One says pota-toe the other po-tarto. One takes offense, the other assures none was intended.

The varying nuances of the word negrito, though, could become fundamental to this dispute. A CNN website piece from 17th November carries this observation from U.S. radio talk show host Fernando Espuelas, who originally hails from the Uruguay :

“It’s not a slur whatsoever,” said Espuelas, whose show often addresses racism in the Latino community. “It’s a term of endearment. You definitely would not use that if you were angry. It would sound ridiculous.”

More thoroughly, Wikipedia expands upon the breadth of interpretation of the word and highlights why calling it simply in one direction or other is no easy task :

In Spain, Mexico and almost all of Latin-America, negro  means “black person” in colloquial situations, but it can be considered to be derogatory in other situations (as in English, “black” is often used to mean irregular or undesirable, as in “black market/mercado negro”). However, in Spanish-speaking countries such asArgentinaChile, and Uruguay where there are few people of African origin and appearance, negro (negra for females) is commonly used to refer to partners, close friends[13] or people in general independent of skin color. In Venezuela the word negro is similarly used, despite its large African descent population.

It is similar to the use of the word “nigga” in urban communities in the United States. For example, one might say to a friend, “Negro ¿Como andas? (literally “Hey, black one, how are you doing?”). In this case, the diminutive negrito is used, as a term of endearment meaning “pal”, “buddy” or “friend”. Negrito has come to be used to refer to a person of any ethnicity or color, and also can have a sentimental or romantic connotation similar to “sweetheart,” or “dear” in English.

Bottom line, then, it would seem, is that if Suarez says he meant no offence in his Uruguayan tongue by using the word negrito, who on earth are the Angles and Saxons at the FA to say differently ? This stands as something of an absolute position regardless of true intent. Evra too was simply not qualified to take offense at this word (or any other words spoken in Spanish), whether true intent was actually malicious or not.

Regardless of it transpiring that the Spanish word ‘negrito’ is the Rosetta Stone of this case or not, it seems likely that Luis Suarez will either be hung or exonerated by his own word. Without Suarez’s testimony Evra and Manchester United have no case as there appear to be no-one else willing to corroborate Evra’s version of events.

It is interesting to note that Suarez claimed, in his one interview on the matter, that he used a term that Evra’s team mates also use with the player. That’s some statement, as there is an implication that if Suarez is guilty of abusing Evra with a racist term, then maybe there’s a case for saying his United comrades also have a case to answer. At the very least one might ordinarily have expected United to formally rebut any suggestion that their players would use language which might be deemed racist.

Defending Suarez , it must be stressed, is not to relegate or underplay the importance and virtue in the wider game’s aim to ‘kick’ racism out of the sport. Of course that is laudable, but there is a need to re-iterate that in making a case for Suarez that there is not an underplaying of the significance of the problem and the ongoing vigilance required.

Players, coaches and fans have come a long way from heady days of 1970s and 80s ‘This is England’ Britain, when you could still go to the match for under a fiver, get a dodgy hot dog outside the ground for less than a quid, chuck a banana on the pitch in the direction of the opposition’s token black player, and still have change to buy the NF paper ‘the Flag’, on the way home.

Mercifully it seems a lifetime ago that Chelsea fans booed their own player, Paul Cannoville, just because of the colour of his skin. Fruit no longer gets thrown at black men on the fields of Anfield Road, and Goodison no more rocks to strains of ‘trigger, trigger, trigger, shoot that nigger’, when black footballers like Arsenal’s David Rocastle and Paul Davis roll into town.

Fortunately too we no longer have to endure the reminiscence of ex players in which they talk of the ‘chip on the shoulder’ that Liverpool’s first ever black footballer, Howard Gayle supposedly carried . No longer either do we need to hear managers and pundits reflecting that although an Englishman (of West Indian descent) such as Crystal Palace’s Vince Hilaire may be tearing it up in August, you just wait to see how he hides when our Russian-style winters set in.

The road to reasonableness has been long hard, and perhaps reassuringly we now watch a sport where allegations like we are seeing in the Suarez-Evra case are taken very seriously indeed. Sepp Blatter’s suggested remedy, that an old world hand shake and back slap, will suffice in quelling outbreaks of racist vitriol, will clearly not do.

Having noted this, surely the powers that be, at the FA in this case, must be equally vigilant that they do no belittle a noble struggle by witch hunting and gratuitous example-making. The football fan is not inherently stupid. He/she will see through tokenism, and will begin to lose respect for the motives of the worthiest of campaigns.

Suarez must remain innocent until guilt is proved, and he must surely enjoy the privilege of retaining that innocence until all reasonable doubt about it is removed. From what has been put out there, from all corners, thus far, it looks as though finding Luis Suarez unequivocally guilty should be no small undertaking. He has very reasonable doubt on his side, and it should remain a powerful ally, regardless of politics and partisanship.