JUST when you thought it was safe to say nice things about Luis Suárez, he goes and does it again. The dirty, cheating little so-and-so. There were even the first rumbling suggestions that he could be a potential footballer of the year.
It couldn’t last. Once again, Suárez is the most reviled foreigner since Abu Hamza.
The Uruguay forward has again outraged the British sense of fair play. To make it worse, he didn’t even pick on someone his own size. Little Mansfield Town, those plucky non-Leaguers, deserved better, surely?
Spare us the false rage. Suárez merely did what he is paid to do: score goals. The howls of outrage are hypocritical.
There are very few supporters who are horrified when their team cheat to score or stop a goal. Liverpool fans would have been grinning all the way back to Merseyside last night. Few bleeding hearts there.
It’s not just foreigners who do this sort of thing, either. Francis Lee, a man as English as Eccles cakes, deliberately knocked in a cross with a hand in an FA Cup match against Tottenham Hotspur in 1973. He gloated that the goal, the decisive score in a 3-2 win for Manchester City, “came in handy, a handy header”. It’s part of City folklore, a tale told with a smile and no sense of shame. Tottenham fans will never forgive Lee. That’s how it works.
Plenty of people will invoke some unrealistic and non-existent Corinthian spirit, but right and wrong tend to be entirely subjective in football. In Cameroon, they remember the World Cup quarter-final of 1990 as “the game when Gary Lineker dived”. In England, he’s a national treasure — he wouldn’t shift many packets of crisps in West Africa.
Those calling for Suárez to own up should consider the reverse scenario. Imagine a defender is hit on the hand in the penalty area and the referee misses it — as frequently happens.
Would anyone expect the player to alert the official and ask him to give a penalty to the opposition? It would almost be a sacking offence. So why would anyone expect the Liverpool forward to act differently?
It is easy to make a case that Suárez deserves his folk demon status. He bit Otman Bakkal, the PSV Eindhoven midfielder, in the face three years ago when playing for Ajax. It was an ugly, violent incident that brought him a long suspension.
There was a long ban, too, for his altercation with Patrice Evra at Anfield last season. That racially tinged spat had a corrosive effect on everyone it touched. But yesterday’s handball — and the infamous last-minute “save” against Ghana in the World Cup in South Africa — was entirely different. The vast majority of players would have acted in a similar manner.
Across football there are numerous people who are driven by an obsessive will to win. A handball here, a tugged shirt there, are commonplace. They do little harm. There are darker sides to this obsession.
There are some who are wilfully reckless on the pitch and put opposition players at risk. Worse, there are those whose fierce competitiveness leads them deliberately to hurt their rivals. This is where the focus of outrage should be aimed, at players who threaten health and careers.
Suárez is often the victim of those who try to use brute strength to stop the opposition. His trickery and range of skills leave him susceptible to rugged treatment, some of which exceeds the standards of decency by some way.
His reputation as a diver, a cheat and a serial handballer makes it easier to ignore this. And when he is kicked up in the air, many of those who rage against his unsportsmanlike behaviour will take pleasure in his pain. They will enjoy the sight of a cheat getting his comeuppance. The duplicity involved in these moral gymnastics will probably not even occur to them.
Suárez is one of the great pleasures of the Barclays Premier League at the moment. Along with Robin van Persie, he is playing at an elevated level of skill that brings a sanity and beauty to a game that appears increasingly haphazard and physical.
He is the sort of player you love when he is wearing your club’s colours and you hate when he is in opposition.
So let’s have less of the hysteria.
The real danger to the game is when brute force triumphs over talent. That is when we should be truly outraged. Sadly, we very rarely are.
The above piece was first featured in The Times and has been reproduced with permission.