LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 15: Luis Suarez of Liverpool tangles with Patrice Evra of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield on October 15, 2011 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
He's a racist. No, he's a liar. No, he's a racist. No, he's a liar. No, he's a racist. No, he's a liar ... (repeat to suicide)
Were it not all so bitter and vexed, we might owe Luis Suárez and Patrice Evra a big thank you. In happier circumstances, a basket of fruit might not go amiss. Because it was remarkably selfless of them to recognise that unless they did something drastic, those of us that were unfortunate enough to sit through Manchester United's visit to Liverpool might be cursed by actually having to remember it.
Fortunately, the game is already a footnote. Alex Ferguson escapes scrutiny for his tinkering (our own Kevin McCauley excepted), just as Kenny Dalglish does for Liverpool's paucity of imagination and his baffling unwillingness to make any changes. Andy Carroll can spend another week being paid for being a footballer without having to do any of the actual footballing. Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam's special relationship with the concepts of honesty and gravity can be overlooked, as can Rio Ferdinand's galloping twilight and Ryan Giggs's wandering crotch. And Dimitar Berbatov? La tristesse durera ...
This is not me taking racism lightly. But since I have exactly as much idea as you do about what was and wasn't said, there isn't much to get our teeth into there. (Steps neatly around Suárez joke.) If Evra is shown to be telling the truth, then Suárez is a despicable human being; if Evra is shown to be lying, then he's a nasty piece of work. If it can't really be proven either way, then everyone can go on hating each other and the world will keep turning. We shall see.
But two things. First, the call from Liverpool for Evra to receive a ban if the allegations can't be proved is dangerous in its idiocy. It is a recurring and terrifying trope of such matters that "the real problem is false allegations of racism, rather than racism" (see also: every other kind of discrimination, rape), and so to equate a lack of proof with falsehood. This attitude is particularly popular among the more reductive and vicious pages of the right-wing press, but is by no means confined to such. Such an attitude acts as a powerful disincentive for anybody actually on the receiving end: if you report this, but proof is found lacking, then you will be punished. Given the general problems with proof in such matters -- he said it no I didn't yes he did no I didn't -- it is imperative that we accept the possibility that we may never know, as unsatisfactory as that may be.
The other point is the dispiriting glimpse into the world of football support with which we have been blessed. As noted by Alexander Netherton, once of this parish, a vocal portion of fans now seem to view themselves as a de facto propaganda wing of their club, and watching the troops line up behind their man has reinforced his point. So United fans piled into the fray, pointing to Suárez's litany of transgressions (biting, diving, ruining the World Cup for everybody that wasn't Uruguayan) and rallying to Evra's cause. In the other red corner, Liverpool fans pointed to Evra's turbulent summer and history of "playing the race card", in their haste failing to note that on both previous occasions the card had been played by other people. But then, that's just typical of the man. Too lazy to play his own race cards? How very French.
There is a peculiar kind of loyalty at work here: very similar to the loyalty expected of the population of a nation to its armed forces. It is supine, it is quiescent, and most importantly it is unquestioning. Dissent is met with suspicion, sustained dissent is equated with treachery. A peculiar feature of English discourse (and I suspect other countries too, though experience circumscribes comment) is that an individual becomes a hero simply by joining the army; that heroism is a quality attainable not through any specific "heroic" action but simply by occupying a certain "heroic" space. This is not to say becoming a soldier isn't brave, but heroism and bravery are different things, and the latter requires both context and purpose to become the former, else the word's meaningless. Putting a uniform on a bastard doesn't make him any less so, it just means that there is a self-interested pressure to provide unwavering fealty. Because I support my country/team, I must unthinkingly venerate all those who represent my country/team, lest my support for my country/team be exposed as a sham.
And those who rush to the (quite literally ignorant) defence of either Evra or Suárez, doing so simply because he plays for us whereas he plays for them, are falling into the same trap. The fallacy is easily exposed in both instances simply by reversing the positions: if Evra played for Liverpool and Suárez for United, then everyone would be enthusiastically marching in the opposite direction, just as enemy soldiers can be never heroes, however heroic their actions, by simple virtue of being on the wrong side.
The point is not to say that either Evra or Suárez is, in this instance, a bad person -- we don't know -- but to make it clear that they could be, regardless of who they play for. So in the interests of attempting to restore a little bit of sanity to a cripplingly insane world, let's all admit a perhaps unpleasant truth. If you have supported a professional football club in England for any significant period of time, then at some point you're more than likely to have cheered and clapped a few, maybe more, of the following: racists, sexists, homophobes, bigots, petty criminals, bad husbands, bad fathers, adulterers, tax dodgers, wife-beaters, liars, people who don't close the tops of cereal boxes, Conservatives, and instances of any of the other shades and shapes of the evil that men do. The world is full of such people. Some of them will be good at football, sometimes for your team. Recognising that doesn't make you any less of a fan, but it makes you an infinitely more respectable human being.
The Premier League takes so much from its fans -- money, time, effort -- that it is imperative not to let it take rationality, or dignity, or simple common sense. Sometimes your
heroes players dive, sometimes they cheat, and maybe sometimes they're racist, or liars. You don't have to defend a racist/liar, just because they wear your favourite shirt; you can support your club yet keep your brain as well. Passion doesn't preclude perspective.