Luis Suarez of Liverpool reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Norwich City at Anfield in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
GUILTY! INNOCENT! SCUMBAG! MORON! SHUT UP!
When I started writing about football, almost a year-and-a-half ago now, I thought to myself: "Yes, I really like football. And yes, I really like writing. But what I like most of all is writing about utterly depressing sagas that turn all football fan within a thousand miles into bile-spewing morons".
So, yeah, the FA have charged Luis Suárez with being racist to Patrice Evra. EVERYBODY GO BONKERS.
First of all, the necessary, even though it shouldn't be: that's charged, not convicted, and while the FA isn't a court of law the parallels are probably workable. We now know that they think Suárez has a case to answer for "abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour" that "included a reference to the ethnic origin and/or colour and/or race of Patrice Evra", and while it's probably possible to infer from Suárez's public statements both his position, and the FA's position on his position, let's leave that for now. He remains innocent. We all happy with that?
Obviously and predictably, the reality of football means that the fans may be placed in a profoundly invidious situation. Suárez is too valuable to Liverpool for any finding of guilt to lead to their seeking to dispense with his services. As such, if -- IF -- he is found guilty then those fans will have to sit in the Kop, week on week, applauding their team and hoping for general success, yet knowing that the lad up front's a bigot. Many (not all, but enough) fans will seek to circumvent this dissonance completely by either ignoring it - he's a Liverpool player so I'll support him no matter what - sublimating it - yes, he was a prick, but he's done his time - or enthusiastically joining him - nice one, Luis, you told that Manc c---. All perfectly rational coping mechanisms that fans of all clubs would use.
But why? Where does it come from, this thought that because somebody plays for the team you love, you must therefore ignore, accept, or rationalise away their faults, their indiscretions, and their sins? After all, if a club is anything then it is the fans, not the players: they are representatives, but that should just mean that the fans hold them to a higher standard than they would other players. If someone dives wearing someone else's shirt, then they're a cheat; if someone dives wearing the shirt you venerate, then they're actively damaging the reputation of one of the most important things in your life.
Part of it, presumably, is a kind of family loyalty. Aye, he's a wrong 'un, but he's one of us. Yet families are unique and strange because they're the one thing in life that you can't really leave. Nobody's uncle ever moved to a different family because they offered him more money. The overwhelming majority of footballers are transitory creatures, only wearing their shirt because they and the club stand to mutually benefit from one another. And while deep and meaningful bonds can grow between players and fans -- loyalty, affection, all that goodness -- the fact remains that players chose the club. Fans, at least in your typical model of fandom, are stuck with it.
There is, too, the all-encompassing need to win. It is a sad truth of modern sport that almost anything is acceptable in the pursuit of victory; the ends have obscured the means so completely that many fans and pundits are not only willing to turn a blind or accepting eye to all manner of deviltry, but players can expect to be castigated for not cheating. Just take a second to enjoy the bleak sadness of the two words thrown at Stephen Hunt for his refusal to tumble against Wigan the other week: "too honest".
Finally, I suspect, there is the relentless assault on the language of the game from those who package, promote and profit from football. Their game is an exercise in the extraction of money through hyperbolic, hyperinflated bullshit. Every Sunday is Super, every top-of-the-table clash is titanic, and every player who turns up at a relatively big club and appears even the least bit competent is instantly proclaimed a legend. Suárez is just the latest. And while you'd think that if any club could recognise an actual legend, it would be Liverpool -- there's one in the dugout, folks -- a player that has made 27 appearances, scored 11 goals, and turned in less than one full season's service has been pronounced as such by no less an authority than Dalglish himself
Compared to his manager, of course, he's barely more than an anecdote, but the narrative needs legends, and so it gets them. And what do you do with legends? You idolise them beyond reason, and beyond rational thought. They are the great and glorious heroes, bathing their humble followers in light, lifting you from the mundanity of human existence by their very presence. So of course you're going to let them off the odd dive, or the occasional snarky foul, or worse. Legendary status is the ultimate get out of jail free card.
I'm sure there's more, but that will do for now. They're family, they help you win, and sometimes they're legends as well. How could you possibly criticise anything they do?
It's easy. Simply decouple yourself. Not from the club - that would be unthinkable - but from the unspoken and assumed demands that come with the idea of fandom: blind loyalty, a complete lack of perspective, and the forfeiting of all rational thought. If somebody wearing your sacred symbol makes an arse out himself, call it wrong. If somebody in your colours does something hideous, call it wrong. That way lies liberation and sanity. If you're willing and able to say "him, there. Our winger. What a shit", and it's a fair comment, then you don't become any less of a fan. But you become considerably more of a human being.
Football fans hand over much of their free time and indefensibly large amounts of money to the clubs they follow. I can't think of a single reason why they should hand their self-respect over as well.