There were no surprises to be had today, at least from the reaction at the decision of the Independent Regulatory Commission to ban the Liverpool striker Luis Suarez for ten matches for biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic during last Sunday’s Premier League match at Anfield. Everybody assumed their correct position, Liverpool supporters continuing to complain about a perceived conspiracy against their club, whilst those of almost every other club in the country stood on the sidelines guffawing at both the length of the ban and the reaction of Liverpool supporters. The problem that the commission faced in reaching a verdict was the lack of precedent for it. Did it matter that Suarez hadn’t torn Ivanovic’s skin? How much a greater offence might it had been had Suarez have chiseled his incisors into the same shape as those of Count Dracula? So many questions, and so few answers.
On the length of the ban, there seems to be some sort of general assent that this was a harsh decision – ten matches is, after all, almost a third a of season. The problem with trying to establish how harsh, however, is not easy. Comparatives in this case are not easy, especially when we consider that this is the second season in a row that Suarez has been caught at the eye of a storm that has been entirely of his own making, but that didn’t stop from trying. The case of an incident involving Jermain Defoe during a Tottenham Hotspur match seven years ago has been mentioned a lot over the last few days, but, as the referee saw that incident and deemed it worthy of only a yellow card, to suggest that it might provide some sort of precedent was somewhat misleading – and that is the responsibility of FIFA, whose rules ban retrospective bans if an incident has been spotted by a referee, rather than the FA. In the absence of any sort of clear precedent, just about every incident that resulted in a lengthy suspension has been called up by both sides of what can only be regarded as a highly partisan argument in order to support their case.
This sort of selective citing of historical precedent has become increasingly commonplace in recent years, but it fails to take into account that, above and beyond the suspension tariffs that are already well known and have been in place for some time, there is nothing set in place to govern what sort of ban should be issued to a player for doing something highly improbable on a football pitch, and those that expect – or even hope – for this to change are likely to end up disappointed. In cases such as that seen on Sunday afternoon, it seems that there are few rules to determine how long a player will receive as a ban, and the most likely reason for this is that to have them would be utterly impractical, because each incident as unusual as this needs to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. It also seems that even to offer an explanation as to how a decision was reached would be of little use, as it would be very unlikely to assuage the outrage of those who take these things so personally.
The last few days, however, haven’t just seen supporters adopting a pose that is highly familiar. The end of this season is turning out to be a difficult on for the British football press. Manchester United are already the Premier League champions and there are no English clubs left in the Champions League, whilst there are no major tournaments this summer, apart from the oddly unsatisfactory Confederations Cup. It is, therefore, quite likely that some newsrooms were witness to the sound of champagne corks popping on Sunday night as an opportunity to go to town on a story that landed unexpectedly on their doorsteps became apparent. As if to underline the fact that professional football takes itself far too seriously these days, the Prime Minister was pushed into a position in which he was forced to comment on the story, but the OUTRAGE of much of the reporting on this story has been out of step with the reaction of many supporters, who seem to have found the concept of Luis Suarez biting another player during a pitch (again) to be both extremely funny and, if we’re realistic about it, pretty weird.
Perhaps the only way to make anything approaching sense of the length of the ban handed down today is to view it as a reaction to the press reaction to it all, which is hardly healthy – and would still less ever be admitted by anybody involved for what should be obvious reasons – but might at least allow us something solid to hang our opinions on other than the stream of hot air which seems to always follow these decisions at the moment, of which these very words are a part. The FA’s statement on the matter is unsatisfactorily, but it should be remembered that each of the uncomfortable positions such as that in which they have found themselves today are only partly of their own making. True enough, they should probably explain the thinking behind these decisions more clearly and a broader disciplinary framework than that which already exists might limit the inevitable complaints to a slight degree – though probably not much – but ultimately the reason for these circuses is that, increasingly frequently, players cannot be trusted to act like anything approaching reasonable adults.
Liverpool Football Club as an institution was badly damaged by its handling of the Evra affair and it is this evening running the risk of making the same mistake again, albeit on a smaller scale. The club was quick to make an unreserved apology for his behaviour after the events of Sunday afternoon, but its reaction to the ban itself give the impression that reason for the swiftness of its actions was not because of any genuine remorse over the behaviour of a member of its staff, but to try and minimise the amount of time that he would be banned from playing for their team.The point of saying this isn’t to start some sort of sermonising about the decline and fall of western civilisation, but Luis Suarez is a twenty-seven year old married man with children. He should be above biting another player during the course of a match. That much is obvious, and in this respect he only has himself to blame and, furthermore, he is letting down both a football club and many thousands of football supporters who have already backed him through that particular fiasco at the cost of their own reputations – and that much is true, whether they like it or not – in the eyes of the wider world. But that would be their decision.
Yet his repayment for that loyalty is to land himself unnecessarily in hot water again. Few expect Liverpool to offload him on the basis of this incident, but for all the complaining about the “corrupt FA” and other such conspiracy theories, there is only one man to blame for Luis Suarez facing a ten match ban, and that is Luis Suarez himself. Indeed, if there was any indication of a conspiracy against him, we might have expected him to behave on the pitch with greater caution, rather than lasting barely a year before finding himself in this position yet again. He is lavishly rewarded for his undoubted talents, but it is difficult to escape the belief that he finds himself in these positions of his own volition, and that the result of this is always likely to be stiffer and stiffer penalties for his transgressions.
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