At one hundred and fifteen pages and a little over forty-four thousand words – getting on, for the purposes of comparison, for two and a half times the size of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto – at least no-one can argue that the Football Associations independent commission into the allegations of racist language levied against Luis Suarez wasn’t thorough. It is now twenty-four hours since the full report was released by the FA, and the new year means that rigorous analysis it in the mainstream press may be delayed by a couple of days. The full results of the enquiry were never going to please everybody, of course, and the delay in and timing of its release was unhelpful in assuaging those of a Liverpool persuasion who felt that that this was the summation of some sort of conspiracy against their club. Was the timing of its release, they may contend, deliberately timed in order to The report itself does, however, demonstrate reasonably clearly why the panel reached the guilty verdict that it did, if the reason for the length of the ban is somewhat muddier.
The proofs and burdens of the case are made very clear in its introduction. “It is not for Mr Suarez to satisfy the Commission that he didnot breach the Rules.”, it says, “Rather, it is for the FA to satisfy us to the required standard that Mr Suarez did breach the Rules.”, before going on to add that the burden of proof required would be a balance of probabilities rather than proof beyond reasonable doubt (by way of comparison, the burden of proof required for a civil litigation case rather than a criminal case), although it is also noted, in view of the seriousness of the allegations made against him, that “we have reminded ourselves that a greater burden of evidence is required to prove the Charge against Mr Suarez”. What, however, are the central tenets of the case, which led to the conclusion that the panel arrived at? After all, this is what Liverpool supporters have been waiting for since the verdict was released a week and a half ago.
First of all, we need to clarify, as the report does, that “This case is not simply about one person’s word against another.” The report states that there was sufficient evidence from elsewhere – from videos, that of an expert witness in the Spanish language, the referee’s report and transcripts of interviews with the main protagonists and other witnesses – for this not to be the case. It does, however, conclude that “at the heart of this case is a dispute between Mr Evra and Mr Suarez as to what was said” and that, as such, “we assessed the credibility of those two individuals and examined all the other evidence with great care to see whether it supported or undermined Mr Evra’s or Mr Suarez’s account.” It is also very clear in agreeing that, “the question is not whether Mr Suarez is in fact a racist”, rather that “The question for us is, as we have stated, whether Mr Suarez used abusive or insulting words or behaviour which included areference to Mr Evra’s ethnic origin, colour or race.”
The majority of the report is subsequently concerned with answering this question. It confirms that Patrice Evra was an “impressive witness”, and that his claims were consistent with claims noted in the referee’s report of the match, the sequence of events as seen on video, as as with the testimonies of several Manchester United players, who were interviewed independently. In contrast to this, it found that “Mr Suarez’s witness statement was demonstrated to be inconsistent with the facts as shown in the video footage” and that, therefore, “The impression created by these inconsistencies was that Mr Suarez’s evidence was not, on the whole, reliable”, none of which seems like an unreasonable conclusion to reach.
Possibly the key matter in relation to our understanding of the case is, ironically, the involvement of Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool’s Director of Football, Damien Comolli. The key to Suarez’s defence against the charges brought against him was that he had been attempting to diffuse a confrontational situation by addressing Evra – in response to a question of why he had kicked him – by saying, “Por que, negro?” (“why, black?”), which could be interpreted as a friendly question. Evidence from both Andre Marriner (the referee that day) and Phil Dowd (the fourth official that day) confirmed, however, that both Dalglish and Comolli stated that Suarez had used the phrase “Porque tu es/eres negro” (“why, you are black”). The commission subsequently employed the use of two independent experts in the Spanish language to “prepare a written report on the various linguistic and cultural interpretations of the word “negro” or “negros” in Latin American Spanish and especially Spanish as spoken in the River Plate region”.
The findings of the experts, which were delivered to the FA on the fifteenth of November, did not help Suarez’s case. They stated that “”negro” is ambiguous in all countries and regions of Latin America” and that “the word “negro” is by no means… always used offensively”, but that for Suarez to respond to Evra’s question by saying ‘Porque tu eres negro’ “would be interpreted in Uruguay and other regions of Latin America as racially offensive”, although they also noted that “that the phrase “porque tu eres negro” struck bothof them as slightly unusual”. They concluded that, “If Mr Suarez used the words “negro” and “negros” as described by Mr Evra, this would be understood as offensive and offensive in racial terms in Uruguay and Spanish-speaking America more generally”, before adding that, “The physical gesture of touching Mr Evra’s arm would also, in the context of thephrases used, be interpreted as racist.”
The report concludes that “Mr Suarez’s words were insulting when he used the word “negro” in each of the comments to Mr Evra which we have identified” and that, “Mr Suarez used insulting words in telling Mr Evra that he did not speak to blacks.” It goes on to confirm that “Mr Suarez used the word “negro” or “negros” seven times in the penalty area” and adds that, “On each occasion, the words were insulting”. It takes into account the mitigating circumstances – in particular in relation to language and semantics – but concludes that “If professional footballers use racially insulting language on a football pitch, this is likely to have a corrosive effect on young football fans, some of whom are the professional footballers of the future.” On a balance of probabilities, the commission contends that whilst “many players playing in England come from overseas, with a different language and culture… Whether the words or behaviour are abusive or insulting is an objective matter; it does not depend on whether the alleged offender intended his words to be abusive or insulting.”
Considering the report in full, it is difficult to argue that a reasonable verdict hasn’t been reached, but what of the punishment that was subsequently meted out? It concludes that ” a four-match ban… would be too low and would not reflect the gravity of the misconduct”, and that “an eight-match suspension was appropriate and proportionate, reflecting the seriousness of the misconduct, balanced against the mitigation that was urged on us.” It states that the decision to award an eight match ban is “not a matter of mathematical calculation”, but is a little vague on the reasons why eight matches was confirmed as the length of his ban. It is a rare criticism to offer of a comprehensive report which seems to have been written with one eye on the high profile of the case, and which does attempt to answer the obvious questions that a case of this complexity throws up. The wilder end of the conspiracy theorist element of Liverpool’s support will not be pacified by it, but it is difficult to see what it could have contained that would have satisfied them.
What should Liverpool Football Club do now, though? The club dug itself into a trench in issuing such a confrontational public statement when the verdict was reached in the first place. No-one would have suggested that Liverpool should have cast Luis Suarez aside upon the judgement having been announced – Chelsea, in the case of John Terry, issued a statement that offered the club’s support for Terry without any of the needlessly inflammatory and accusatory language that Liverpool did – but there can be little question that the statement and the subsequent T-shirt protest at the match against Wigan Athletic have proved to be little more than a public relations disaster for the club. Piara Powar, the executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe, has stated today that the club should respect the verdict of the commission and withdraw its appeal against the decision reached. As such, Liverpool Football Club has a difficult decision to make. Even if we detach ourselves from the rights and wrongs of the debate on the subject (and, in all honesty, we shouldn’t), the perception is starting to grow, whether rightly or wrongly, that the club and its support has allied itself to something toxic, here. If the club doesn’t wish this to become a truth about it, it needs to temper its reaction to this report.
The name of Liverpool Football Club has always been associated a tradition of doing the right thing and with a fierce loyalty towards the club on the part of its support-base. It feels today, however, as if the good name of the club could be permanently tarred if there is not a response from the club which seeks to understand that there is no evidence to suggest that there is some sort of conspiracy against their club. An appeal against the length of the player’s ban might reduce it, but there is a chance that it could increase the ban as well, and any decision should probably take into account further collateral damage to its reputation. If this course of action isn’t followed by both the club and its support, there is a chance that this reaction could do even greater damage to the name and reputation of Liverpool Football Club than almost anything – within reason – that Luis Suarez could ever have done or said.
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