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Suarez paying too heavy a penalty

31 Dec 2011 | 12:00

My last column focused on my highlight of club football in 2011, Universidad de Chile - which, incidentally, I just watched minutes ago clinch the domestic championship in style, beating Cobreloa 3-0 in the last match of the South American season.

This one was initially going to concentrate on the international game during this past year, with pride of place belonging to Uruguay for its excellent start to the 2014 World Cup qualifiers and, of course, its historic Copa America win in Argentina last July.

Luis Suarez was magnificent in both but he has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons since, the Liverpool striker copping an eight-games ban from The FA disciplinary panel for language used to Manchester United’s Patrice Evra.

The issue caused such controversy that it can hardly be ignored. I am in no way a legal expert. Also, I am not privy to the full evidence of the case, only what has come out in the media.

Nevertheless, with these points in mind and, as always, the enormous insignificance of my own opinion in the great scheme of things, I might be qualified to make some remarks.

Anyone of around my age (46) with a background in attending English football stadiums will recall how horrific the racism could be. I am proud of the immense progress in this area that has been made in England over the past 25 years or so.

But spending the last 17 and a bit years in South America has also had an influence on my perspective on events.

For one thing it has made me aware of how much the progress in anti-racism in England has followed a specifically English dynamic, one which is impossible to separate from a process of mass immigration starting in the 1950s.

South America experiences a different dynamic. The black presence has been present for centuries, the legacy of slavery. This takes the story much further back, but does not necessarily make it easier. The effects of slavery are difficult to throw off.

Brazil, for example, still has huge problems in this respect. The latest book of samba composer and writer Nei Lopes deals with this very subject.

“Brazilian racism is still terrible,” he writes. “Something that we can’t seem to cure. The stratification of power continues, and the blacks don’t have access to it.”

Uruguay, in contrast, has a much better record. Enlightened policies in the early 20th century and ideas of social inclusion made a big difference, including on the football field.

One of the reasons for Uruguay’s early prominence on the pitch was that it was quick to draw on talent from all backgrounds. The game began as an elite pursuit in South America, but in Uruguay there were fewer barriers to entry.

Right from the start of international competition blacks and poor whites were representing the country, something that took longer to happen in Brazil.

This means that referring to someone as ‘black’ in Uruguay is not touching an open wound. The word and its derivatives are by no means necessarily pejorative.

This does not mean Suarez was using a term of affection when he spoke to Evra on that fateful afternoon. But it does mean he can surely mount a convincing defence along the lines that his words contained no racist intent.

This is one of the reasons for my belief that Suarez's sentence may well be excessive. One of the key objectives here must surely be the education of the offender.

In the case of Suarez, on the evidence available, I feel that a two-games suspension would be sufficient. So long as it is accompanied by a statement along the following lines: that there may not have been racist intent in the words used but he accepts that in English football it is unacceptable to refer to the colour of someone’s skin in a manner that could be construed as pejorative, and that there will be no repeat.

If he is unwilling to make such a statement, then by all means increase the sentence but give him an opportunity to show he does not fit into the category of a racist thinker.

That it not all.

Within its geographical jurisdiction the English FA has the right to pass judgement but there is a wider aspect to this.

The Premier League is a global concern, with players from all over the world, watched by people all over the world and making money from all over the world. This case also plays out in the court of global opinion.

Defenders of The FA’s sentence argue that it is sending out a strong anti-racist message. I am not convinced that this is the message that is coming across everywhere in the world.

There is lots of historical baggage here and this is something that needs sensitive handling.

The message that some are reading into all this is that The FA, still furious at its 2018 World Cup humiliation, is trying to score a point off FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

In order to ensure the right message gets across there is a need for two statements from The FA.

One, recognising the unparalleled record of Uruguayan football in giving opportunities to afro-descendants.

Two, totally repudiating the pro-apartheid South Africa stance of Stanley Rous, the Englishman who was president of FIFA between 1961 and 1974.

This is essential to give real global credibility to excellent anti-racist work that has taken place in English football.

The FA must kick over some of its statues. Without this, it is no wonder Uruguay turns round and asks ‘who are you to judge one of our own?’

In all humility, I feel that a sentence on these lines is the best way to advance with the anti-racist agenda.

And as a final point, the case has highlighted another important issue.

It has been alleged that Evra referred to Suarez using a derogatory term for South Americans.

Following the English dynamic, this does not count as racism, since it does not refer to skin colour. Yet it carries plenty of negative historic baggage.

Welsh, Irish and Scots have similar grievances.

We need to open up the debate and arrive at a consensus on unacceptable language and behaviour in these cases as well.

About this blog

TIM
VICKERY

Tim Vickery

British-born Tim works as a journalist and has lived in Brazil since 1994 and provides unrivalled knowledge of South American football. Follow @Tim_Vickery on Twitter. Read More.

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