When Luis Suarez joined Liverpool at the start of the year I wrote
that he had the ability to shine in the Premier League
but also that his fiery temperament would be put to the test.
He has given us more than I bargained for. An instant Anfield sensation, his exploits for Uruguay make Suarez beyond doubt the outstanding player in the world this year in terms of national team football.
In England, as expected, he has become the Liverpool player least likely to be popular with opposing fans but he has exceeded his own reputation for controversy
with the flare-up with Patrice Evra and the charge of racism
which has now brought him an eight-game ban and a £40,000 fine from the Football Association.
It is news which has not gone down well in Uruguay. When the verdict was announced and published on the website of El Pais, the country's leading newspaper, the comments section was full of remarks attacking the "hypocrisy" and "pseudo-moralism" of the English.
When Suarez pulls on the sky blue shirt of his country he is part of a national team which has an unrivalled record of giving opportunities to afro-descendants. In the face of protests from their opponents, Uruguay picked black players in the first Copa America in 1916.
Probably the most revered figure in the history of Uruguayan football is Obdulio Varela, captain of the side that won the World Cup in 1950. His nickname was "El Negro Jefe" - the black boss.
Among Suarez's team-mates these days is Maxi Pereira, who is known as "El Mono" - the monkey. It is a nickname which, apparently, is given and accepted with no offence meant or taken. It appears to be used in the same spirit that Alvaro Fernandez is called "El Flaco", which means skinny.
“Among Suarez's team-mates these days is Maxi Pereira, who is known as "El Mono" - the monkey. It is a nickname which, apparently, is given and accepted with no offence meant or taken”
These words are not easy - perhaps almost impossible - to translate into a contemporary English context. How do you judge the weight of a word uttered in a foreign language from a different mindset?
When Mick Jagger wailed "Hey Negrita" on the Rolling Stones song, his words were surely intended in praise. If it is true that Suarez used a similar word to address Evra, this would not seem to be the case.
But how to know when this word ceases to be descriptive and becomes pejorative? And for the FA disciplinary committee, how to avoid kicking the case around like a political football?
Suarez provided them with a problem - but also with an opportunity.
Context is crucial, not just in what Suarez may have done, but also in how it is judged. When Sepp Blatter apologised for appearing
to suggest racist remarks could be overcome with a handshake
, it gave English football another chance to indulge in Fifa-bashing.
There must have been a temptation to throw the book at Suarez and send a strong anti-racist message to the world. From a South American perspective, the length of the ban might be taken to indicate that this is what the disciplinary board has done.
Suarez sent off for handling on the line
When moral panic is whipped up, coherence tends to fly out of the window. Some of those calling for Blatter's head on the racism issue are the very people who believed that everything was fine with Fifa while Sir Stanley Rous of England was in charge from 1961 to 1974.
Rous seriously damaged the development of African football with his defence of Apartheid in South Africa - a stance which looked awful at the time and was disastrous in hindsight.
In his campaign to unseat Rous in 1974, Brazilian Joao Havelange made a point of showing physical intimacy with the African delegates. An Englishman, he reasoned, would not do the same.
Thankfully England is much-changed since then.
English football can be proud of its anti-racism work but it should be remembered that what has happened in our country is a domestic dynamic. Mass immigration starting in the 1950s brought in hundreds of thousands of newcomers with full political rights - and so the discrimination they suffered could only be put down to racism.
Luis Suarez at Liverpool
- Place of birth:
£22.8m from Ajax
2 Feb 2011 v Stoke
Football made this sickeningly obvious. The Caribbean descendants who started to make an impact on the pitch from the late 1960s had to put up with all kinds of abuse. Over time a consensus formed around the belief that racist behaviour was unacceptable.
This dynamic does not necessarily apply elsewhere.
In South America the legacy of centuries of slavery can make attitudes towards race more entrenched
- but also more subtle. Elsewhere, to the east of Europe, for example, there has been very little exposure to the kind of multi-cultural existence that has become the norm in Britain.
This in no way invalidates the anti-racist position of English football. But it does mean that if the debate is to be won - and that surely must be the objective - then there are dangers in the moralistic holier-than-thou approach that the English can be prone to take.
This issue provides a real opportunity for English football to do some good - and also for the Football Association to improve its global profile. Much depends on how it is handled.
There is little to be gained in hectoring other nations and individuals with a moral high ground position of, "We're not racist, you are". Instead, there might be room for a position of leadership with a huge dose of humility.
"This is the problem of racism that we faced in our game," could be the line to football authorities around the world. "This is what we decided to do about it and, although we are nowhere near perfect, we feel we have made a lot of progress. Some of this may be useful to you".
A few weeks ago the penultimate set of games in the Brazilian championship was named the "Round against Racism". All over the country teams had their photo taken behind a banner saying "Say no to racism. Racism is a crime".
Suarez stunner ends South Korean hopes at 2010 World Cup
The measure, though, was not accompanied by any attempt to stimulate a debate on the subject - on why there are so few black coaches, for example, or on taking legal action when members of the crowd make monkey noises, as occasionally happens in Brazilian stadiums.
The impression was that the Brazilian FA were playing politics. Its president Ricardo Teixeira had fallen out with Fifa boss Blatter. When Blatter put his foot in his mouth on the racism issue, Teixeira saw his opportunity.
"The Round against Racism" was nothing of the sort. In reality, cynically and opportunistically, it was the "Round against Blatter".
The English FA has now left itself open to the same accusation of cynicism. What Suarez is alleged to have done is wrong. To draw attention to the colour of someone's skin in a manner that could be construed as pejorative is not acceptable in our reality.
There is a clear case for punishment as part of a process of education. But the eight-game ban would seem to go much further.