Sportz Interactive, Jan 05, 2012

Featured Column : Liverpool and Suarez should just say sorry

By any measure, Liverpool is a great soccer club. Its trophy cabinet, stuffed with 18 league titles and five European Cups, and the way all Reds continue to honor and remember the 96 supporters killed in a crush at the Hillsborough stadium in 1989 are testimony to that. But with greatness also comes great responsibility and that should include being able to say ''sorry'' when necessary. Like now.

The word ''Negro'' is, thankfully, unacceptable in English soccer. And nothing Liverpool or forward Luis Suarez say can or will change that simple fact.

The word may, as Suarez claims, be commonly used in his native Uruguay and be spoken there without ''any lack of respect.'' Suarez also told a Football Association disciplinary panel that because his skin was darker when he was younger and because of his dark hair, ''my wife calls me Negro, in an affectionate way, and so do many of my friends.''


But, also, so what?

None of that changes the, again simple, fact that the word isn't acceptable in England, where Suarez plays. And none of that changes the fact that Manchester United's Patrice Evra, who is black, was gravely offended that Suarez called him ''Negro'' on Oct. 15, when their clubs met for the 183rd time in one of the most intense and historic rivalries in soccer.

Putting aside the question of whether Suarez was deliberately being antagonistic and whether he used the word seven times in the space of minutes, as the FA's panel found, the simple fact is that Evra isn't Uruguayan. He is French. Born in Senegal, west Africa, the United left back grew up in a suburb of Paris not unlike those that went up in flames in race riots in 2005.

France's decaying, mixed-race urban housing estates aren't places where ''Negro'' goes down well. That Evra would bristle at the word shouldn't have surprised Suarez, who has played in Europe long enough to know better. That he doesn't, indicates, at a minimum, that Suarez is culturally deaf.

So, at best, what happened on Oct. 15 was a cultural and linguistic misunderstanding between players with different cultural baggage in a league that has become a fabulous melting pot of nationalities.

At worst, his choice of words and an apparent quick pinch given Evra's left forearm were a conscious, persistent effort by Suarez to get under Evra's skin and throw him off his game by infuriating him.

That is what the FA's panel concluded.

''Mr. Suarez's pinching of Mr. Evra's skin was not an attempt to defuse the situation. On the contrary, it was an attempt to aggravate Mr. Evra and to inflame the situation. Mr. Suarez's admitted use of the word ''Negro'' when speaking to Mr. Evra was not conciliatory and friendly. It was unfriendly and was used as part of Mr. Suarez's attempt to wind up Mr. Evra,'' said the panel of three men - a lawyer, a soccer official and a former player and manager - who unanimously decided that Suarez racially insulted Evra and banned him for eight games.

In either scenario, Suarez should have apologized. Evra was, or at least felt that he was, the victim. That fact should have been recognized. Liverpool's statement Tuesday night announcing that it would not appeal the ban should and could, at an absolute minimum, have read that Suarez now understands that ''Negro'' isn't a word that flies in England, that the forward understands he must never utter it again on an English soccer field and that he's sorry Evra was offended by it.

That would have been an appropriate way to move on. That would have gone some way in repairing the damage done to Suarez's reputation.

That also would have added credibility to Liverpool's statement that it wants ''to put the Luis Suarez matter to rest and for all of us, going forward, to work together to stamp out racism in every form.''

Instead, sadly for such an admirable club, Liverpool and its manager Kenny Dalglish blindly stuck by their man. Liverpool railed that the FA and its panel ''constructed a highly subjective case against Luis Suarez based on an accusation that was ultimately unsubstantiated.'' Dalglish again told reporters that ''Negro'' is ''perfectly acceptable'' where Suarez comes from and added: ''Luis has made a brilliant statement and we will stand by him.''

On Wednesday, Suarez issued the following statement through Liverpool:

''I admitted to the commission that I said a word in Spanish once, and only once, and I told the panel members that I will not use it again on a football pitch in England,'' Suarez said. ''I never, ever used this word in a derogatory way and if it offends anyone then I want to apologize for that.''

To lift Liverpool, now sixth in the league, ahead of Arsenal and Chelsea, Dalglish needs the goal-making spark Suarez provides.

With the forward serving the first match of his ban, Liverpool looked wan and predictable in losing 3-0 at Manchester City on Tuesday night. Little wonder that Dalglish wants to stay in Suarez's good books. Loyalty is also a trait of which Liverpool - club motto ''You'll Never Walk Alone'' - is rightly proud.

Still, the simple fact is that directing the word ''Negro'' at a black opponent is wrong, no matter how comfortable Suarez and his wife may feel using that word at home.

''Mr. Suarez knew or ought to have known that these words were unacceptable,'' the FA panel concluded. ''Mr. Suarez said in evidence that he will not use the word ''Negro'' on a football pitch in England in the future, and we believe that is his genuine and firm intention.''


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester

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