The chances are that at least one of those eleven footballers you are cheering is what English people might call a wrong’un. A ne’er do well. A nasty piece of work. Increasingly you suspect it’s far more than the odd bad apple, but half the team.
I raise this of course because of Luis Suarez, arguably the third best player in the world and with a charge sheet longer than the bite marks in Branislav Ivanovic’s arm.
Rarely has a player troubled the moral compass of a clubs fan’s than this curious little Uruguayan.
The Liverpool fans adore him, to use the theme of their favourite Suarez chant ‘they just can’t get enough’. This is perhaps unsurprising in an age where fans are desperate to see winning means something to the highly paid payers. THAT work rate, the unique ability to pickpocket defenders, those quick feet, is all that has kept Liverpool from the kind of mid-table mediocrity the rest of the team sadly amount to. Suarez has been Liverpool’s entire attack since arriving from Ajax. But at what price the club’s reputation?
To produce that vile, odd, heinous act would be barely forgivable on any day. To do it after such moving tributes to the Hillsborough victims, to the wonderful campaigning mum Anne Williams, and to the victims in Boston, brought closer to this city by the owners, is unforgivable.
In other walks of life it would of course be a straight sacking. In this case it ought to be. Unprovoked madness.
Suarez has been fined by the club (with the money going towards Hillsborough families), but that won’t stop the English Football Association going much further, with referee Kevin Friend having not seen and acted on the bizarrer incident during the 2-2 draw between Liverpool and Chelsea, with Suarez equalising in the last minute of injury time.
Maybe Ajax got it right – yes he has ‘previous’ of course. The bite in 2010 on Eindhoven’s Otman Bakkal (the same year as his cheating at the World Cup when he smirkingly robbed Ghana of a semi-final place with a handball).
Ajax decided to ban him for seven games. He never played for the club again and was sold to Liverpool for under £23m, an absolute bargain it has to be said, even more so alongside the £35m Liverpool paid for Andy Carroll.
If they’d sacked Suarez Ajax stood to lose out completely so one has a sympathy with their predicament. Perhaps the sensible course for Liverpool is, like Ajax, to get the sale, because in football the morals are loose, there will be no shortage of suitors willing to give that second, third chance.
But where does this leave the adoring Liverpool fans, shorn of their only real hope?
I put this to them. Would you rather miss out on European football or go into Europe with Suarez representing the club? The second one I’m sure. But now think again. Pulling on that shirt? Really? It’s easy to want to take him warts and all. But somehow, some time, you’ve got to draw the line. Even in football.
He’s brought great shame on a proud club that has known more than it’s fair share of real pain. There’s no place for it.
You may have noted I haven’t yet raised the infamous racism case. While it was awful, there are elements that had to considered. However damning the case looked, it wasn’t an open and closed case of racism. It was ‘guilty after forensic analysis’.
The language barriers definitely exist. His upbringing playing street football in south America really is a different world to England and it happened to be Patrice Evra who he clashed with. Evra was an uncomfortable man to be cast as the victim. He is old enough to know how to behave himself and I’m not sure he ever will. When his own manager (Sir Alex) criticised his behaviour after a United/Liverpool match you know he is no angel.
But ultimately the language used by Suarez was inexcusable. It was racism, pure and simple.
So there we have it. Luis Suarez the biting, snarling, cheating, culturally and racially unaware street fighter. With his little twitter apology for biting ending in an exclamation mark, reaching out on the idiots medium to the haters and pun-lovers, and with the club’s media aware representatives trying to avoid a repeat of their Evra case shambles.
The issue of who you are cheering from the terraces is almost taboo. While opposition fans target everything from alleged racists to alleged rapists, the underlying pressure is to get behind your entire team, unless they are poor players. Talk about a moral crisis.
I was once approached by a female colleague to ask why an alleged domestic abuser was selected for a World Cup squad.
Football coaches have to go by the law was my uncomfortable answer – if he picked a squad on morals the would be no squad. But – I pleaded with the colleague – my own view is the law should be tougher and the perpetrator (England’s best player at the time) should be behind bars.
Is it just me who is queasy when those who commit serial crimes return to action as if nothing has happened? Yes they have a living to earn, yes they have served their time, but a childish, stupid dance from someone whose actions resulted in a death is just wrong. Show some respect, goal or no goal.
I’m not saying Luis Suarez is in the criminal category but those around him should warn him he doesn’t have far to go. I’m serious. Biting is not handball.
And this really has got me thinking about who fans should look up to.
One of the least heralded of Liverpool’s former players is the Australian Craig Johnston. He was the 11th man on the team sheet, playing in a team that was regarded the best in Europe. He felt the need to practise harder than anyone else, try harder on the pitch, and was almost apologetic about being there. His crucial goal in the 1986 FA Cup Final was his gift to the fans, but personal tragedy ended his career while in his 20s shortly afterwards.
I watched him interviewed recently, barely able to speak through the emotion of his journey to the studio of the club’s channel in Liverpool. The people of the city, from cab drivers to doormen had thanked him for his efforts for the club and shown their love for him. A love that’s reciprocated. That’s his legacy, though the man known for developing the predator boot would be humble enough to wonder whether he’s fit enough to lace Suarez’ boots in terms of ability.
When Rafa Benitez returned to Anfield before the match he laid flowers and a single red rose for Anne Williams. No wonder his name is still chanted at Anfield.
But if Suarez returns to Liverpool in 20 years time it’s not now certain he’ll be welcomes as one of the club’s greatest ever players.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Al Jazeera broadcasts into 300 million homes across the globe, in 130 countries and millions more online at www.aljazeera.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lee on twitter: LeeW_Sport