English soccer's governing body has sent the strongest message yet that racism will not be tolerated by slapping Liverpool striker Luis Suarez with an eight-game ban for comments made to Manchester United's Patrice Evra.
The case, which has rumbled on for two months since the teams met at Anfield on Oct. 15, finally came to a head late Tuesday with the dramatic decision handed down by a three-man disciplinary panel.
Many felt that the contentious and complicated nature of the incident – it was effectively one player's word against another’s – meant that Suarez could even escape any punishment.
As it was, he was given a sanction far in excess of what any observer realistically expected and predictably sent Liverpool into immediate counterattack mode.
"We find it extraordinary that Luis can be found guilty on the word of Patrice Evra alone when no one else on the field – including Evra's own teammates and all the match officials – heard the alleged conversation between two players in a crowded Kop goalmouth while a corner kick was about to be taken," said a Liverpool spokesman.
"It is our strong belief, having gone over the facts of the case, that Luis Suarez did not commit any racist act. It is also our opinion that the accusation by this particular player was not credible."
The concept of the punishment is entirely laudable. Racism has stained English soccer for far too long, back to the bleak days of the 1980s when players were subjected to disgraceful and systematic abuse on a weekly basis from both opposition fans and players.
The former West Bromwich Albion player Laurie Cunningham once had a knife thrown at him as he prepared to take a throw-in during a game at Millwall. The incident did not even find its way into the referee's postgame report.
[ Related: Liverpool striker Luis Suarez banned eight matches ]
Monkey chants, bananas thrown from the stands, hissing, booing, racial slurs too numerous to count and too profane to repeat, all were a dirty part of the game that took too long to combat.
That the Football Association is acting in the strongest possible terms on Tuesday is, in one sense, refreshing. English soccer had become arrogant about racism in recent times, dismissing it as a problem of yesteryear that had long been conquered. Not so.
The recent furor that followed an incident involving England captain John Terry and Queens Park Rangers' Anton Ferdinand brought racism very much back into the headlines and some ignorant comments from those who should have known better revealed that there is still a problem.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter came under heavy fire for appearing to downplay the seriousness of racism during an interview, adding that any racist acts on the field should be settled with "a handshake."
Former Tottenham and Chelsea midfielder Gustavo Poyet, now manager of Brighton and Hove Albion, criticized Evra for "crying like a baby" and revealed he had never been bothered by racist comments aimed at him during his playing days.
Such remarks were both lamentable and misguided and highlighted that there is still a pressing need to combat any form of discrimination in the game.
Yet the question will continue to rumble as to whether this was the right spot for such firm action.
Not because the argument put forward by Liverpool, that as a South American he did not know the cultural implications of referring to a man's ethnicity, was a poor one. There is a requirement on any citizen to adapt to your surroundings, especially if you are an international athlete being paid a fortune to ply your trade in a foreign land. Furthermore, there is a responsibility on clubs to educate their incoming players as to the expected level of behavior.
The doubts simply center around whether there was enough evidence to throw the book at Suarez in this way. Liverpool is highly likely to launch itself wholeheartedly into an appeal that could see the issue continue to be at the forefront of soccer for weeks and months to come.
"Nothing we have heard in the course of the hearing has changed our view that Luis Suarez is innocent of the charges brought against him and we will provide Luis with whatever support he now needs to clear his name."
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