Once Bitten, Twice Shy
There is no greater or more terrible art practiced by football fans than self-deception. (Hooliganism and racism are more terrible, of course, but they’re not arts - and one could conceivably argue that perpetrators or either are not real fans of the sport. But that’s another topic for another day.)
Flat-Earthers, conspiracy theorists, fans of Mumford & Sons who think there’s something noble in banjos and beards … they’re got nothing on us devotees of the beautiful game. We can pretty much convince ourselves of anything, provided results go in our favour. Dived for a penalty? Worth it for three points. Got an opponent sent off by feigning injury? Their lot do it all the time. The manager’s a fascist? What the hell, we beat that lot from up the road AT THEIR PLACE. A century of tradition flushed down the bog so we can flog pretty-coloured shirts in the Far East? We’re in the Premier League now, boyo, so so what? It’s all dirty and dishonourable but where’s the honour in football these days, anyway? Where’s the humanity? Sometimes, it seems the only beautiful things left in the game are Barcelona, Swansea, Germany and the beatific smile on the face of the Manchester City bank manager.
But even to the most cynical, jaded, seen-it-all-before-and-shrugged-in-resigned-dismay-at-the-reprehensible-lack-of-morals-in-the-game diehard (and make no mistake, it has become too much for some; Sunderland have lost a number of fans since Paolo Di Canio’s appointment and a fair few Cardiff supporters have binned their season tickets since the Bluebirds became the Redbreasts) some things are so far beyond the Pale that they’re somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There are some things that occur on a football pitch that cannot be ignored, excused or glossed over - and whether you’re a fan of Liverpool, Leyton Orient or Lycanthropy Rovers, biting another player is one of them.
Violence is an accepted - no, encouraged - part of football in the modern era. We’re not quite as far down the road as ice hockey, where the rucks are often more interesting than the pucks, but any one who doesn’t get a sneaking sense of enjoyment when millionaire professional footballers cattily break out the handbags and recreate the scene in Friends where Ross and Chandler get into a non-fight with some dudes over the sofa in Central Perk is either the greatest self-deceiver in the world of football or Sepp Blatter. (Which is pretty much the same thing, come to think of it.) We know it has no place in football, and we know that the more the players cattily and halfheartedly slap at each other, the more the meatheads in the Stone Island jackets will kick seven bells out of each other in pubs, back streets and motorway service station car parka, just like they did in The Bad Old Days. (Although they don’t need any encouragement to do that; firms fight each other and always will. Even people within the higher echelons of the game no longer bother pretending that hooliganism is a thing of the past. But that, like I said, isn’t the issue I’m addressing.) Yet still we condone it.
However, even the most voyeuristic tourist of on-field football scraps cannot gloss over one player biting another. It’s one of the most disgusting, bestial (or do I simply mean inhuman?) things a person can do. This isn’t a spat; it isn’t even spitting, that other great oral horror. It’s dirty, it’s degrading and it’s utterly unacceptable. So to see Luis Suarez sinking his teeth into Bratislav Ivanovic this afternoon isn’t just appalling for me as a fan of Liverpool, the club that this genius of a player and sorry excuse for a person has so let down; it makes me ashamed to be a football fan at all, because I suspect that despite everything the sky somehow won’t fall in over this.
Fans, pundits, players and journalists are all rightly outraged by Suarez’s actions - but for how long? Will Suarez be transfer-listed by Liverpool? Will he be banned from ever playing professional sport with other human beings again? The latter is unlikely and the former is only marginally more conceivable - and that casts the whole game of football in an unpleasant light. If Liverpool forgive Luis Suarez for the unforgivable (and if he ever plays for the club again, that is precisely what they will have done, and not for the first time) then they will be complicit in something rotten; if the Premier League, UEFA and FIFA don’t ban him for life, they will be too; and if we as fans don’t speak out against Suarez, and show our anger and dismay and contempt and shame, then so are we. Suarez is already pilloried by opposition supporters; it’s time for Liverpool fans to do the same.
Personally speaking, I can no longer consider myself to be a fan of Liverpool as long as Luis Suarez is employed by the club. I’m mortified that I allowed my anger and disgust at his racial slurs against Patrice Evra to dissipate, that I let myself push such abhorrence a little further back into my mind each time one of his shots hit the back of the net. To carry on deceiving myself, in the modern way, that anything is excusable in football so long as the team is winning, would leave me struggling to consider myself a human being. Football may have lost its humanity; I’d rather keep hold of mine.