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'The word negrito isn't offensive in Uruguay' - Gus Poyet speaks out


Gus Poyet says he would die in defence of his fellow Uruguayan Luis Suarez against the Football Association's charge of racist abuse. The Brighton & Hove Albion manager is not a man given to understatement. He did not intend to pour fuel on the highly inflammable Suarez-Evra situation, he assures me, when he declared last week that he had never responded to insults – even though they had been frequent during his playing days in Spain – by "crying like a baby, like Patrice Evra". All the same, there are dedicated arsonists who get lesser conflagrations going.

Sir Alex Ferguson was among those who combusted, and I offer Poyet a route out of the flames by asking if he regrets the cry-baby sneer.

But the 44-year-old is no less penetrative in verbal combat than he was as a midfielder for Real Zaragoza, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. "Not at all," he says. "He's played football at every level, in Italy too. There would not be time in his life to tell you how many times someone has said something bad to him, so it's quite funny he only says this when he's playing against Liverpool."

For Poyet, in other words, this is a Manchester United-Liverpool thing rather than a racism issue.

But is it not disingenuous of him to compare the jibes thrown at him, as a South American, during his seven years in Spanish football, with those alleged by Evra? After all, he doesn't know what it is like to be abused for the colour of his skin.

"I disagree," he says. "If you are racist, you are against someone who is not like you. Because you are from another country, another continent, or because of the colour of your skin, for me it's the same.

And in football they do it to make us react, to go crazy, so we deal with that. Patrice Evra should deal with that. Suarez is a lovely guy, and 100 per cent not a racist. I have texted him to support him and to say I'm available if he needs me."

Poyet thinks, as others have suggested, that Suarez might have used the word "negrito", and that it was misinterpreted by Evra. "In Uruguay it is a nickname for someone whose skin is darker than the rest," he explains. "It is not offensive. Such people are part of our society. We will defend them, go to war with them, share everything with them, and at the same time use that word.

"But I do understand that in England the word is used differently, so we have to pay attention how we use it. We need to adapt. Do we as foreigners need to adapt more to England than England to us? Yes, of course. That's common sense. I know things Luis Suarez does not know because I have been here 14 years. So let's use common sense and give the kid a chance."

Common sense is one of Poyet's favourite English expressions. "I use common sense for everything," he says, sitting on a battered sofa in the pavilion at the University of Sussex playing fields, which Brighton rent as their training ground. "Some people only use it when it is good for them, but if someone disagrees with me and they are speaking common sense, I will change my mind."

He has had two years to hone his leadership philosophy. Last Saturday, he took Brighton to Southampton, which is where his managerial career began, auspiciously, with a 3-1 win, in November 2009.

Coincidentally, it was also Southampton where the Uruguayan had earned himself an indelible footnote in the history of English football, for at The Dell on Boxing Day 1999 he led out a Chelsea team containing not a single Englishman. It would happen again but it had never happened before. Middle England was aghast. And Poyet told his team-mates that for that reason they had to win. They did.

"I don't agree with an English team having only foreign players," he tells me now. "But I came to England in 1997 and people were talking then about improving the technique of English players. That's 14 years ago. A kid of 10 then is 24 now, but we're still saying the same things. How can we improve English players? Will we still be talking, talking, talking in 2025, or will we do something by then?"

Poyet is at pains to point out that when he talks about England and the English, he likes to say "we" and "us" and "our". His son Diego, on the books at Charlton Athletic, has captained England Under-16s. If Diego progresses all the way to the senior squad, no one will be prouder than his old dad.

But it is still with strong Hispanic vowels and an outsider's knowing eye that Poyet gazes upon English football, and he cites Diego as example A of where it's going wrong.

"I've been watching him play at Charlton from the Under-13s, and I hear the coaches tell the players 'well done', when they kick the ball into the stand. That is a problem.

"If a defender is in the six-yard box and kicks it into the stand, then I too will say well done. Otherwise, no.

"But when you say no, the player says, 'Wait a minute, I've been playing like this 10 years, and everybody tells me well done. Now you say the opposite. So who is the crazy one? Everybody else, or just you?'"

"We need to produce players with lots of qualities. The biggest mistake in England is to look only for one quality. He's quick! But does he have a good first touch? It doesn't matter, he's quick. Or he's big! A good, big defender.

"But can he read the game, can he make decisions? It doesn't matter, he's big. That's the English mentality."