Messi makes us smile while Suarez shows us the game's ugly new face

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The Independent Online

On the night Lionel Messi reminded us that uncommon grace can still occasionally walk easily alongside the highest achievement, Luis Suarez was still locked away from the kind of uncomplicated acclaim that once again bathed football's fabulous Little Big Man in Zurich.

While Suarez's apologists, led by his Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, insisted that he owed the game no more than his most ruthless accomplishment, Messi was suggesting that his unprecedented fourth straight Ballon d'Or should really have been handed to his relatively unheralded Barcelona team-mate Andres Iniesta.

The images of two remarkably gifted footballers were separated by more than a large slice of Europe. Messi's argument for Iniesta was that he was the heartbeat of Spain's three straight major international tournament victories.

For Suarez, as he awoke to another day of fierce controversy, Rodgers and TV analyst Gordon Strachan argued that he was doing no more than his professional duty when he plundered his handball goal at non-league Mansfield on Sunday and celebrated in his usual way, which of all things happened to be a kiss of his wrist.

Mansfield said Suarez had come as a thief in the night. Strachan countered that expecting Suarez to acknowledge his offence was as sanctimonious as demanding that double-yellow-line parking offenders own up to their crimes.

Strachan's submission was maybe one of the starkest admissions that expecting any kind of honour system in English football is perhaps the last word in wishful thinking. We had, as it happened, some more random evidence of this when, 24 hours earlier, Newcastle's Shola Ameobi received a second yellow card for an innocuous collision with Brighton's David Lopez. In a gut-wrenching close-up, we saw Lopez, ostensibly rolling in agony, taking a peek at the referee to see the effect of his theatrics.

The Mansfield keeper Alan Marriott claimed that Suarez laughed as he smashed the ball into the net. It would not have been the least surprising development in the career of a player who inflamed a good part of Africa when during the 2010 World Cup he was sent off for handling the ball on his own goal-line, then celebrated wildly when Ghana missed the resulting penalty.

This is a natural-born winner at all costs and when his defenders say he is the victim of hypocrisy they are merely drawing their own line on the extent of the decline of anything that might pass for sportsmanship in the English game.

The imperative to win, in any way possible, has become so all-consuming that the gesture of Liverpool's Robbie Fowler in protesting against a penalty awarded against his opponent David Seaman 16 years ago has become so quaint, so remote, it might have been dreamt up at King Arthur's Round Table.

Of course, it is ludicrous that Liverpool's expulsion of Mansfield from the FA Cup was made possible by a goal that was the direct result of foul play. It was still another example of the often catastrophic consequences of the game's negligence of technological assistance.

Goal-line technology is said to be the most vital requirement but the need for wider application has grown relentlessly, partly because of the increased speed, partly because of the scale of the cheating. No, we can no longer expect cheats, any more than erring motorists, to admit their crimes. So why not remove the last twinges of moral responsibility?

When Thierry Henry performed his outrageous skulduggery in 2009 to deny Ireland's challenge for a place in the World Cup finals, Arsène Wenger said that he felt most sorry for the referee because he appeared to be the last person in the world to see the extent of the crime. When the referee of the England-Germany game in the last World Cup saw at half-time by what extent Frank Lampard's shot had crossed the line, he exclaimed, "Oh, my God."

It was different in the final in Berlin four years earlier when the fourth official pointed out that Zinedine Zidane had headbutted an Italian opponent. That was an example of football being delivered from its own negligence. There was no such salvation in Mansfield on Sunday.

Also inevitable was the elaborate defence of Suarez. Much of his play this season has indeed been quite extraordinary. But does he qualify for any domestic version of the kind of honour that Messi sought to deflect in the direction of his comrade Iniesta last night? Can he be said to have enhanced our belief in the enduring inspiration of football?

Does Suarez take us, like Messi, beyond the boundaries of our own prejudice? Does he make us feel good about football? No, he doesn't and why would he when he is told that stealing a goal is no worse than dodging a parking fine?