Few of those who have shared a dressing room with Patrice Evra will believe he acted with the utmost moral probity at Anfield on the afternoon of 15 October.
He is a street fighter, raised with 24 siblings among the tenements of Les Ulis – the same, tough Parisian commune as Thierry Henry, where you answered up for yourself or perished. At Monaco, his first big club, they remember him as the one with the big mouth. "I had a tendency to get angry and want to sort things out with my fists," he has said of the difficult three years he spent trying to make it as the only black professional player on the island of Sicily. The general view from France, where the defender's claims that Luis Suarez racially abused him have garnered minimal publicity, is that Evra will have given plenty back during that afternoon on Merseyside.
Giving something back, however, is not the same thing as getting abuse for being black and then finding your reputation being dismantled, as Evra's has in the past week by Liverpool, the club who accused him of being "not credible" as a witness to Suarez's racism. While an exhaustive FA investigation has vindicated Evra, he has somehow managed to emerge as a villain, not a victim, and the problem is that he will struggle to articulate a terribly extensive defence of himself. This is hardly an encouraging landscape for other players who wish to point out abuse.
You might think Evra will have a lot to say for himself in the coming weeks, given that he is the Manchester United player who will always stop in the journalists' mixed zones of European football and offer a compelling view.
He was the one player who was prepared to say on the night that Wayne Rooney questioned Manchester United's ability to sign top players, last October, that "if one player in the team doesn't trust the others he should not play in the team". He was also the one who declared after his club were eliminated from Europe earlier this month that "maybe one or two of us have to look in the mirror". But Evra will not be a comfortable spokesman for the cause of racial tolerance.
He is not a highly educated individual and, though raised in France, his interviews in that country are often riddled with grammatical errors with the masculine and feminine definite articles confused. The doubts Evra has about his own spoken English – unjustified though they seem – help to explain why his first interview with a British national newspaper came only last year, four and a half years after he arrived in the country.
But while Evra may not have the mental faculties of his compatriot Lilian Thuram – the footballer who has perhaps best articulated how it feels to be on the receiving end of racism – he has certainly experienced it in the raw before now, which may explain why the language which came from Suarez as United's League match at Anfield approached the hour mark angered him so much.
It was when, as a teenager, he had first left the Parisian commune he still holds dear that he was first on the receiving end. He had departed for Italy, a country where Mario Balotelli has attested to an enduring racial intolerance, and shipped up at the Sicilian club Marsala when a trial at Torino had fallen through. He has described how he was "the only black player in Sicily" and it was with a sense of curiosity that he was initially viewed in a place where they called him "the Black Gazelle". "People were asking to have their picture taken with me because they had never seen a black guy," Evra said.
His over-riding sensation was the thrill of a first professional football contract and to this day he insists that his best feeling in the sport was throwing on the Marsala tracksuit and flip-flops and looking at himself in the mirror. "I had finally become a professional footballer. It was like paradise," he recalled. But the line between racial curiosity and prejudice was a narrow one, which is one of the reasons he left the island to join Monza, after just 24 matches, only to find that things were no better there.
"We played in Palermo and every time I touched the ball 20,000 people would make monkey noises," Evra recalled. "I felt so alone and isolated." He played only three games for Monza before signing for Nice, where he was deployed as a left-back for the first time, in 1999.
This was not his only experience of its kind. When he chose the France national side over his native Senegal, there was also racist abuse from his compatriots. "I grew up amid a Senegalese culture at home," Evra said. "But we became westernised very quickly and when I had to choose between playing for Senegal or France my father told me to follow my heart. I opted for France, as that was where I had grown up, but I then came in for lots of abuse in Senegal. I was called a monkey who grovels before the white man and labelled a money-obsessed traitor to the nation. But my parents helped me get through it."
The abuse from his compatriots reveals that racism can be directed from those of all colour, including Luis Suarez, whose Uruguayan grandfather is of ethnic extraction. But the over-simplistic notion that those who live and grow up in a multi-ethnic community are incapable of the crime has somehow compounded the sense that Evra protests too much. His form this season for United – and there is no doubt it has been poor – has also compounded the miasma of suspicion.
That autumn afternoon at Anfield was actually typical of many in the past four months, as Suarez nutmegged Evra twice and generally caused him mayhem. No one is quite sure what has happened to the game of Evra, who was voted the Premier League's best left-back in 2006-07 by his fellow players, but who even looked vulnerable at times in the 8-2 demolition of Arsenal in August. James Milner made the 6-1 derby day defeat at Old Trafford another miserable one for him.
Some observers in France believe that Evra has for a long time benefited from a strong United side who have covered up for the left-back's occasional failings. The same theory runs that he has failed to hit the same performance levels with France as with United because he was less well covered in the national side. A more realistic assessment may be that, at 30, Evra has lost a little of his pace and is struggling to adapt. The lucrative contract he signed last year, keeping him at United until 2015, suggests that Sir Alex Ferguson believes this is only a minor blip.
If his own form were not enough to muse upon, there is now an uncertain Christmas, awaiting the FA's written judgement with perhaps as much anxiety as Suarez and, beyond that, anticipating the venom of visiting Liverpool fans on 16 February. It should not be so.Reuse content