James Lawton: An emphatic stand against racism in English football

The men charged with one of the trickiest decisions in FA history were unequivocal

Negro or negrito, it doesn't really matter now. Sometimes it's not what you say so much as how you say it, and how many times you do so and the effect it is plainly having in the hair-trigger atmosphere of a match between such ferocious rivals as Liverpool and Manchester United. That certainly was the conclusion of the independent regulatory panel of three which last night accepted the allegations of Patrice Evra and banned Luis Suarez for eight matches.

As it did so it swept aside the sophistry of the brilliant Uruguayan's defence that he had done nothing worse than slip into a cultural divide, that what he said to an enraged opponent two months ago wouldn't have raised the eyebrow of a black compatriot back home in Montevideo.

It is the kind of argument which can hold up a court for some time – as it did in this minefield of a case which represented such a huge challenge to the nerve and the working morality of the rulers of the game in this country – but had it been accepted the chances of success in similar prosecutions in the future would have slumped to around zero.

There would have been a precedent for the niceties of one man's understanding of what might constitute a serious offence against the pride and the dignity of another. Instead, the judgement was that if Suarez had offended in a way that may have been subtler than when he bit an opponent in the Dutch league – and earned the nickname of the Cannibal of Ajax – he had still crossed an unacceptable line.

The implications are heavy for anyone who, had the outcome been different last night, might have been tempted to join in any regression to the days when racism was such a harsh reality in the English football.

Certainly, although John Terry denies the allegations, it might create a new level of tension for the Chelsea and England captain, who awaits the deliberations of the Crown Prosecution Service as it weighs the evidence in the charge of Anton Ferdinand that he too was a victim of racial abuse.

The adjudicating panel was led by QC Paul Goulding but it is hard not to believe that he received powerful underpinning from his colleague Denis Smith.

A magnificent centre-half for Stoke, and a manager who knew both success and failure, Smith went into the hearing under the bizarre suggestion that an old professional connection with Sir Alex Ferguson's son, Darren, might make him a less than impartial arbiter. For anyone who knew him, the theory might have been etched crudely in crayon rather than tweeted. Indeed, Smith's long, injury-strewn but superbly indefatigable involvement in the hard end of professional footballer made him eminently qualified to note the difference between nuances of language, and intention, and the realities of serious provocation and insult.

Even so the long days of deliberation suggest a near forensic examination of the claims and counter-claims. Surely, it had to be so.

That Evra had once had a similar charge to the one he made against Saurez rejected, and had evidence at another hearing categorised as "unreliable" no doubt emboldened Liverpool's defence of their outstanding player. It is also true that last night's verdict could easily have been shrouded in inconclusive platitudes and irresolute action.

Instead, the men charged with arguably one of the trickiest decisions in the history of FA discipline were unequivocal. Liverpool, predictably, are indignant and last night issued a powerful statement of rebuttal. From the tone of it, it would be surprising if they do not take advantage of the two-week suspension of Suarez's sentence which allows for an appeal.

Liverpool said the decision was extraordinary in that the issue had come down to the word of Evra against Saurez's and that their player had no record of racism, pointing out his mixed-race heritage. They also cited Evra's comment that he did not regard Saurez as a racist.

So what was the accusation against Saurez? It was one with which the panel concurred. He was guilty of misconduct and insulting behaviour and the use of racist language. You could translate that into some mild attempt at incitement to a loss of control in a player with whom you were engaged in a desperate battle for advantage. You could also say that in another context Saurez would have been guilty of nothing more than "cultural" clumsiness.

The decision was, however, much more emphatic. It said that Saurez had succeeded in inflaming his opponent in a calculated and unacceptable way. This could create an interminable argument about cause and effect but the gut instinct here is that a difficult but vital stand has been made. And, you may ask, against what precisely? Hopefully, it is the idea that racism, however it manifests itself, is in English football not consigned to the past.

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