Liverpool left diminished by mishandled case
Dalglish's utter certainty that Suarez was innocent and confusion in the club's defence reflects badly on Anfield, writes Ian Herbert
It is a tale of two testimonies – one of them almost entirely consistent, one of them utterly chaotic. But the account of why Luis Suarez has been convicted of abusing Patrice Evra – laid out in such unsparing detail by an independent commission that we even know that a blue-and-yellow coin was spun for kick-off on the fateful October afternoon Liverpool met Manchester United at Anfield – is also one of two managers.
Sir Alex Ferguson, whose player came to him in the dressing room with an allegation of racial abuse, was the manager who calmly placed the course of the future in that individual's hands – "What do you want to do about it?" he asked Evra – and who then took control of the situation. Ferguson's instruction that referee Andre Marriner ought to take a verbatim note when he and Evra arrived in the officials' room showed an individual who knew just how significant this allegation was.
Kenny Dalglish, the manager who had everything to lose from a flabby defence of Suarez, was far less in touch, although he certainly knew what was heading his way before Marriner's fourth official, Phil Dowd, knocked on the Liverpool dressing room door at around 2.45pm on 15 October and asked him to head for the officials' room.
Walls have ears in the tight back corridors of Anfield and Liverpool's match-day administration manager, Ray Haughan, had overheard Marriner's conversation with Ferguson and Evra. Yet Dalglish responded to Dowd with a joke about the rule preventing managers not approaching officials within 30 minutes of the final whistle and when Marriner later explained Evra's accusation, the manager's response was: "Hasn't he done this before?"
The implication that Evra is an unreliable witness has been rehearsed over and over by Liverpool in the past two months but the Football Association's commission's115-page reasoning for Suarez's conviction reveals it was entirely absent from the Uruguayan's case, put by Peter McCormick QC.
The written note Ferguson suggested Marriner take in that chaotic first hour at Anfield proved deeply significant in the commission's damning conclusion. It described as "implausible" and "simply incredible" Suarez's defence: that his use of the words "por que, negro?" in an exchange with Evra was entirely harmless. If there was one lesson Liverpool might have taken from United on matters like this, it is the importance of intelligent, consistent evidence. When United claimed racial abuse against Chelsea after the so-called "Battle of Stamford Bridge" in 2008, a commission damned the club for the "inconsistent" and "exaggerated" evidence of coaches Mike Phelan and Tony Strudwick.
Liverpool's evidence was worse – incomparably worse – and the club appear to have been blinded by pure contempt that a United player should lay this claim at their door. Liverpool threatened to pursue a defamation claim against Evra within 24 hours of his allegation and when Gordon Taylor, the Professional Footballers' Association chief executive, appealed for dialogue and an apology for any offence caused, Liverpool would have none of it.
It is important to note the allegations first made against Suarez have not been proven in their full, initial enormity and the commission has not found the striker guilty of any form of racism. Evra initially alleged an n-word far more vile than "negro" but now accepts he did not hear "nigger".
In interview, the defender translated negro as the French negre, which translates as both "negro" and "nigger". But the insulting and abusive reference to the colour of a player's skin is still outlawed under the FA's Rule E3(1) for good reason and it has been in their hapless effort to get their story straight on this issue that Liverpool have embarrassed themselves.
There was an attempt to get some facts out that afternoon at Anfield, although it proved to be a fateful enterprise. The commission's report lays out that Liverpool's director of football, Damien Comolli, an accomplished linguist, realised the gravity of the accusation against Suarez, questioned him in Spanish and then related to Marriner the Uruguayan's story of how, after Evra had said, "Don't touch me, South American", Suarez had replied, "Por que, tu eres negro?" (Why, because you are black?) – words corroborated by Dalglish and Dirk Kuyt. Comolli actually spelt out the Spanish to Dowd, Marriner's designated note-taker, though did not appeared to realise that this aggressive allusion to a player's skin colour might be a breach of Rule E3(1).
Perhaps Suarez did, because he subsequently claimed his response to Evra had merely been "por que negro?" (why, black?) positing "negro" as a colloquial Uruguayan Spanish term of affection. When the discrepancies between Suarez and his colleagues' witness statements became apparent, Liverpool clearly realised they had a problem and stories started changing. Suarez claimed a "misunderstanding" on the parts of both Comolli and Kuyt, who agreed that yes, of course, there must have been one. But the commission saw right through that and deemed Suarez's claims that "negro" was a term of such affection that he used it on team-mate Glen Johnson equally hollow.
The commission's commendably exhaustive work included the use of Manchester University linguistics experts to show that colloquial "negro" is equally likely to be a malign term.
In the absence of video to lip-read from, it also analysed the players' body language at moments crucial to the case. There was no endearment about the way Suarez used "negro" – and no evidence that Evra had said "South American" in the first place. The Uruguayan's reliability as a witness collapsed and, in a case which pitted Evra's word against his, the remainder of the Frenchman's accusations were found to be valid.
Evra's reputation was actually enhanced. He admitted he initiated the verbal sparring with Suarez with the phrase "concha de tu hermana", which translates literally as an unprintable slight on an individual's sister, though colloquially as "you son of a bitch".
But obscenity is not the same as dishonesty and the United player's preparedness to admit he had started things – "even though it reflected badly on him" as the commission noted – counted in his favour as an "impressive witness who gave evidence... in a calm, composed and clear manner". The commission tried six times to pin Suarez down on another piece of his evidence, relating to why he touched Evra's head, before he was forced to admit that an initial statement suggesting this had been a conciliatory gesture had been false.
Liverpool's legal team went to remarkable attempts in seeking to explain why Evra would fabricate allegations against Suarez, including the motive of "vengeance" for a sequence of events going wrong at Anfield, including Evra disputing the coin-toss.
The commission was told that Evra, who always calls yellow and never blue – a Manchester City colour – on the Fifa coin was adamant that yellow-side up gave him the right to choose ends, which he badly wanted. "We consider this submission to be unrealistic," the commission concluded.
The driver of Liverpool's blind faith in Suarez has been Dalglish, whose utter certainty before Christmas that the striker would be acquitted and free to play throughout suggests he misread the events of the three-day hearing as completely as the first exchanges that afternoon at Anfield.
Ferguson's only words on the subject, delivered on 23 December, suggest he foresaw the outcome: "Our support of Patrice was obvious right from the word go and that's still the same. The matter is over."
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