We are in murky, uncharted waters. The case of Luis Suarez is unprecedented, unpredictable and potentially unlimited in its scope. Already an international incident, it is the cause célèbre which could be the catalyst for a radical realignment of world football.
The tenor of the debate is set. Suarez’s punishment is either the iniquitous demonisation of a nation’s favourite son, or the overdue imposition of a code of conduct on a game which lacks an ethical dimension.
Anger and rancour encourage simplistic judgements, and the devil, as always, is in the detail. This signals an implicit threat to the pseudo-statesmen who run the global game for their own convenience, on behalf of Fifa, an institution accustomed to the imposition of absolute power.
They subjugate host nations, accumulate vast wealth and dispense summary justice. They are not the only hypocrites annexing the moral high ground, but the ramifications of banning the Uruguayan for four months, for his latest episode of self-destructive behaviour, may not have been fully thought through.
Fifa was at pains to point out, in a revealingly urgent supplementary statement on the disciplinary process, that his suspension from “any kind of football-related activity (administrative, sports or any other)” did not preclude Suarez’s involvement in a summer transfer.
That partially neutralised a political and legal minefield, in addressing perceptions it had potentially acted against Liverpool’s commercial interests, but the threat of the issue being dragged through the courts, and mutating into a concerted challenge against assumptions of Fifa’s omnipotence, is real.
With sources speaking of a “lynching” by the “Fifa mafia”, and a social media campaign proclaiming “We are all #Suarez!”, realpolitik made it inevitable that Uruguayan Sports Minister, Liliam Kechichian, condemned his “excessive punishment” before briefing President Jose Mujica on the options.
Mujica was in hawkish mood. Even before the verdict was announced, he had defended Suarez in a national radio address. “We didn’t choose him to be a philosopher or a mechanic,” he said, “and neither to have good manners. He’s an excellent player.”
The immediate appeal by the Uruguayan FA was a foregone conclusion. In the words of its president Wilmar Valdez: “It feels like Uruguay has been thrown out of the World Cup.” Speculation that the team would refuse to turn up for tomorrow’s match against Colombia seems far-fetched, but it indicates the level of paranoia and dissension.
Domestically, Liverpool, Suarez’s principal employers, have no such right of appeal. Under football’s arcane system, they are bound by regulations to accept the legitimacy of decisions taken by national or international governing bodies.
That would seem to offend the laws of natural justice, since through no fault of their own they will be denied the services of their most valuable player for the first 13 matches of next season. Suarez will be prevented from training, and attending games. Yet he will still expect to be paid.
They are keeping their own counsel, in the short term at least, and appear determined not to repeat the mistake of revelling in his supposed martyrdom. The club have been isolated from the process by the Uruguayans, and the relationship between Ian Ayre, Liverpool’s managing director, and Pere Guardiola, Suarez’s agent, will be critical.
Pragmatism is likely, because everyone in football is conditioned to act in self-interest. Although the club could have a case for taking action against Suarez for breach of contract, expect them to take a measured view. He remains a prized commodity, though the potential impact of the punishment on any transfer fee, while difficult to quantify, may demand redress.
“It will be interesting to see what action the club take,” said Glenn Hayes, employment partner at the law firm Irwin Mitchell. “Suarez may not have been directly representing his employer at the World Cup, but the potential reputational and financial damage is significant.”
Legal action against Fifa cannot be ruled out, and the broader issue, of increasing resentment at the implications and impositions involved in international football, festers. The Suarez situation will inflame opinions, and renew suggestions that Fifa’s autocracy must be contested.
Leading clubs are mollified to an extent by lucrative domestic and Champions League television deals. But this compromises their right to be in control of their employees. Any challenge to the status quo, through the courts, has huge implications.
A breakaway Super League, long mooted, is possible because, despite their pretensions, bodies such as Uefa and Fifa would ultimately be powerless to sanction a well-funded, corporately supported, rebel initiative. It would spell the end of the World Cup in its current form.
Fifa may be institutionally incapable of dealing with a prevailing culture of greed, corruption and triumphalism, but perceptions of vulnerability will not be lost on Sepp Blatter, who refused to comment on the Suarez situation. Fifa may dispense solutions to football’s ills, but it is the game’s biggest problem.
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