If the managing director of Liverpool FC has an ounce of commercial sense, he will ensure that the club shop stocks an impressive range of Hannibal Lecter face masks bearing Luis Suarez’s image when the new season begins in August.
Time will tell whether the human pitbull from Uruguay, who will of course remain on the staff, will be forced to wear one himself. But members of the Kop will love their eccentric genius all the more for his sub-Tysonic antics of Sunday afternoon, and be overjoyed to wear the mask in homage.
For the moment, the MD in question, Ian Ayre, has other matters on his mind. Mr Ayre has been forced to cancel a business trip to Australia and the Far East “to oversee an internal investigation” into the latest seismic scandal to rock the beautiful game to its foundations. Quite right, too.
It will take several weeks, if not months, to review the footage and conclude that Mr Suarez’s tough, no-nonsense counterstrike to the injustice of conceding a penalty to Chelsea – for no more compelling reason than blatantly handling the ball in the box – was to sink his fangs into Branislav Ivanovic’s arm.
Of course, it may yet be agreed that an “internal investigation” and whatever tribunal the FA sees fit to hold before banning him for 10 games are inadequate. Perhaps Lord Leveson, or even Lord Hutton – if the Sheltered Home for Retired Judicial Buffoons can spare the old boy – should head a full judicial inquiry.
It would be crazy to understate the significance of what Jamie Redknapp has rightly identified not as a show of babyish spite, but “an incredible act of brutality”. A footballer with a known history of biting opponents bit an opponent, and when something so unforeseeably shattering takes place we demand to know why. How easy it would be, and how foolish, glibly to dismiss this as nothing more than a celebrated nutter conforming to type. The honour of not only Liverpool FC but of the game as a whole, even perhaps of society itself, is at stake. This is no time for flippancy.
Ah well, these outbreaks of hysterical moral outrage erupt seldom and fade quickly, and we must suck all the fun out of them before they stale. This one may prove the most enjoyable of its genre since Eric Cantona added martial artist to his burgeoning CV when he kung-fu kicked a Crystal Palace supporter in the chest. “I’m shaking, Jonathan, shaking,” a tremulous Alan Mullery informed the foghorn Jonathan Pearce on Capital Gold that night at Selhurst Park in 1995, and many years later the delightful Mullery was still believed to be quivering uncontrollably like a malaria sufferer denied his quinine
Needless to remind you, Cantona did not leave Manchester United after that. Had he been a less invaluable member of the squad, perhaps Alex Ferguson would have offloaded him to Everton, and stormed the moral high ground to thunder, with all the passion of the racehorse-owning former Marxist shop steward from Govan, about eradicating this bloody stain on United’s reputation. In the event, Cantona was as indispensable to Ferguson then as Suarez is to the present Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers now – and in football, as in every other sphere of public life, expediency always trumps synthetic disgust.
Few pundits have excelled in this latter field in recent hours more impressively than Graeme Souness, the Liverpool legend who is now a pundit on Sky. Shaking off his habitual reticence (I met him long ago, and asked if he thought he was the man to turn Tottenham around. “Son,” he bashfully replied, “the club I could’nae turn round has yet to be built”), Souey has spoken movingly of that paramount need to protect “the good name of the club”. This is a concept on the same plinth of the credibility pantheon as the entity which sprung to life after Fabrice Muamba’s near-death experience, “the Football Family”.
Doubtless there is something peculiarly and viscerally distasteful about biting, a form of combat most people outgrow in kindergarten. Whether it is more damaging to the good name of the club than a studs-up challenge palpably designed to produce a career-threatening fracture of an opponent’s leg is a question above my pay grade.
Even if the gravest outcome from a Suarez nip would be a tetanus jab, crude moral relativism has no place here. If it did, one would have to consider whether biting an arm is more or less a reputational disaster for Liverpool than the show of solidarity accorded Suarez, after he racially abused Patrice Evra, by then manager Kenny Dalglish and the whole squad (all of whom wore a T-shirt bearing his silhouetted image), and almost the entire Anfield crowd.
Liverpool would no more allow the odious little horror to walk alone than Chelsea’s management, playing staff and supporters would dream of jettisoning the endlessly revolting John Terry.
Without wishing to preempt the findings of ensuing investigations, internal and external, perhaps one lesson to be drawn is this. Any football club is a tribe, and while it is capable of nobility and greatness, as with the heroic commitment of Dalglish and others to the victims of Hillsborough, whatever role morality has within it devolves solely from tribal loyalty.
If Suarez bit the eyes out of an opponent, the only distress on the Liverpool bench and in the Kop would concern any damage done to his teeth. If a player in the Lilywhite shirt of my beloved Tottenham celebrated scoring the winner in the Champions League final by lifting his shirt to reveal a swastika chest tattoo, he would be forgiven long before the trophy was raised. As a Manchester City-supporting friend of impeccable liberal sentiments once said, of the Thai owner Thaksin Shinawatra, in less exalted times for that club, “I couldn’t give a damn about his human rights record so long as he brings us mid-table respectability.”
This is football, the most addictively and gruesomely amoral sport known to humanity, and this is why Luis Suarez would remain not merely a Liverpool player but a Liverpool hero if he extended his repertoire to eat a linesman’s liver with fava beans and the requisite nice Chianti.