Monday, 2 January 2012

Suarez - end of the saga?

The FA's Independent Regulatory Commission has published its detailed reasoning (115 pages) in the matter of the FA and Luis Suarez, Liverpool's Uruguayan striker. In reality this was Suarez v Patrice Evra. Evra complained during, and after, the Liverpool v Man Utd Premier League match in November that he had been racially abused by Suarez. Initially Evra believed that he had been called a 'nigger'. He complained to the referee Andre Marriner and after the game to fellow players, Sir Alex Ferguson and then most dramatically to Canal Plus live on French television. Later it transpired that he had misunderstood the Spanish translation of 'negro' ('black' or 'blackie'). The FA Disciplinary Regulatory Team conducted an exhaustive inquiry, interviewing players, linesmen, Marriner and various team officials as well as scrutinising footage from TV companies including some which was not originally broadcast. Evra and Suarez were interviewed under taped conditions. The investigation was complicated by the linguistic difficulties which arise from a Premier League dominated by nationalities from across the globe. Suarez addressed Evra in a South American latin dialect Spanish. Evra, a multi lingual, but predominantly French speaker, also spoke to Suarez in his version of Spanish. Directly after the game, Daniel Comolli, Liverpool's Director of Football and a Frenchman, spoke to Suarez in Spanish before reporting Suarez's version of events to the referee. Dirk Kuyt gave evidence in the proceedings. He had spoken to Suarez after the game in Dutch. Suarez is an able dutch speaker having spent a number of seasons at Ajax Amsterdam. The interpretation and comprehension of these conversations was a major obstacle to the enquiry. The FA sought the assistance of linguistic experts and received detailed reports as to the nuances and cultural differences of various words and gestures. Ultimately these reports were accepted by both sides.
Both sides were represented by legal teams. They had the opportunity to make representations with regard to the composition of the Commission. Interestingly at the disciplinary hearing before the Commission, Luis Suarez was allowed to have a 'friend' sit with him during the hearing and his testimony. The Commission recognised that this was a serious matter with potentially profound consequences for the player. Suarez was 'accompanied' by a member of staff from Liverpool Football Club.
Suarez in effect faced 2 charges.He was accused of using insulting words or behaviour. Additionally this was alleged to have been aggravated by the insults making reference to race or ethnicity, in htis case the colour of Evra's skin. The Commission ruled that it was not deciding whether Suarez was a racist per se, but whether in this instance he was guilty of the relevant conduct. Indeed Evra had stated baldly in his witness statement that he did not believe that Suarez was generally racist and indeed that he had previously had a high regard for him, particularly in playing terms.
In essence the Commission had to decide on the balance of probabilities whether Suarez had abused Evra and made reference in so doing to his race or ethnicity. The burden of proving the allegations lay with the FA. The seriousness of the allegations and the consequences for Suarez if convicted, were taken into account in deciding whether the allegations were found to be proven. In other words the Commission imposed upon itself extra caution before arriving at its verdict.
Although witness statements had been served in advance, the Commission heard evidence in chief from the main protagonists in order to get an enhanced flavour of their cases. Suarez was assisted throughout by an interpreter. Evra gave his evidence in English and although he had an interpreter available to assist him, he did not ultimately find it necessary to use their services.
The TV footage assisted in as much as it showed the sequence of events and the comings together between the 2 players, but it was of only limited assistance with regard to what was actually said as for the majority of the time the camera did not capture the mouths of the 2 players. Interestingly and significantly, Suarez was captured pinching Evra's skin during the exchange. Evra had not been aware of this at the time. Evra stated that he had been called 'negro' 7 times by Suarez. Suarez claimed in his testimony to have only used the word once and in a context which was not insulting.
The case boiled down to the credibility of each side. What was determinative in my opinion was that Evra came across impressively before the Commission. He was straightforward. He revealed that he had abused Suarez first after being aggrieved by a Suarez foul. Suarez had not heard this. Evra had accordingly chosen to reveal something which did him no credit whatsoever. Evra was consistent throughout. He also spoke well of Suarez generally as mentioned in previous paragraphs. He did not appear to have an agenda. Suarez's team never managed to show any malicious motive on the part of Evra towards Suarez in making his allegations.
The Commission were more troubled by Suarez's account. He was not consistent. He appeared to have changed his account to fit in with other evidence of which he had become aware after his initial FA interview. The evidence of Comolli and Manager Kenny Dalglish as to what had been said by Suarez immediately after the game undermined his original account. His testimony included an admission that he had clearly stated something in his witness statement which was untenable and untrue. He claimed to have pinched Evra in an act of conciliation, but subsequently conceded that this was incorrect and implausible. The Commission found that his case had altered to take account of the expert reports with regard to cultural and linguistics differences in South America. Ultimately they did not sufficiently believe Suarez so as to be able to defeat Evra's more compelling account.
The Commission's detailed reasoning clearly sets out their approach and demonstrates the very great care with which they approached their task. In my opinion it would be extremely difficult, indeed foolhardy given the possibility of increased penalty, for Suarez to appeal the Commission's finding  as to liability. On the other hand this is a finding that will damage Suarez's reputation forever.
Suarez was banned for 8 games. Looking at Liverpool's approaching fixtures it seems likely that Suarez would miss 4 Premier League games and 4 cup matches if he accepted the punishment and did not appeal.
Liverpool's decision to wear t - shirts supporting the player post the announcement of the verdict appears particularly ill advised now in the light of the published reasoning.
Should Suarez appeal the sanction? There is little precedent. In 2002 John Mackie, a Reading player, admitted racially abusing Carl Asaba of Sheffield United. He apologised the following day and donated 2 weeks' wages to Anti Racism causes. Sheffield United accepted the apology. Nonetheless the FA suspended him for 8 matches of which 5 were suspended. Mackie's career never really recovered. Suarez is of course a far more prominent international player. The starting point for the Suarez Commission was a suspension of 4 games. This is arrived at, in accordance with the FA rule book, by doubling the  automatic sanction for a dismissal for foul and abusive language. The commission has doubled this. Their reasoning included their finding of a number of aggravating factors. They found that Suarez was guilty of 'multiple uses of insulting words' rather than an isolated incident. He specifically targeted Evra and stated that 'he kicked him because he was black' and 'he did not talk to blacks'. The exchanges had taken place in multiple phases in a heated environment. Undoubtedly the fact that Suarez's actions significantly undermined anti - racism campaigns was a major factor in the sanction. Suarez was made an example of.
The reality is that it would be a major climbdown if the sanction were to be reduced on appeal. The   message that racist abuse will not be tolerated would be significantly weakened. In my opinion this will not happen. Liverpool have got themselves into a corner, doing everything to support their player, but now left looking somewhat foolish. Their previous demands, that Evra be sanctioned if Suarez was vindicated, now look very ill judged. Evra on the other hand emerges as honest and reasonable. The sensible thing would be for Suarez and Liverpool to accept the punish and move on. Common sense does not always prevail in football however.

1 comment:

  1. Sadly many people look up to an emulate football players and will deem that such actions must be acceptable regardless of the legal outcome, merely because ________ did it. Any form of intolerance and bullying - whether physical, emotional or mental - must be stopped and people must be made accountable for their actions. It is time for a new series of role models in the world. A role model that promotes inclusion and acceptance. All people regardless of colour, orientation, background have something to contribute to the world and the days of judging people based on something so superficial are thankfully coming to an end. Considering the high viability that various athletes hold, they must be looked at to lead the way.