As FA Cup third round weekends go, it was pretty dull. Even the boys on Soccer Saturday were lacking a little punch as if the packed festive programme of sitting and watching football had taken its toll. There was even a feeling of antagonism as Matt le Tissier accidentally leant into Jeff Stelling’s shot- the duo no doubt less enamoured with Chris Kamara’s affable buffoonery than they had been on December 22nd.
The sterile apathy that had grabbed five of the most combustible football watchers in the country seemed reflected everywhere. Even when lower league Brighton toppled Newcastle and non-league Macclesfield found two late goals to beat Championship topping Cardiff there was an ever increasing sense of “so what?”
Then, as has often been the case since he pitched up in English football nearly two years ago, Luis Suarez happened.
As the clock wound down on his Liverpool side’s potentially tricky trip to Mansfield on Sunday afternoon, the diminutive, divisive Uruguayan striker used his right hand to control an errant ball in the Mansfield box before gleefully finishing in the open goal it provided.
The Liverpool fans behind the incident didn’t even flinch. For them, as with all fans in their position, the idea of becoming the first top-flight side in 40 years to fall victim to an FA Cup defeat at the hands of non-league opposition was too dreadful to bear and they celebrated manically.
Mansfield would later grab a goal of their own to raise hopes of a dramatic comeback but the damage to the balance of the tie had already been done.
Liverpool fans everywhere drew a breath- fearful for the fate of their controversial talisman in the court of public opinion.
Here we had a plucky underdog, Mansfield, cruelly denied a place in sporting history by a display of outright cheating. Surely a backlash could be expected. Surely Suarez, already reviled by many for his on-field antics, would be chased out of Merseyside by an army of panelists from Sky’s Sunday Supplement?
Yet, against all odds, public opinion appears to be with, not against, the Uruguayan. The general consensus being that Suarez could do more than play to the referee’s whistle. It is not for he, or any other footballer, to call infringements upon themselves.
Perhaps this is a logical and practical conclusion, but rewind three years and the same media figures who are today urging restraint were not so forgiving.
The parallels between Sunday’s dose of injustice and another famous handball- that affected by Thierry Henry during the Republic of Ireland’s infamous World Cup play-off defeat to France are hard to ignore.
Back then, on a cold night in Paris in November 2009, with the two sides locked in extra-time, Henry used his gloved left palm to control a loose ball in the Irish penalty area before squaring for William Gallas to break a thousand emerald hearts.
Henry, rather sheepishly, came out after the game and admitted fault, however despite his remorse he was widely vilified for denying the Republic of Ireland a place in the following summer’s showpiece tournament.
In a manner completely at odds with Suarez’s treatment, pundits speculated that Henry could never return to English football and that the legacy of the former Arsenal front man had been irreparably damaged.
The BBC’s Phil McNulty, who today argued that Suarez had every right to stand by the referee’s failure to see the infringement, suggested in a series of chippy tweets that FIFA ban Henry for the duration of France’s World Cup campaign.
The BBC even ran an inflammatory and completely unnecessary live blog in the wake of Henry’s faux pas- hosting calls for a disqualification, reinstatement and replay from all and sundry. The sense of national outrage- even in the UK- was palpable.
The ensuing scandal dragged on for weeks: South African actress Charlize Theron was lauded for ‘accidentally’ calling out the Republic during a dress rehearsal for the tournament draw a month later and FIFA had to emerge to publically declare that they wouldn’t bow to public pressure and order a replay of the tie.
Back in 2013, I am yet to hear anyone suggest Liverpool offer Mansfield a second bite of the cherry.
You see, we’re all guilty of double standards when it comes to this issue. Consider this: Surely the ties of national induced will to win displayed by Henry run deeper than those of club loyalty shown by Suarez. So how did the Frenchman cop such a heavy blow?
I notice that Tony Evans at The Times is one rare figure to defend both Suarez and Henry. Evans noting that, at the end of the day, winning is the thing football fans crave most.
At the time of the Henry scandal, Evans’ anger was reserved for Mick McCarthy’s refusal to pick a full strength team when his Wolves side travelled to play Manchester United in a league game three weeks later. Evans argued that McCarthy’s failure to try and win was more damaging than Henry’s win at all costs attitude.
The stark truth is that Suarez and Henry were guilty of cheating. One has been vilified, the other almost applauded for his desire to win. Yet, who are we to decide which infringements are and are not susceptible to scorn?
Winning is paramount. Suarez simply did what he is paid to do. Referee Andre Marriner failed to do his job and Liverpool benefited. So what?
If we cannot condemn a display of blatant foul-play, can we no longer discuss diving, poor tackling or time wasting? If the referee fails to see an incident, whatever it may be, is it right or even fair that this be ignored?
Well, fair enough. Accept the deception and move on. But if winning is the sole concern when it comes to football matches and the manner of achieving it is irrelevant, surely we tread a dangerous line.
Suarez attracted much ire earlier this season when he seemed oblivious by the anger surrounding his propensity to go down easily under challenges. The 25-year-old’s message was that he was in football to win football matches- how he goes about doing so is merely detail.
Yesterday, many of those who had scoffed at his perceived cynicism as to how the game should be played endorsed his mantra, and with it went a long way to changing what it means to play fair.