The storm over Suarez's handball is a simple case of double standards

Those defending and condemning the Liverpool striker cannot have it all ways.

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.

Liverpool forward Luis Suarez appears to handle the ball in the lead up to his goal during the FA Cup third round football match between Mansfield Town and Liverpool. Photograph: Getty Images.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle