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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Photo: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder