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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era