Football is theatre – and Rangers striker Alfredo Morelos is a box-office attraction

The 22-year-old Colombian deals almost exclusively in chaos.

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This season, Rangers striker Alfredo Morelos has scored 29 goals in 45 appearances, while also picking up 17 yellow cards and being sent off five times. The Colombian’s latest dismissal, for an off-the-ball elbow on Celtic captain Scott Brown in the Old Firm derby, has earned him a four-match suspension.

“I can’t defend him anymore,” Rangers manager Steven Gerrard said wearily after his side’s 2-1 defeat at Parkhead last weekend. “I’ve gone above and beyond. I’ve backed Alfredo more than enough. He’ll be punished internally and we’ll move forward.”

Moving forward could involve Morelos being sold in the summer, as the 22-year-old continues to divide opinion. “There is no denying he is a talent who wins us games but he has also cost us games,” admits Claire Wallace, general secretary of the Rangers Supporters Association. “His reactions [to being goaded] make it easy for the opposing team to target him week after week, and every time he reacts [badly].”

Morelos’s first red card of the season, for kicking out at Aberdeen defender Scott McKenna, was rescinded after the Scottish FA later ruled that the offence was only worthy of a booking. But Morelos has been sent off twice more against Aberdeen this term, once for throwing his arm out at Graeme Shinnie, and again for another clash with McKenna, who was also sent off for his own part in the incident. Morelos was also sent off in Rangers’ 1-1 draw with FC Ufa in the Europa League after receiving a second yellow card for dissent, having already been booked for kicking the ball away when the referee had blown for a foul.

Rangers bought Morelos from HJK for a nominal £1m fee in June 2017 after his prolific strike rate in Finland’s top division. He is both the linchpin and liability of Gerrard’s side. Yet for all the caveats attached to his questionable temperament, it is obvious that Morelos is a highly capable player. Should Rangers choose to cash in on him when the transfer window reopens, he will have no shortage of suitors.

Football thrives on a story as much as a spectacle. For the right player, poor discipline can be spun out as passion; the game needs heroes and villains to drive its plot. Morelos represents examples of both.

Born in the small town of Cerete in Northern Colombia, Morelos grew up poor. His family was rocked by the trauma following the death of his younger sister. The striker’s rags-to-riches journey has an inspirational quality. But his aggression and petulance on the pitch rubs some people the wrong way.

Football, though, is one of very few industries in which character flaws can be condoned, and in some cases, even celebrated. Paolo Di Canio, a similarly hot-headed but brilliant striker, received an 11-match ban and a £10,000 fine in 1998 for pushing referee Paul Alcock to the ground after being sent off in a match while playing for Sheffield Wednesday against Arsenal.

He joined West Ham following the incident, and went on to become a firm fans’ favourite. Harry Redknapp, then Irons boss, acknowledged the gamble involved in signing Di Canio, but conceded that “he can do things with the ball that other people can only dream of”.

Football’s flexible moral code is difficult to categorise. Its layered form of entertainment stems from some of the beautiful game’s uglier aspects. Bad tackles and bravado, provocative players and managers, an all-encompassing media; all are necessary ingredients in the world’s most popular sport. Characters – to love and to hate – are essential to the overall experience.

So, is Morelos’s behaviour defensible? That Scott Brown, who had himself antagonised Rangers players throughout the derby on 31 March, was on the receiving end of the elbow might be enough to suggest that it is for some. For others, Morelos has brought the game into disrepute.

While it seems harsh to suggest that Morelos can’t redeem himself – he has already apologised for the incident and could yet return from his suspension a reformed player – it is difficult to ignore his record of reoffending.

But, in the moneyed world of modern football, where winning matches is a high-stakes business, it also seems unlikely that Morelos’s erratic outbursts will stop someone from taking a chance on his ability. If football is partly theatre, Alfredo Morelos is always going to be a fascinating character, whichever version of himself decides to turn up.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman