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Expert Comment: Suárez bites Ivanovic

Joel Rookwood Wednesday 24 April 2013

Dr Joel Rookwood, Senior Lecturer in Health at Hope, looks at on-pitch violence in football in the wake of Luis Suárez's attack on Branislav Ivanovic.

Liverpool’s Luis Suárez has been charged with ‘violent conduct’ by the Football Association for biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic during Sunday’s match at Anfield. The incident was missed by match officials but was retrospectively reviewed, and the standard three-match ban is likely to be increased for the Uruguayan. Suárez has already been reprimanded and fined by his club, who insist their enigmatic top goal scorer will not be sold in the summer, despite reported interest from Champions League semi-finalists Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.

The Liverpool-Chelsea rivalry was reborn in the 2004-2005 season under the respective regimes of Rafa Benitez and José Mourinho, managers with contrasting personalities and philosophies, representing clubs with opposing traditions. Mourinho’s concentrated dominance of the Premier League during a three-year reign was diluted by annual semi-final defeats to Liverpool orchestrated by Benitez, two of which were in the Champions League. Terrace chants have been written and rewritten to reflect the changing attitudes of the fans.

Fernando Torres’ decision to exchange Liverpool for London in 2011 has hardly dampened the flames of resentment, and the player once idolised by the Kop returned to Anfield again in the blue of Chelsea, to a predictably hostile reception. Adding spice to an already flavoursome encounter, Sunday’s match was billed more as the return of Benitez, whose ill-fitting reign as caretaker manager of Chelsea is viewed as a temporary madness by fans of both clubs. His unpopularity in West London has only fed the already bulging affection on Merseyside, and Sunday provided opportunities for both sets of supporters to express their perspectives. Reversing the Chelsea trend, the Scouse jeers reserved for Torres were followed by songs in support of Benitez. Current Liverpool manager Brendon Rodgers, a former Chelsea employee, will not have appreciated witnessing such praise for a predecessor (who won the European Cup in his first season at Anfield), when the inconsistencies of his own debut campaign at Liverpool are subject to daily scrutiny. The weight of expectation and the lofty criteria associated with the Liverpool manager’s position can stretch the resources of even the most capable men.

The contest began with a poignant if somewhat ill-conceived joint remembrance for the horrific loss of life incurred at the Boston marathon (the owner of the Boston Red Sox baseball team also owns Liverpool FC), and the extraordinary campaigner Anne Williams who died three days after the 24th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, in which her son was one of the 96 victims. In a speech that saw his local reputation rise considerably, Everton chairman Bill Kenwright gave a superb anniversary speech – including a tribute to ‘Liverpool mums’, of whom Anne Williams was a fine example. Her tireless campaign and pursuit of truth and justice for the victims of Hillsborough were recognised with a minute’s applause, respectfully observed by Chelsea fans.

The encounter that followed this period of remembrance produced a compelling 2-2 draw, yet it will chiefly be remembered for the moment of madness from Liverpool’s number seven. His irrefutable talent is accompanied by an eccentricity that is often manifest through acts ranging from the sublime to the horrific. Sunday’s regrettable incident has not swung the exception-rule ratio in his favour. In what proved to be his last domestic game for Ajax, Suárez sunk his teeth into the neck of PSV Eindhoven’s Ottman Bikall in 2011. Later that year he was banned for eight matches after being found guilty of racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra.

Ajax’s decision to sell the man who had scored 111 goals in 159 appearances was as principled and pressured as it was financial, whereas Liverpool’s decision to stand by their man following his latest reckless act, has been questioned in some quarters. The Salto-born forward has notched 30 goals in 45 matches this season, but his club’s patience and persistence is evidence for some that Liverpool ‘redraw the line every time Suárez crosses it’. In the face of more prevalent and pressing global concerns, the disproportionate coverage from an increasingly vacuous British media, in conjunction with some hypocritical industry ‘insight’ has thus far offered meagre contribution to the debate surrounding Suárez.

Elite football clubs are encouraged to assume a level of social responsibility, particularly as their audiences include an impressionable youth, who often seek to emulate their heroes. To deny the responsibilities of footballers as role models is to downplay the status for which they are so handsomely rewarded. The personal responsibility of fans, enforced by a draconian legislative campaign and scrutinised by various law enforcement measures, is magnified for footballers. In the pursuit of ‘refining’ football, the sport has become increasingly sanitised, and the traditional supporter base has become increasingly marginalised. However, even though the transnational evolution of contemporary fandom has reduced the reliance of elite clubs on their communities, ultimately these institutions remain subject to the supporters who sustain them.

In prioritising process over product, some Liverpudlians will refuse to defend the ‘inexcusable’ acts of the inscrutable striker, and consider this the final straw. Others will accept his apology and assurances about his future conduct. However, in alienating himself from both fans of other clubs and ‘neutral’ supporters (whatever that means), the 26-year-old may even have further endeared himself to elements of the subcultural rump of Liverpool fandom through his latest aberration. ‘Those they love to hate, we love to love’ serves as a recurring theme in contemporary football rivalries.

Liverpool supporters are not typical of British fandom, yet such unswerving support cannot be solely attributed to Scouse separateness. Despite the attack in Amsterdam which earned Suárez a seven-game ban, Ajax fans laid on a special tribute for their departing talisman in 2011, which included a firework display and a rendition of the Liverpool anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. He was visibly moved by the accolade. After giving away a penalty and biting an opponent on Sunday, Suárez was not content to let the Chelsea grudge game pass by without his stamp of authority.

The last act of the game, and of his season, saw the Uruguayan score the 96th minute equaliser. As he faces his demons and his punishment, he may be walking through a storm, but he will not be walking alone. As the fans sing: ‘He scores a goal and the Kop goes wild, and I just can’t seem to get enough, Suárez’.



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