Like tens of thousands of other Irish people, I was at Old Trafford (home of Manchester United - the famous Red Devils) on Saturday last for the latest tussle between those two fierce soccer rivals from North West England - Manchester United and Liverpool. What happened that day has sent shock waves right around the world of sport because a Liverpool player (Louis Suarez from Uruguay) refused to shake the hand of a Manchester United player he had racially abused at Liverpool’s ground in October last year. Liverpool's American owner now has some big decisions to make.
Because of emigration to the two cities and the role that the Irish have had in building the clubs, both Manchester United and Liverpool have a huge following in Ireland and across the diaspora. The American connection is rubber stamped by the fact that the Glazer family (owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) own Manchester United and John W Henry (owner of the Boston Red Sox) owns Liverpool FC via Fenway Sports Group.
The offending Liverpool player Suarez was only returning to the side after serving an eight match ban following an English Football Association ruling that he had abused United's Evra on the basis of his color. Patrice Evra is a French national but his family is originally from Senegal in Africa. Given the explosive nature of the charge against Suarez, the English FA brought in an independent legal team to examine the case against Suarez and the Uruguayan was found to be an unreliable witness who had indeed abused Patrice Evra because of the colour of his skin.
It is the aftermath of the FA's ruling and the way Liverpool Football Club has handled the scandal that will concern John W Henry most. Rather than issuing an immediate apology and disciplining the player, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish led the whole of the playing staff at the club into the land of denial. Dalglish slammed Evra and issued a defiant message that they would protect their player.
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In a cup game against United in January this year, Liverpool players warmed up wearing white T Shirts proclaiming their support for Suarez and Evra was roundly booed by Liverpool fans. In other words, Liverpool’s clear and very public message was that the person who had been racially abused was the problem for having the temerity to complain. Liverpool’s famous stadium Anfield was redubbed Klanfield by astounded journalists and observers after this game in January.
By the time last Saturday's game came around, pressure was beginning to build on Dalglish but in welcoming Suarez back after his ban, he again sounded a note of defiance by saying that Suarez should never have been banned in the first place. it was perhaps at this point (way too late in the day) that John W Henry began to take a personal interest in the sorry saga.
In a sequence of clearly prearranged events prior to the kick off of last Saturday’s it was clearly understood (even by the spectators) that Suarez would shake Patrice Evra's hand and some sort of line could be drawn under the dispute. Millions of people have now watched the moment where Patrice Evra held out his hand and Louis Suarez refused to take it.
Initially Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish once again defended Suarez and lashed the Press for creating a row out of nothing but was then obliged to issue a grovelling apology after Ian Ayre, Liverpool’s managing director, also issued a statement that condemned Suárez for misleading the club over his intentions to shake the hand of the player he racially abused at Anfield in October.
But this may only be the start of the problems for Dalglish and Suarez - at some point Red Sox owners in Boston are going to have to respond to the underlying problem because the soccer club it owns has still not issued an apology for the racial abuse of Patrice Evra. Nor has any apology been forthcoming for the oft repeated allegation that the FA stitched Liverpool up. Furthermore, no apology has been made for Liverpool’s astonishing claim that Suarez should never have been banned and no apology has been made for the booing by Liverpool fans of Evra’s every touch of the ball.
The Guardian reports that the banking group Standard Chartered, which pays £20m a year for having its name on the Liverpool kit made strong representations to the club after the game expressing its extreme displeasure at the way its image was being dragged through the mud. The banking group, which has a high profile in Africa and the Middle East then took the unprecedented step of issuing a public statement effectively condemning the club it sponsors: “We were very disappointed by Saturday’s incident and have discussed our concerns with the club,”
John W Henry, and chairman, Tom Werner, are scheduled to visit Liverpool next week for commercial and sponsorship reasons but it is now unthinkable that they will decline to issue a statement about the racism displayed by one of their own high profile employees and the tenacious support that was shown to that employee by a club they own.
Many Irish people are asking whether things would ever been allowed to go so far if a Red Sox player had behaved the same way.
As Marina Hyde in The Guardian wrote;
"Since the flurry of apologies to emerge from Anfield on Sunday, there have been glib observations about principal owner John W Henry being a man of principle, but he appears instead to be a man of steely commercial pragmatism. Whether his Fenway Sports Group will ape News Corp in throwing their British interests to the wolves to protect their primary US concerns remains to be seen. But if I were Kenny Dalglish, I wouldn't be planning too many moons ahead."
Paul Larkin is an Irish-based journalist and author.