On the night Lionel Messi reminded us that uncommon grace can still occasionally walk easily alongside the highest achievement, Luis Suarez was still locked away from the kind of uncomplicated acclaim that once again bathed football’s fabulous Little Big Man in Zurich.
While Suarez’s apologists, led by his Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, insisted that he owed the game no more than his most ruthless accomplishment, Messi was suggesting that his unprecedented fourth straight Ballon d’Or should really have been handed to his relatively unheralded Barcelona team-mate Andres Iniesta.
The images of two remarkably gifted footballers were separated by more than a large slice of Europe.
Messi’s argument for Iniesta was that he was the heartbeat and creative force of Spain’s historic achievement of winning three straight major international tournaments.
For Suarez, as he awoke to another day of fierce controversy, Rodgers and TV analyst and former midfield general of Manchester United, Leeds United and Scotland, Gordon Strachan, argued that he was doing no more than his professional duty when he plundered his handball goal against non-League Mansfield on Sunday and celebrated in his usual way, which of all things just happened to be an inflammatory kiss of his wrist.
Mansfield said Suarez had come not as one of English football’s most brilliantly explosive performers but a thief in the night. Strachan countered that expecting Suarez to acknowledge his offence was as sanctimonious as demanding that double-yellow-line parking offenders own up to their crimes.
Strachan’s submission was maybe one of the starkest admissions thus far that expecting any kind of honour system in English football is perhaps the last word in wishful thinking. We had, as it happened, some more random evidence of this when, 24 hours earlier, Newcastle’s Shola Ameobi received a second yellow card and a red card for an innocuous collision with Brighton’s David Lopez. In a gut-wrenching close up, we saw Lopez, ostensibly rolling in agony, taking a peek at the referee to see the effect of his theatrics.
The Mansfield keeper Alan Marriott claimed that Suarez laughed as he smashed the ball into the back of the net.
It would not have been the least surprising development in the career profile of a player who inflamed a good part of Africa when during the 2010 World Cup he earned a red card for handling the ball on his own goal-line, then celebrated wildly when Ghana missed the resulting penalty. We hardly need any detailed review of the Suarez career and its violently contrasting strands of brilliance and brutal cynicism, enough to flick back through the biting and the Patrice Evra affair and the diving and, just last month, the yellow card for directing the ball with his hand at the opponents’ goal.
This, surely, is the picture of a natural-born winner at all costs and when his defenders say that he is the victim of hypocrisy they are merely drawing their own line on the extent of the decline of anything that might just pass for a degree of sportsmanship in the English game.
The imperative to win, in any way possible, to dive for advantage, to have an opponent sent off by any contrivance, has become so all-consuming that the gesture of Liverpool’s Robbie Fowler in protesting a penalty awarded against his opponent David Seaman 16 years ago has become so quaint, so remote, it might have been dreamed up at King Arthur’s Round Table.
Today King Football, apparently, expects its knights to win only the most fleeting battles for an edge of any kind.
Of course it is ludicrous that Liverpool’s expulsion of Mansfield from the FA Cup was made possible by a goal that was the direct result of foul play, a fact that was instantly self-evident to almost everyone who saw it. It was still another example of the often catastrophic consequences of the game’s negligence in the matter of technological assistance.
Goal-line technology is said to be the most vital requirement but the need for wider application has grown relentlessly down recent years, partly because of the increased speed, partly because of the scale of the cheating. No, we can no longer expect cheats, any more than erring motorists, to own up to their crimes. So why not remove the last twinges of moral responsibility? Let’s have the re-run tell the referee what the original revealed to more or less every other witness.
When Thierry Henry performed his outrageous skulduggery in 2009 to deny Ireland’s challenge for a place in the World Cup finals, Arsène Wenger said that he felt most sorry for the referee because he appeared to be the last person in the world to see the extent of the crime.
When the referee of England-Germany game in the last World Cup saw at half-time by what extent Frank Lampard’s shot had crossed the line, he exclaimed, “Oh, my God.”
It was different in the final in Berlin four years earlier when the fourth official pointed out that Zinedine Zidane had just unequivocally head-butted an Italian opponent. That was an example of football being delivered from its own negligence.
There was no such salvation in Mansfield on Sunday, only the numbing realisation that once again what was left of football’s value system had been perverted.
Also inevitable was the elaborate defence of the image of Luis Suarez. Of course, like Caesar, he is due what is his. Much of his play this season has been quite extraordinary. He has lifted his team with a fire and a consistency that has been exceeded maybe only by the relentless Robin van Persie. But does he qualify for any domestic version of the kind of honour that Messi sought to deflect in the direction of his comrade Iniesta last night? Can he be said to have enhanced our belief in the enduring inspiration of football?
Does Suarez take us, like Messi, beyond the boundaries of our own prejudice? Does he make us feel good about football? No, he doesn’t and why would he when he is told that stealing a goal is no worse than dodging a parking fine?