Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Luis Suarez can rely on Liverpool to redraw the line every time he crosses it

The referee Mills Lane intervenes after Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield (right) during their infamous encounter in June 1997
The referee Mills Lane intervenes after Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield (right) during their infamous encounter in June 1997

How jolly it apparently is that Mike Tyson, who delivered the first bite to briefly nauseate the modern sports world, has enlisted as a Twitter follower of Luis Suarez.

The macabre joke was particularly appreciated on Match of the Day 2, whose play on the words "bite" and "bitten" had become an epidemic before the jaunty conclusion that there was as much chance of Liverpool getting rid of Suarez as of the Liver Birds flying across the Mersey.

It's some joke – and some statement on the ruling morality of not just football but most of professional sport.

The quality of humour has been particularly strained these last 24 hours if you happened to be in Las Vegas that desperate night nearly 16 years ago.

It was bad enough before Tyson, who a few years earlier had served a term of imprisonment after being convicted of rape, entered the ring a few months after being thrashed by Evander Holyfield in the first fight. One associate of Tyson was allowed a public platform to make the gleeful announcement that Holyfield would be leaving town in a coffin. This earned some whoops of applause.

However, one of the more relevant memories now is of the impromptu, impassioned post-fight speech made by the referee, Mills Lane.

A lively character who accumulated so much fame in his ring career that he graduated as a TV celebrity, Lane is not a man around whose views you would automatically attach too much credence.

He had a fine career in the US Marines and as an attorney and district judge in Washoe County, Nevada, but politically he was somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan before a stroke incapacitated him some years ago. It means he will not be travelling to his investiture at the American Boxing Hall of Fame later this year. Some of his more controversial comments include the assertion that former President Bill Clinton would not have survived Parris Island, the Marine boot camp, and that the only appropriate form of gun control is to have two hands on the weapon.

Still, in Vegas he made some compelling sense. He pleaded for a line to be drawn in the shocking degeneration of values in big-time sport, saying: "We give these guys millions of dollars and allow them to think they can doing anything they like. So maybe we shouldn't be surprised when we see the kind of thing we saw tonight. We talk about sport but we are kidding ourselves. We should talk about big business and the big dollar, and how it has come to rule everything in what we like to call sport."

For June 1997, read April 2013. Suarez isn't a rapist, his entourage doesn't chortle about body bags and coffins, his life is not some largely unbroken picture of what can happen to someone like Tyson when he is trapped in some rat- and drug-infested building in one of most putrid corners of Brooklyn, but we are avoiding the truth if we do not see at least one parallel.

It is that because of Suarez's talent, because of Liverpool Football Club's dependence on his extraordinary level of ability, it is extremely unlikely that he will be moved out of an organisation which still likes to pay sentimental lip service to a reputation built brilliantly, even on many occasions, nobly over the years.

Suarez, we are told, is just too valuable for such a brusque exit. If he goes, it will be for no less than the £40m plus evaluation he carried, at least before he bit into an opponent – Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic on this occasion – for the second time in his career.

He is also extremely popular with his team-mates and the vast majority of Liverpool supporters, many of whom spent much of last year arguing that their hero's conviction for the racial abuse of Manchester United's Patrice Evra was a result of a conspiracy between Evra's club and the Football Association.

In such a situation the force of any kind of working morality, any instinctive belief that some things should be more valuable than winning a football match – perhaps, for example, confidence in the character and the natural promptings of those who represent you – tends to have the luminous strength of that candle blowing in the wind.

Liverpool, if they again put the protection and support of their commodity before the call of decency – as they did so palpably in the racism case and some fairly egregious, even by the standards of today's game, cheating – will be neither the first nor the last sports organisation to seek out some kind of compromise. Not that it will ever be described as such, of course. It will be some hard-headed pursuit of the real world, a supremely practical assessment of an embarrassment that will pass soon enough.

When the big striker John Hartson kicked his West Ham United team-mate Eyal Berkovic in the face during a training session much mirth greeted the suggestion that, for the image of the club, the Welshman's contract should be torn up. The folly of such a proposal was exposed when some time later Hartson was sold to Wimbledon for £7.5m. Earlier some Manchester United officials were said to be pushing for his signing, a proposal that was eventually squashed by Sir Alex Ferguson.

The United manager had no such misgivings, however, when his own iconic Eric Cantona delivered the Hartson treatment to a Crystal Palace fan. He approved a six-month club ban which anticipated a slightly longer punishment by the Football Association.

Some serious trawling is required while pursuing an instance of a club deciding that some players, whatever their level of ability, are simply not worth the trouble. Newcastle United might make a case after granting Joey Barton a free transfer two years ago. This enabled him to earn £65,000 a week before making an even more lucrative move on loan to French club Marseille, from where he is naturally bombarding us with his support for Suarez. Barton tells us that a player of Suarez's ability has to play on the edge, which perhaps doesn't give us a perfect insight into why Barton once jammed a cigar in the face of a young clubmate at Manchester City.

Newcastle removed Barton from the premises because he was deeply unpopular at the club. Liverpool do not have quite the same impetus when they consider their approach to Suarez.

Having swiftly fined him, and issuing a statement of almost formal disapproval, Liverpool are now expected to await the grinding wheels of FA justice. They can expect him to receive at least as severe a ban as the seven matches imposed by the Dutch FA when he bit into PSV Eindhoven opponent Otman Bakkal and then, presumably, they will sit it out and hope for a little breathing space before the next outrage.

Helping this process, of course, is Suarez's penchant for profound and instant remorse – when it is clearly the only resort – and his sense that he is employed by an organisation which has become too dependent on a single talent. As we were saying, Liverpool are hardly alone. Ajax's disgust that they were harbouring a player capable of doing grave damage to a reputation built by men like Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten may have been swiftly acted upon, but they widely canvassed his availability before quickly accepting Liverpool's offer of £22m.

But then at least they recognised a line beyond which they would not venture. It was the same one the crusty old Republican Mills Lane attempted to draw all those years ago. While he was doing it he was just a short walk from the Nevadan desert. Now it is Liverpool lost in the sand.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

Nightlife galleries

More

Latest Sport News

Stats Centre