Next Exit

Last night footballing minnows Zambia deservedly won the African Nations Cup, winning a thrilling penalty shoot-out, and upsetting overwhelming favorites Ivory Coast. The Cote ‘Ivoire, with a team built on superstars, exited the tournament, despite not conceding a goal – like a famous African version of Switzerland.

As with many a major final it was a cagey affair, which the underdogs had the better of. Unlike many a Word Cup though, the final was played in good spirits, with Didier Drogba showing compassion to an injured opponent early in the game, and fair play throughout.

No African team has of course yet made the last four of a World Cup Finals yet, Gazza and Gary Linekar combining to overcome Cameroon in 1990, while Ghana were cruelly robbed of a place in the last four by a last-minute handball on the line by Luis Suarez. It was a handball that any professional may have been tempted to commit, but his celebrations, still at the side of the pitch despite being sent-off as the subsequent penalty was missed, were less than dignified, and that, coupled with his own club disciplinary record (he was serving a suspension for Ajax after biting an opposing player when he signed for Liverpool) may have given his new club some doubts about him when he was signed last January.

No doubts were apparent until yesterday though, not when he gave a one-fingered salute to Fulham fans, or when he was banned for eight matches for calling Patrice Evra ‘Negro’ several times in an argument. But yesterday the penny seemed to drop, as they said in a statement he misled them by failing to shake Evra’s hand on Saturday, and thereby inviting the train of thought he also misled them in his defence against the charge of racially abusing Evra on the field of play in October, a defence that was rejected as lacking credibility by an independent commission.

The reverse League feature on Saturday was always going to be under the spotlight, and it started with the 45 minutes of build-up on live TV. Football likes a cliché, and Jamie Redknapp reminded us he likes a cliché more than most when he threw in a “play the game not an occasion” as if he were awarded extra points in a scoring system we were not aware of yet.  Redknapp covered himself in even less glory as the broadcast went on, taking a partisan eyed view from the perspective of his former club, first with regards to a tackle by Rio Ferdinand that was clearly superbly timed to all, despite the theatrics from Suarez, and then later equating the very human reaction of Patrice Evra at the final whistle with the disgraceful behavior of Suarez that set the tone before the game kicked off.

After a subsequent series of short apologies yesterday on the Liverpool website, the cliché that was perhaps most appropriate was “prevention is better than the cure”. Suarez should not really have been playing, having committed an effective on-the-field assault on Scott Parker in his previous appearance, at home to Tottenham Hotspur five days earlier. Referee Michael Oliver saw the challenge in the penalty area in the kop end, but in what was perhaps was one of only two errors he had in an otherwise good refereeing performance (the other being also letting Skirtel get away with a yellow with another high and dangerous tackle on Gareth Bale), he was too lenient on Suarez, who was of course making his return from an eight-match ban.

Suarez’s repulsive behavior with a non-handshake set the tone on Saturday, before he then fired the ball towards the dug-out on the stroke of half-time, which naturally led to more heated exchanges in the tunnel. Evra, playing at left-back, below the travelling Liverpool fans, was then subjected to more abuse throughout the second half, all for having the temerity to report Suarez.

Evra’s outpouring of emotion was understandable, if not wise, but less provocative then, for example, Martin Keown’s reaction at the same ground when Ruud Van Nistelrooy missed a penalty in the dying minutes of a game against Arsenal not so long ago. Keown is now a pundit for both BBC and ESPN. The latter channel had two ex-Liverpool players, Kevin Keegan and John Barnes, doing Saturday’s early evening live game and on reflecting on the day’s lunchtime game, Keegan criticised the behaviour of both clubs, when to the neutral, it is hard to see where their actions where comparable.

There seems to be a high percentage of ex-Liverpool players that are paid television pundits; as well as Jamie Redknapp, Keegan and Barnes, two of the main three pundits on Match of the Day, Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson, spent the longest parts of their careers at Liverpool, as have 50% of the current four man Soccer Saturday line-up, with Robbie Fowler joining Phil Thompson. When Liverpool players wore Suarez t-shirts, Thompson defended the actions the following Saturday with a justification where he said “When you see the likes of Glen Johnson wearing [the shirts]”, to find a cringe-worthiness that is hard to reach on top of toeing the party line.

Sir Alex Ferguson recently questioned Hansen’s analysis of Manchester United as being a deliberate ploy to undermine his club ahead of United‘s visit to Anfield in the FA Cup. So it was welcome that Hansen publicly criticized Suarez’s behavior on Saturday’s Match of the Day, which was a more accurate representation of the off-the–record thinking of some ex-Liverpool players who have regretted their former club’s stance since October.

The public voice, until yesterday, had been very different with Dalglish even feeling the need to say the club felt Suarez shouldn’t have been banned in post-match TV interview after the Tottenham game last Monday night. Throughout they have constantly insinuated they were the wronged party, despite failing to appeal the comprehensive report. And this combination of denial and innuendo even initially continued after the game on Saturday with Dalglish’s ridiculous interview with Sky Sports, and then a tweet from Suarez which said he was “Disappointed because everything is not that it seems…” in relation to his failure to shake Evra’s hand.

But, Liverpool’s American owners finally got involved after a report on the matter in the New York Times, and the three respective statements that followed from Suarez, Chief Executive Ian Ayre and Dalglish himself, have admitted Suarez was wrong not to shake Evra’s hand, and the response, including Dalglish’s interview, was unacceptable.

Two days after the initial report from the Independent Commission, this column stated that it was the time for Liverpool Football Club to apologise to Evra and move on. Yesterday’s statements still fall short of that, but Manchester United have been magnanimous in their intention to move on, and Liverpool have now given themselves an exit strategy as far as Suarez is concerned, with the very real possibility he will be sold on in the summer, and this embarrassing chapter in Liverpool Football Club’s history will end.

MG