Suárez and referees

Posted by E2K on August 30, 2012, 10:56:34 AM

Luis Suárez is nobody’s fool: he knows how it is. In a sport where the interpretation of the rules by officials and governing bodies is invariably a moveable feast, where the boundaries of what is acceptable can shift considerably depending on the random judgement of a referee or, occasionally, the importance placed upon your nationality, your club and who your teammates and manager happen to be, the Uruguayan is almost an old reliable at this stage, a mere fourteen months since his arrival in England. He is a constant.

Last Sunday at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke City’s Jermaine Pennant thought he should have had a penalty kick after a challenge by Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs. Both referee Lee Mason and his assistant on that side of the pitch, however, thought differently. Furious, Pennant could be seen turning towards the assistant referee and gesticulating wildly with his hand as the play went on. We can assume, I think, that a few choice words were also directed at the official. Pennant, by the letter of the law, was probably fortunate to escape a caution. At the Hawthorns on the opening day of the season, however, Luis Suárez was less fortunate, booked by referee Phil Dowd for doing something very similar (and, in fairness to Pennant and Stoke, he also gave a penalty to West Brom for an Agger challenge not too unlike the Gibbs one, albeit in a more central position).

In an ocean of uncertainty, where incidents must be processed in a matter of seconds under the glare of the television cameras and rules often applied out of sheer instinct, the Uruguayan has become a rock for the likes of Phil Dowd. Where Suárez is concerned, there no longer appears to be any doubt or hesitation. One word out of line – reach for the book.

Last Sunday Andre Marriner made it 2-for-2, brandishing a yellow card for something the Uruguayan said after his 17 year-old teammate Raheem Sterling was fouled for the umpteenth time by the Manchester City defence. Marriner, who had shown something of a laissez-faire approach to this all afternoon, clearly took offence at being told how to do his job, perhaps like Steve Bennett did at Old Trafford back in 2008 when Fernando Torres calmly pointed out that he was being kicked from one side of the pitch to the other and got booked for his trouble. Referees can be a sensitive bunch, can’t they? Well, they can be, yes, but there is a maddening inconsistency to their interpretation of what constitutes a bookable offence and what doesn’t. Perhaps some referees are simply more competent than others? Maybe it depends on whether they’re having a bad day, a simple case of human nature? If Phil Dowd hears a particularly nasty insult thrown from the crowd, for example, would that make him less likely to be understanding the next time a player curses at him in the heat of the moment?

However, as we know, it often depends on who it is standing in front of them too. The likes of Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, I would wager Steven Gerrard too if he was so inclined, and plenty of others will always be given plenty of leeway by match officials due to their status within the English game. Remember the short-lived “Respect” campaign? The impetus for that, as I recall, sprang from a midweek game between Tottenham and Chelsea at White Hart Lane where Mike Riley patiently stood trying to calm an irate Ashley Cole, who appeared to be firing a barrage of abuse at the official. It’s only a personal feeling, but I have to wonder whether a lesser player than the England and Chelsea left-back would have received that kind of temperance from Riley. The ability to book players for abusive language was already there at that point, and indeed Cole was booked as I recall, but Steve Bennett certainly didn’t show that level of patience to Javier Mascherano at Old Trafford a few days later. Was that simply down to a difference in refereeing style or maybe a case of following the new hard line orders from the FA to the letter? Perhaps, but I bet it didn’t hurt either that this was a hot-headed South-American and not an England international.

These days, Luis Suárez is that hot-headed South-American. Of course I understand that the rules need to be enforced and that abuse of officials is unacceptable. If I had my way, I would put microphones on the referees and assistants (ala rugby) and let the whole world hear the kind of stuff they have to put up with on a weekly basis. The kind of righteous indignation sure to follow would, in my view, put an end to foul and abusive language far quicker than the odd random yellow card here and there (the beauty of this idea, as an aside, is that the utterly unreliable judgement of referees wouldn’t matter in the slightest – someone like Rooney could escape a foul-mouthed tirade without a caution, but the viewing public at home and the authorities would still hear it loud and clear). I have no time for players abusing referees, but at the same time there needs to be consistency there (e.g. Liverpool were charged with failing to control their players last season for surrounding the referee away to Fulham, something Manchester United have been doing with impunity for years). The only element of consistency I see at the moment is provided by Liverpool’s number 7, and examples of him receiving the benefit of the doubt from officials seem to be dwindling all the time.

The Uruguayan simply has to be aware of where he stands by now. Sid Lowe’s recent (excellent) article on the player certainly suggests that he's a self-aware individual. He acknowledges that some may have a less than favourable view of him, stating that “if people reach conclusions as to what I am like based on what they see from me on the pitch, they would say I am a guy who is always annoyed, always in a bad mood, they’d say what must it be like to live with me.” He knows only too well how opposition supporters view him too: “they are opponents and they want to have a go, that’s it. They’re not people who know me. It's just another stadium whistling.” Which is exactly the right attitude to have and a clear indication that the regular booing he gets at away grounds doesn’t bother him in the slightest. He also speaks of “effort and sacrifice” in trying to explain why he is the way he is on the pitch – passionate, restless, outspoken, cantankerous, often furious, one of the “two different people” within him. He states that he “can’t conceive of anyone wasting even five minutes in a game…I can’t bear the idea of not trying to make the most of every single second.”

No doubt that kind of attitude would make you scratch and claw for absolutely everything (I wish I had a little more of it) and we’re lucky to have someone like that. But here’s the thing: referees don’t care. The FA don’t care. In a sport that’s regularly filled with rage and vented spleen, diving and cynicism, where the widespread attitude seems to be that the ends justify the means, some people nonetheless get singled out and gain a reputation for gamesmanship. This has already happened with Suárez. When I look at him, I don’t see a dirty player. He’s put in a couple of awkward challenges in the past (Parker and Ivanovic at Anfield last season spring to mind) but there was no malice in them. He’s gone down easily on occasion, but there are (and have been) far worse offenders in the English game than him. Yet as early as the start of last season, there was this sense that he was somehow the greatest cheat who had ever set foot on English soil, a figurative dark cloud hanging ominously in a sunny blue sky.

This idea was no doubt fertilised by the horse shit that came flowing out of Alex Ferguson (who should know all about divers, he’s had quite a few) after Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United last season (“Suarez dives all over the place and it makes it very difficult for the referee”) or Paul Scharner after the 2-0 win at West Brom (“it was a nice dive for the penalty”). There were also the widespread accusations of getting Jack Rodwell sent off in the Merseyside derby by supposedly making the most of an innocent tackle, a position which neglected to note that his ankle was rolled inwards as Rodwell followed through. Malicious? No. Painful? Probably. Not too long after that, you heard this kind of rhetoric creeping into commentary with increasing and alarming regularity. By the time last Sunday rolled around, he could barely draw a whistle from Andre Marriner in a physical battle with Vincent Kompany that surely saw him fouled on a number of occasions. That’s a worry.

Two bookings from two games is also a concern. When I look at this Liverpool team, most of my doubts are in the attacking third of the pitch. There is good quality at the back and in the midfield, particularly with the twin arrivals of Allen and Sahin. Further forward, however, I have some worries, especially when it comes to that central position of the ‘3’ up top. Borini filled that central role against Hearts last week and worked himself into some brilliant positions. His movement and intelligence is fantastic and I do see a goalscorer’s instinct in him in terms of getting himself into the right places, but he nonetheless missed a couple of great chances (and another against City). Carroll doesn’t appear to be Rodgers’ cup of tea, Adam Morgan is untested. So unless someone comes in before Friday night, Suárez is the main man in that position for the foreseeable future. Besides, it’s highly doubtful that any new arrival will possess quite the same skill set as Liverpool’s current number 7 anyway.

With that in mind, Liverpool cannot afford him to rack up stupid suspensions. He’s already had a few of those in his time at the club – 1 game for giving Fulham supporters the middle finger last season and 8 for the incident with Evra which, while obviously contentious in terms of the lack of proof as regards what was actually said, nonetheless saw him needlessly engage a clearly riled-up opponent who was intent on provoking him. That’s 9 games, and another booking on Sunday (don’t rule it out) would see him over halfway towards another suspension with only 3 games gone. Suárez, whether we buy another striker or not, is vital, and it’s vital that he gets a bit cuter about putting himself in those kinds of positions. For now, he’s an easy target. I'm not saying it's a conspiracy, there’s no grand plan to force him out of England or anything crazy like that. The tide of opinion is simply against him, that’s all. He’s not the first, he won’t be the last. It might not stay that way indefinitely but it’s probably going to be the case for this season at least. He must realise that.

It’s been said, and I tend to agree, that the Lowe article may be part of an initiative by the club to paint him in a better light to those who would believe everything they’ve read about him over the past 14 months. There has been a tendency from some to focus on the worst of him since his arrival in England. One article, outlining the allegations against him shortly after the Evra incident last October, for example, went on to detail how Suárez handled the ball in the World Cup against Ghana and was then “caught laughing about it as his Uruguay side won on penalties to reach the semi-final.” From that description, you get the impression of a maniacal psychopath laughing at the pain of an entire nation rather than someone who was genuinely happy because his country had reached the World Cup semi-final. It went on to mention his 7-match ban for biting and suggest that “though Suárez’s career in England has so far been free of acts of cannibalism, his undoubted skills have not been completely unblemished” and again made claims about the Rodwell sending-off and the Uruguayan’s supposed “theatrical reaction to what was little more than a tap on the foot by Rodwell’s trailing knee.” Here we were, just a day after the initial accusations from Evra, and the Uruguayan was already being painted as a dodgy, untrustworthy cheat. Racism was shortly to be added to the list.

Well if the Lowe article is indeed an attempt to provide balance, then hopefully that exercise is part of a bigger picture. The player needs to help himself too. Nobody needs an excuse to point the finger at the lad, be it officials, the media or the FA (funny how both Rooney and Cole have gotten away without punishment in the past for similar gestures to the one made by Suárez at Craven Cottage, for example), so he shouldn’t provide one. His passion, effort and will-to-win are wonderful attributes. I wouldn’t change them for the world. And things are said in the heat of the moment on a football pitch, we all know that. But he needs to be smarter. The last thing we want him to be is the poster child for a sport which cannot make up its mind about what’s acceptable and what’s not. If that remains the case, then I fear that defenders like Kompany and Olsson (who somehow escaped a booking on the opening day) will continue to be able to take liberties knowing that referees will give them the benefit of the doubt while Suárez continues to accrue needless yellow cards and suspensions and the rest of us just tear our hair out.

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