On Saturday, Liverpool lost at Manchester United, 2-1, allowing United to temporarily move into first place in the Premier League. There is no disgrace in such a loss; United, the defending English champion, is vying to keep that title this season, and it very rarely loses at home.
But there was disgrace, witnessed by television viewers around the world, in the refusal of Liverpool’s Luis Suárez to shake the hand of United’s Patrice Evra before kickoff.
The hand might not always be offered with sincerity. It might often be less than the noble sign of pregame respect between opponents that FIFA would like to have us believe it is. But in this case it was important to show a global audience that Suárez and Evra were man enough to touch palms and bury the enmity between them.
This was the first time that Suárez had started a game since he was barred for eight matches for repeatedly calling Evra racist names when they competed against each other last October. Suárez claimed that the words he uttered, as used in his Uruguayan hometown, were not racist but could be affectionate. Evra, who is black and French, but understands Spanish well, said he was deeply offended.
Both players are feisty, provocative, volatile characters, as their records for their clubs, and their national teams, have long shown. Evra led the French team that mutinied against its coach and refused to train during the 2010 World Cup. Suárez was the player who made no apology for deliberately handling the ball that led to Ghana’s elimination from that tournament, and he was purchased by Liverpool after he was suspended in the Dutch league for biting an opponent.
It would seem that each of them would wish to show that, for the sake of their team if not their own reputation, they could abide by the rules and rituals of the game that makes their fortune.
Manchester United Manager Alex Ferguson began the week by publicly asking his players to rise above any bitter feelings they had and display sportsmanship on the field. He said he spoke with Evra on Saturday morning.
“Patrice and I had a chat,” Ferguson said, “and he said: ‘I’m going to shake his hand. I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. I want to keep my dignity.’ ” When the moment arrived, it was beyond Evra’s grasp.
Suárez shook hands with the referee, and then with the child who was United’s mascot for the day. He then stared at the ground, ignoring the hand extended by Evra and walking toward the next man in line, goalkeeper David de Gea.
Evra grabbed the arm of Suárez, who shrugged him off. De Gea seemed to try to ask Suárez to shake Evra’s hand, and he again refused. The next United player in line, Rio Ferdinand, then withdrew his hand as Suárez passed.
“After seeing what happened, I decided not to shake his hand,” Ferdinand said after the game. “I lost all respect for the guy.”
Ugly repercussions followed. The United crowd booed Suárez, as the Liverpool crowd had booed Evra in its stadium when the teams met in the F.A. Cup two weeks ago.
In the tunnel as the teams headed to halftime Saturday, the teams scuffled after Evra attempted to say something to Suárez. The police and stewards intervened to separate the players.
The Suárez-Evra feud overshadowed the top-class soccer these teams are capable of. United quickly took a 2-0 lead on two goals by the Liverpool-born Wayne Rooney.
The first was from a corner by Ryan Giggs, when Rooney’s sharp anticipation and reflexes led to a short-range volley in a poorly defended penalty area. The second started when Antonio Valencia preyed on an error from Jay Spearing and with split-second vision teed up Rooney, who put a shot between the legs of goalkeeper Pepe Reina.
A late consolation goal by Liverpool, with Suárez reacting like lightning to Ferdinand’s failure to control a deflection, highlighted Suárez’s immense talent. It is that talent that everyone should be talking about, and not racism, especially in a game in which 11 nationalities were represented.
Long after the lights were switched off at Old Trafford, Suárez wrote on Twitter that he was “sad” because of the loss and “disappointed because everything is not that it seems.”
Liverpool Manager Kenny Dalglish claimed he did not see Suárez refuse the handshake, or the shoving in the tunnel at halftime. He had said earlier in the week that Suárez should not have been barred for what he said about Evra, but that he had spoken to Suárez and he knew that Suárez would shake the hand of Evra.
When he was asked on Sky TV after the game why Suárez had not, Dalglish avoided directly answering the question.
“I think you are bang out of order to blame Luis Suárez for whatever happened today,” Dalglish said.
Shortly before that, Evra was whooping to all corners of the stadium. The referee, Phil Dowd, who had managed the game commendably, at that point physically restrained Evra and asked him not to further inflame the players or the supporters.
Ferguson was less charitable. “He is a disgrace to Liverpool Football Club,” he said of Suárez. “That certain player should not be allowed to play for Liverpool again.”
It is time for John Henry and Tom Werner, leaders of the Fenway Group that controls Liverpool, to state clearly the direction the team will take on this issue.