As a long-suffering fan of Leeds United Football Club, I’m no stranger to cant and hypocrisy as delivered by some of the mealy-mouthed “Guardians of the Good Name of Football” types, who infest the media to sickening effect. My club much more than most has been the target and victim of some of these holier-than-thou merchants over the years, the kind of people who will loudly condemn a Revie, a Bremner or a Bowyer whilst turning a conveniently blind eye to the peccadilloes of a Georgie Best, a Saint Bobby Charlton or a Royston Keane. It’s all part of the United-supporting experience, but no less nauseating for that. As an experienced and cynical White, you tend to sigh, roll your eyes and reflect upon what unctuous pillocks some people are. It’s a Leeds thing – but it manifests itself more broadly than that sometimes. The few hours since the Uruguay v Italy World Cup game are ample proof of this.
This short lapse of time, since Luis Suárez hurled himself once more into the teeth of a storm of public disapproval and disgust, has been a veritable feast, a feeding frenzy for saintly hypocrites everywhere. It shows no sign of abating; those who seek the moral high ground can scent the blood of a perennial target – and this time, they mean to get him. Prominent among these people, working himself up into a froth of indignant condemnation, is ITV’s own cabbage-patch doll tribute, Adrian Chiles. The man who is to bone structure what Wayne Rooney is to flower power coiffure, seems to be in the process of establishing himself as prat-in-chief among the sorry ranks of football presenters. Nothing is too trivial, no issue too banal that we’ll fail to hear those lugubriously annoying Midlands tones as Chiles essays another laboriously-crafted shaft of wit – pardon the unintentional spoonerism there.
Sitting alongside Chiles, as often as not, wearing his trademark glower in the hope that one or other of his colleagues will smilingly point out just how damned hard he is, will be Roy Keane – ex-footballer and dispenser of summary justice as defined by, erm, Roy Keane. The Chiles/Keane axis can be a little uncomfortable to watch for anyone whose sensitivities include the thorny issue of unrequited love. Chiles so openly slavers over the former Man U thug that you begin to worry about the absorbent capacity of his tie. It’s a one-sided bromance that makes you, as an onlooker, wince with pain as the hapless and cushion-faced anchorman makes cow’s eyes at the ex-footballer, who affords him only a sneer and another glower from under those knitted brows by way of return. It’s car-crash TV – you ache for the hopeless yearning of Chiles and you want to look away when you see the Celtic indifference displayed by the object of his adoration. But there’s a horrid fascination about the scene, and we’re reminded uncomfortably of our own episodes of hero-worship in our callow and distant youth. To see a grown man, even one as fatally foetal as Chiles, going through such adolescent love pangs is at once repellent and riveting.
The irony is, of course, that part of Chiles’ remit is to jump aboard the nationally-sponsored anti-Suárez bandwagon. It’s something he does eagerly enough; clearly he feels himself to cut something of a dash while he’s verbally pulling to pieces such a conveniently distant target. After all, he can’t see himself in a mirror when he’s in mid-rant. The reason that Chiles is such a case in point is that, during infrequent pauses for breath as he lambastes his latest absent target, he will glance adoringly yet again at Mr Keane, the urgent desire for approval writ large across his Pilsbury Doughman features. Doesn’t it strike you that there’s something incongruous about all of this? Whatever the sins of the Uruguayan – does not the beloved Roy have a rap sheet just as long and twice as disgusting?
I’m not expecting too much agreement here – after all, anti-Suárez sentiments have been abroad for a good while, and won’t have been ameliorated by his brace of goals against Engerland last week. But really – is the little Liverpool genius that much more to be condemned than, for instance, Keane – a man receipted and filed for an arrogant thug and a brazen coward?
Neither is this blog looking to defend Luis Suárez, not on the substantive issue of this compulsion of his to sink his teeth into folk, anyway. In the eyes of Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything, he is guilty beyond doubt of immense stupidity – he is in fact a repeat offender in that respect. There’s something wrong there, something fundamentally at fault under the bonnet. It seems that such fatal flaws often go hand-in-hand with the kind of genius which blesses Suárez – similar examples are not hard to think of. Gascoigne, Best, Cantona. They all, to a greater or lesser degree, had and have a screw loose. The misfortune of Suárez is that he’s a serial recidivist, someone who seemingly can’t avoid re-offending, with the same modus operandi cropping up time and time again.
This blog will also freely concede that biting is a disgusting offence against the laws of the game and also against natural decency – on an old-fashioned level, it’s simply not the way a chap goes about sorting out his differences with another chap. It’s not cricket; not the done thing. Perhaps things are different in Uruguay, perhaps this is just another of those unknown “cultural differences” as in the Patrice Evra “negrito” storm, something that football in this country, and the football press, have neither forgiven nor forgotten. You don’t call a chap nasty names (especially when he plays for Man U) – and you don’t bite, inflicting your DNA upon some unwilling recipient. It’s unmanly and possibly unhealthy. Perhaps if the sins of Suárez were more manifestly British in character – perhaps something along the lines of the various acts perpetrated by Mr Keane in his time – then we’d more readily understand and forgive. But, as they’re not – as they have this alien flavour to them, it’s all to easy to cast the foreigner as scapegoat, whilst dismissing more easily-understandable fouls and transgressions with a nod, a wink and a grin – Roy’s such a bad lad, a proper hard-man, tsk tsk – but really, you know, he’s one of us. This nasty subtext of xenophobia underpins the differing ways in which the actions of Suárez and Keane are perceived, rationalised and – as the case may be – excused or condemned.
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t like to be trying to play football and then feel a set of teeth sinking into my shoulder. I wouldn’t like it at all, and I doubt I’d have the restraint merely to whine at the referee if I were to be thus assailed. But ask me in the cold light of day whether I’d prefer that, or a calculated stamp intended to smash the knee of my weight-bearing leg – and I’d unhesitatingly plump for the Uruguayan’s top set every time. A bite-mark heals a hell of a lot faster than ruptured ligaments. And the fact is that Roy Keane – who carried out just such an assault on Alf-Inge Haaland, as all Leeds and Man City fans will remember – later acknowledged it as a coldly premeditated act, born of his anger at Haaland’s mocking him as he lay with a ruptured ligament of his own on the Elland Road turf in 1997. That injury was sustained in the course of Keane trying to commit a foul; Haaland was innocent of any crime except the mouthful he gave to Keane, accusing him of feigning injury. But Roy bore a grudge, Roy bided his time and Roy set out to end the career of Alf-Inge Haaland when they met in a Manchester derby four years later. It was the act of a self-righteous, deluded coward; how Keane has this hard-man image utterly escapes me. Another of his retaliatory acts was committed against that not-exactly-scary individual Jason McAteer, a player who would scarcely cause anyone to worry about the consequences of fouling him. But, in delivering a sly elbow to the face, Keane characteristically sneaked up from behind and then ran away – which neatly sums him up as the moral coward and fake hard-man he undoubtedly is.
So when we see the likes of Chiles having his empty-headed rant at the silly-boy actions of a firebrand and hair-trigger character like Luis Suárez – let’s not forget that one of his studio colleagues almost certainly has a hell of a lot more to answer for in terms of conduct unbecoming. And yet, allowances were made for Keane throughout a career stained by many examples of petulant and vicious actions, with the man himself remaining arrogant, unrepentant, intent only on maintaining his illusory image as a tough guy. As for Suárez, the press are even now engaged in talking up the length and severity of his punishment, as well as wondering excitedly whether or not any sanctions might spill over into Liverpool’s domestic campaign. Let’s not forget that the Reds had to do without their Latin genius for the first few games of last season, courtesy of his last dental indiscretion. It might even have made the difference by which they eventually lost the title – a high price to pay for proud and long-suffering fans. If the hypocrites have their way, then we will be denied the spectacle of one of the world’s very top players parading his genius – for that is what it is – not only for the remainder of the World Cup, but also well into the Premier League season yet to come. The BBC are amazingly, ridiculously, mentioning a possible two year ban as I write. That would be a terrible tragedy, an injustice and a gross misreading of what is good for the game.
As I said earlier, genius is frequently accompanied by a lunatic fringe of unpredictably bizarre behaviour. Genius is what Luis Suárez has, to a lavish degree. He is one of the very few players for whom even today’s extortionate match ticket prices are well worth the investment. Genius always deserves some latitude, some understanding of the nature of the beast. Such is my assessment of the Suárez dilemma; genius has its prerogatives and will always be its own excuse. By that reckoning, what possible excuse can there be for ersatz tough-guy and decided non-genius Royston Keane? We’d better leave that to his besotted friend and colleague, hypocrite extraordinaire Adrian Chiles.