A matter of life and death?

If you follow British football you might be aware of the recent saga between Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez.

If you’re not, I’ll just sum it up quickly: in a football match between Liverpool and Manchester United there was a bit of a niggly war of attrition between one of Liverpool’s strikers (Suarez) and one of Man U’s defenders (Evra). There was a bit of nasty tackling, pinching etc. (yes, I know they’re grown men, but what can you do?) and a few words spoken, which culminated in Suarez calling Evra, in some form, ‘Blackie’.

That elevated the whole thing to a row about racism (Evra is indeed ‘black’) that got quite complicated. Suarez, who is Uruguayan, claimed that this was a common and innocent term of address in his native country (like ‘blondie’ or ‘ginger’), but Evra thought it wasn’t. Then they both gave evidence to a neutral committee who released a 115-page report on their findings, concluding that, although it was the word of one man against another, Suarez’s was the less believable of the two, so they found him guilty of ‘using racist language’ and banned him for eight games, adding a fine of about an hour’s wages.

Since then (around New Year), the issue has been barely out of the press: Liverpool’s players wore T-shirts in support of Suarez but the club didn’t appeal. Man Utd’s players and fans all thought justice had been done. Then on Saturday the two teams played each other again, but at the beginning of the match, when the two teams shake hands with each other, Suarez didn’t shake Evra’s hand. This led to a FUCKING GLOBAL MELTDOWN. Man Utd’s manager said this could have cause a riot; when Man Utd won Evra celebrated right under Suarez’s nose; Liverpool old boys condemned Suarez, saying his behaviour was not befitting Liverpool Football Club; Liverpool’s manager claimed he hadn’t seen the non-shake… Then Liverpool’s owners made player and manager apologise and that might be that.

And that’s the short version.

What I found amazing throughout the whole thing was the wholehearted belief on both sides that they were utterly in the right. My Twitter feed contains fans of both teams plus plenty of neutral sports journalists, all of whom who had hundreds of things to say on the matter. But they were often in direct opposition to each other.

Some wise people on the Guardian’s sports blogs pointed out that if the teams were reversed each set of fans would be taking the opposite position just as strongly, but the idea that the people involved could take such a detached view of the situation, shrug and shake hands is ridiculous (the great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’).

Now, if I were Dave Trott I would explain how this is a quite brilliant allegory for the extent to which clients and creatives take and defend positions that neither can relate to, but I’m not, so I’ll just leave that for you to work that out for yourself.

But what I will say is that in this case F. Scott Fitzgerald trumps Bill Shankley: ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.’

Good luck with that, Man U and Liverpool fans.