Having showcased his Hand of God tribute act at the last World Cup, and sunk his gnashers into a fellow pro while at Ajax, Luis Suárez was a ready-formed cartoon villain when he washed up on these shores last January. All that was missing was the stovepipe hat, cape, cane and elaborate moustache. Nyahh nyahh nyahh. Yet even so, it's still something of a shock – a shameful, sorry shock – how quickly the Uruguayan has found himself to be the biggest pariah in English football.
Last weekend, in the early exchanges of Liverpool's visit to West Bromwich Albion, Jerome Thomas needlessly stuck out a leg to impede the progress of Suárez. Progress being used there in its loosest sense; Suárez was scampering nowhere fast, out of the area, away from danger. Knocked to his knees, skittering across the turf like a distressed toddler who had just fallen off his bike, the Liverpool striker didn't even claim for the penalty. But a foul is a foul, no matter how soft, and the spot kick was duly awarded. Suárez spent the rest of a brilliant display getting pelters from the Hawthorns faithful, and was loudly and signally booed off as he was substituted near the end.
All of which is fair enough. Fans are under no obligation to be even-handed; Thomas could have bowled into view behind the wheel of a 4x4, knocking Suárez 15 feet into the air off the bonnet, and some supporters would have still insisted Suárez deserved to be booked for jaywalking. But you expect a little bit of reason from the professionals and the media.
"I think the 25,000 people watching, even the Liverpool supporters, will probably agree with me that it looked like a very, very harsh decision, and there was certainly no intention to foul the player or give away a penalty," opined West Brom boss Roy Hodgson after the game. Top marks to Roy for chutzpah, in attempting to corral moral support from a fanbase he'd systematically alienated with a series of self-serving statements during his time at Anfield, but otherwise the comment missed the point spectacularly. Benign intent does not cancel out clumsiness. And seeing Hodgson was in the mood to make assumptions on behalf of others, Liverpool supporters will probably agree with me that his complaint smacked of bandwagon jumping, Suárez's sullied reputation a convenient out for his team's piss-poor display, one grabbed eagerly with both hands.
For some reason – surreal, yet paradoxically predictable – a controversy over this most basic and clear-cut decision ran for most of the week. "It was a nice dive for the penalty," suggested West Brom midfielder Paul Scharner a couple of days ago. "Suárez is very good at winning penalties. He's one of the best on the planet, in fact. There was a general feeling among all the players that it was a soft penalty." Soft it may have been, but a penalty it was nonetheless, and Scharner's accusation of diving was at best myopic and befuddled. More uncharitably, seeing Scharner is in the business of shooting from the hip without a second's thought for reputation, his claim was a flat-out lie. That such a statement has been left hanging, reported unchallenged in the press, his words reprinted in headline-point size, borders on the weird.
Many of football's controversies are initially fuelled by television, the papers turning up 24 hours later with a couple of cans of petrol and a box of Swan, tittering excitedly. But to be fair this time round, ESPN attempted to nip this strange business in the bud. The co-commentator Chris Waddle was quick to call Thomas's foul, as were his colleagues in the studio, though you do wonder whether Waddle was feeling some guilt for his dubious performance during Liverpool's game the previous week against Norwich City, when almost every compliment given to Suárez was prefaced with a totally needless: "I don't like the way he goes to ground sometimes, but." It's a strange state of affairs when a player's contributions are constantly framed by their misdemeanours – Steven Gerrard's finer moments have rarely been counterbalanced with his habit of starfishing himself to the floor, while Wayne Rooney has yet to be admonished upon Mark Hughesing one home for any previous arse-kicking red mists that may have occasionally befallen him – but this is the way of life for Suárez.
At one point during that Norwich game, Suárez was blocked off on the edge of the area. It probably wasn't a foul, though you've seen them given. Play went on, Craig Bellamy within nanoseconds running the ball out of play down the left. At which point Suárez was loudly berated by the ESPN commentator Jon Champion for not springing immediately back up and joining in the move again. Denis Law, who could defy gravity like few others, would have struggled to raise as much as a wry eyebrow in a similarly allotted time. Nothing, sure enough, was said when Suárez stayed teetering on his toes a few minutes later, dragging a shot wide left of goal, despite having been nudged in the area and well within his rights to send the nipples turfward looking for the penalty. Michael Owen, England's penalty-winning hero against Argentina in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, would have had no compunction.
A few days later, in a Carling Cup game transmitted on the BBC, Suárez was standing in the penalty area at Stoke waiting for the dispatch of a corner, with his hands conspicuously in the air to demonstrate that he wasn't grappling with any defenders. "He's making sure the referee knows he's fouling no one," announced Guy Mowbray, before pausing and proudly quipping: "He's fooling no one." Lovely linguistic gymnastics, and what comedy, though hardly Reithian reporting; if Suárez displayed similar balance in the penalty area, he'd have an instant 10-match ban for simulation.
Thing is, nobody's fooling themselves, and it would be hard to paint Suárez as an angel. This latest slew of accusations have come in the wake of Jack Rodwell's disgraceful sending off in the Merseyside derby, for a tackle which saw the Everton youngster barely clipping Suárez. The Liverpool striker certainly made the most of Rodwell's challenge, and you can berate him for patrolling the outer boundaries of the game's laws – simulation is illegal, but exaggeration of a foul is only covered by the vague and highly subjective theory of gamesmanship – but then Rodwell was playing with fire having momentarily shown his studs as he thundered in for the tackle, surely the crucial factor in referee Martin Atkinson's mistake. Suárez had done nothing technically wrong; indeed, Atkinson had whipped the card out with Suárez having barely hit the turf, suggesting the player's reaction had little or nothing to do with what was unquestionably a dismal decision. Either way, it's not much evidence with which to condemn a man. And given pretty much everyone in the league is at it anyway, singling Suárez out for opprobrium does make one wonder.
There's a very large elephant in the room, of course, and it's parping the sort of elaborate freestyle jazz solo that makes Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity sound like the theme tune to Hancock's Half Hour: the allegations of racist abuse levelled at Suárez by the Manchester United captain Patrice Evra. Should Evra's claims be made to stand, Suárez will have some serious talking to do, and quickly. Sympathy for his plight would suddenly be in extremely short supply, both outside and inside Anfield. But at the time of writing, that's a mighty big if: he's currently an innocent man, and must be treated as such.
Evra's accusations do throw light on a certain irony, however, and lead us to what is the crux of the problem. English football is rightly proud of its efforts to kick out racism. The game has come a long way since the unreconstructed days of the 1970s and 1980s. Arguably even more of an achievement lies in the fact that nobody involved with the sport has since got complacent: the recent accusations involving Suárez and John Terry have been addressed swiftly and seriously, across the board by professionals, administrators, media and fans.
But while there's a healthy zero-tolerance attitude to the overt stuff, a strain of unspoken, casual xenophobia remains. English football puffs out its chest in pride at its modern cosmopolitan nature, but despite the international roll call there's still a bit of work to be done. In more than one quarter, Suárez has been advised to tone down the theatrics in order to get the crowds – and the media – off his back. Given that making the most of challenges, providing there's no drift into simulation, isn't against the laws of the game, and that such a grift is more widely accepted in other countries, there's an unsettling undertone here: you can work in the country, but you have to do things our way. Extend that argument into any other walk of life, and you're on very dodgy political ground. Exactly why football should be treated any differently isn't made clear.
The pious demands aren't, of course, directed at homegrown players partial to a wee dive: the aforementioned Gerrard or Owen, for example. When Arsenal's record-breaking 49-game unbeaten run was ended, it was thanks to a brilliantly disguised but shameful tumble by Wayne Rooney, as British a bulldog as you're likely to see. Francis Lee, also of these shores, practically invented the concept of going to ground in the mid 1960s.
There's also a strange (and very British) kind of logic on display here: if we're so annoyed by the over-reaction of certain players to being fouled, all quadruple salchow and pike, then instead of heaping abuse on the poor saps rolling about, would it not be better to ask the other players to stop kicking them? The last time we ended up here, in the summer of 2006, one of the best players in the world was nearly hounded out of the country for winking, while the man who perambulated up and down a man's front tail was treated as the victim of the piece.
A desperately sad state of affairs, all told, and one which leaves poor old Suárez hanging out to dry. He is, sadly, unlikely to be cut much slack; you know how these things pan out. In many respects, while Liverpool's player is within his rights to bemoan his lot, the club's fans can't complain too loudly, as all this is nothing new. Allegiances being what they are, Kopites didn't man the barricades alongside their comrades at Chelsea when Didier Drogba was getting pelters for being regularly kicked around like an old sock. Nor did they fight the good fight side by side with those from Manchester United, when Cristiano Ronaldo was constantly berated for being repeatedly sent flying across Old Trafford on his shiny teeth.
Still, it would be nice to think this is where we all finally come together and draw a line under this nonsense, though the suspicion is that we haven't quite matured enough. We're getting the overt stuff down pat. The rest? Not so much. But let's not be too harsh on ourselves. Much of this, you have to hope, is less true xenophobia, and simply the projection of jealousy and frustration at watching truly brilliant players going about their business. If Liverpool's No7 wasn't any good, few people would care. Cristiano Ronaldo, let's remember, was vilified for doing stepovers. Stepovers. A skill. Thanks, Britain! Well done, us! Luis Suárez must wonder what he's let himself in for.