Understanding Luis Suarez: The Racism Row in Retrospect


David Wild seeks to understand Luis Suarez…

“The case with (Patrice) Evra was all false. I was accused without proof. But that’s in the past. I was sad at that moment, but I’m happy today… All the other things were like a movie that people in England believed in.”Luis Suarez, February 13th 2014.

It’s difficult to escape one’s past. When you consider the shining media spotlight that is focussed on contemporary world football’s glittering stage it can seem completely impossible.

Since the events between Suarez and Evra on October 15th 2011 that saw allegations and admission on Suarez’ part of racial abuse the striker has been tarred with one of society’s most unacceptable monikers. That of the unapologetic racist.

“I knew what I did and there is a kind of football law that says, ‘What happens on the pitch, stays on the pitch and that’s the end of the story.'”Luis Suarez, 8th Feb 2012

But what happens on the pitch cannot be divorced from the rest of reality. To say that racism is not racism in a particular circumstance allows an unacceptable excuse for an intolerable behaviour. In a way that allowing bullying on a school playground because it ‘builds character’ is deplorable, a dissociation of the sports field from society should be equally unacceptable. Once the intent to harm has been established, the venue is of no consequence.

‘The word “negro” is utterly unacceptable. Even one mention is one too many.’Henry Winter, 4th January 2012

Suarez’ initial claim was that “in my country, ‘negro’ is a word we use commonly, a word which doesn’t show any lack of respect and is even less so a form of racist abuse” and is similar to the way that they would call Dirk Kuyt ‘blondie’ in Liverpool training sessions.

This point is seemingly ratified in La Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, the most authoritative dictionary in Spanish language, which claims that ‘negro/negra’ is ‘commonly used to refer to partners, close friends or people in general independent of skin colour’ However it is not as simple as the word having a completely different meaning. There is considerable room for doubt when it is used in a certain intentional context, even in Uruguay.

Suarez was though, backed to the hilt by his countrymen, with claims in “El Pais” that the UK media was engaged in “hypocrisy” and “pseudo-moralism” in misunderstanding the possibility of an inoffensive context to the word from the Uruguayan’s perspective. The national director of sport, Ernesto Irureta claimed that “this ban is exaggerated, absurd and out of place”, expressing a belief that Europe was passing blame for it’s own societal problems on a man with a radically different cultural upbringing; imposing an extreme judgement on a “poor kid who had not studied to be a diplomat”.

The difficulty is in trying to perceive where to draw the line. It is in no way as simple as saying that they are wrong and we are right when it comes to the perception of the word ‘negro’ because this misses all sorts of cultural and semantic nuances. What is explorable is the concept behind the words, namely when the word is used in order to judge a person in a perceivably pejorative manner by the colour of their skin, as was seemingly the case with Suarez/Evra.

“A lot has been made about different cultures and what is deemed to be racist abuse there,” said Taylor. “But the point is, if it isn’t wrong to make reference to somebody’s skin colour [in another country] in this way, it should be.Gordon Taylor

Gabriele Marcotti believes in making a distinction between two different racist types namely:

“Those who engage in racist acts [who] may be inveterate racists who are prejudiced and actively discriminate against those of a different skin colour. Or they may simply be people who do it to wind up opposing players or fans or to seek attention or to show how bad-ass they are, but, in real-life they are in no way prejudiced. 

This again seeks to dissociate racist words and actions from actual prejudices. It forms the notion that a heat of the moment decision to pejoratively mention the colour of a rival’s skin can be lessened in it’s seriousness by context. The difficulty in ascribing to this belief system is in defining intent. How do we differentiate the two without the insight of mind reading? It cannot be practically administered and so the two cannot be separated. A racist word has to be thought of as being backed up with an actual prejudice.

The two major negatives to Suarez’ side of the story are his unapologetic nature and his inhumility. It is arrogant to impose cultural values on a person but it is equally arrogant to reside on a continent for 8 years and refuse to adapt to society’s linguistic and cultural sensitivities in such a brazen manner. There are two questionable stances competing for a moral high ground, hence why there is a grey area as to the defensible nature of Suarez’ actions.

The easiest way for the situation to be righted would be for a bigger man to admit an understanding. For Suarez to accept that what he said was unacceptable for him to say in the societal framework he now occupies or for society to accept that Suarez may not have meant what he said in the context that they think. But the veil of perception of both parties is so strong as to not allow them to admit the other’s point of view, and in the case of the Uruguayan, his reluctance to try and rebuild bridges leads him to look dishonest or deceptive.

On the one hand if European society admits that what Suarez said was acceptable, in the eyes of the majority it sets back years of work in fighting racism because of the perception of the word ‘negro’ in European minds.

Alternatively, if Suarez were to admit that what he did was wrong then he may feel as though he would betray his own cultural heritage by admitting to the flaws within Uruguay’s linguistic sub-systems of colloquialisms and slang, as well as its societal structures.   In the past Uruguay has often been a trail blazer when it comes to the inclusion of black footballers and people of colour within their teams and societies, often ahead of other more traditionally considered ‘enlightened’ countries across the Atlantic and within South America.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean that in reality Uruguay is the racial utopia that some Suarez apologists have attempted to paint it as in the aftermath of their hero’s transgressions. To be black in Uruguay is to still suffer inequality of opportunity when it comes to education, poverty and employment compared to national averages for other groups. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of voices attempting to dismiss ‘Negro’ as an acceptable term have come from Montevideo’s predominantly white middle-to-upper classes, who are largely of European descent and well-represented in influential positions within the media and power.

While they can be easily heard and broadcasted to defend their countryman’s right to say a word offensive in other territories, similar coverage has not been afforded to their black compatriots  and their thoughts on the subject within their own borders. liverpool-vs-man-united-patrice-evra-luis-suarez

‘Negro’, we are told, is a harmless word used as a pet name or nickname, but the fact that terms used to describe whiteness or white skin are not used with similarly patronising connotations gives weight to the idea that this supposedly innocent term still relies on the condescension of black Uruguayans. It’s worth noting that campaigns currently underway in the country to clear Spanish dictionaries of overtly offensive phrases such as “trabajar como un negro” (roughly translated as “to work like a black person”).

The context and additional actions involved with his outburst also cannot be ignored when considering his motivations. At best, this was a hyper-competitive individual indulging in a moment of intentionally hurtful gamesmanship in an attempt to try and unsettle his opponent.

Arguments and personality spats are regular occurrences on the football pitch after all, and could be described as football’s answer to cricket’s sledging, but if this accepted as alternative motivation for Suarez, it still implies intent. If we take the social context of Uruguay and the linguistic and societal debates raging around language and meaning in words such as ‘negro’ then this must be at least considered to have been with the intent to get underneath Evra’s skin by making reference to it and belittling the defender’s race in doing so as we cannot know otherwise.

If Suarez truly believes the non pejorative context of the word he said to Patrice Evra then this does remove the intent for hateful judgement. Without the intent to harm a ‘hate’ crime loses its vital element of hate. But as we said before, a racist word has to be thought of as being backed up with an actual prejudice because we cannot know otherwise.

Society can still only judge racist words in a literal manner, labelling the person who said them without remorse as a racist and Suarez can not hide behind a defence of ignorance while he resides in Europe. We can only try to explain and understand perhaps why Suarez so vehemently refuses to apologise for something he may, in his own mind, not have said in an offensive way at all.

@D_A_Wild; @The_False_Nine

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About David Wild

Your resident 'man on the sofa' David Wild has often been referred to as 'one of our writers' and 'a nice young man'. A keen analyst of both trivial, humourous and tactical aspects of the beautiful game, David has honed those skills of argument and insight that only the bosom of Boundary Park, mispent time in the pub and half a philosophy degree can bestow upon a man. An English and Philosophy Graduate of Leeds University 2012, David tweets, almost daily, nonsensical ramblings here

10 thoughts on “Understanding Luis Suarez: The Racism Row in Retrospect

  1. The top and bottom was that Old Red Nose started all the trouble, told and lies for his own ends. What rankles is that Evra admitted using racist terms but was not charged or had any sanctions against him. The so called independent panel all had links to Manure. Suarez’s Lawyer was an absolute waste of space hence his sacking by Liverpool. and Lastly if it had gone to a proper trial Suarez would have been cleared. Let that be an end to it other than I hope Fergie drops dead ASAP.

  2. This would all be spot-on, except that he actually said Negrito, not Negro…..”So we come to the question of what Suarez actually [allegedly] said to Evra and it would appear that the offensive term in question is ‘Negrito’, a diminutive form of the word ‘Negro’ which, according to some people who’ve looked closely at the tape of the incident, Suarez apparently repeated several times.

    Casting around on a few Liverpool FC fan forums, the main line of defence that’s being deployed – after stating that the forum does not condone racism of course – is taken directly from the Wikipedia entry for the word ‘Negro’ as follows:

    In Spain, Mexico and almost all of Latin-America, negro (note that ethnonyms, names of nationalities, etc. are generally not capitalized in Romance languages) means “black person” in colloquial situations, but it can be considered to be derogatory in other situations (as in English, “black” is often used to mean irregular or undesirable, as in “black market/mercado negro”). However, in Spanish-speaking countries such as Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay where there are few people of African origin and appearance, negro (negra for females) is commonly used to refer to partners, close friends or people in general independent of skin color. In Venezuela the word negro is similarly used, despite its large African descent population.

    It is similar to the use of the word “nigga” in urban communities in the United States. For example, one might say to a friend, “Negro ¿Como andas? (literally “Hey, black one, how are you doing?”). In this case, the diminutive negrito is used, as a term of endearment meaning “pal”, “buddy” or “friend”.

    Defence statement: “It is key to note that Patrice Evra himself in his written statement in this case said: “I don’t think that Luis Suarez is racist.” The FA in their opening remarks accepted that Luis Suarez was not racist.

    “Luis himself is of a mixed race family background as his grandfather was black. He has been personally involved since the 2010 World Cup in a charitable project which uses sport to encourage solidarity amongst people of different backgrounds with the central theme that the colour of a person’s skin does not matter; they can all play together as a team.

    “He has played with black players and mixed with their families whilst with the Uruguay national side and was captain at Ajax Amsterdam of a team with a proud multi-cultural profile, many of whom became good friends.

    But you won’t care about any of that will you? Carry on, as you were…

  3. For gods sake are you sports writers incapable of moving on. Suarez and everybody else has moved on but the feature writers continue to live in the past.

  4. Suarez got banned for speaking Spanish? The whole conversation between Suarez & Evra was in Spanish. Suarez called Evra “negro” during their conversation. Suarez then gets an 8 game ban for racist abusing Evra by calling him “negro” by the English FA. Conclusion of the law of the English FA is that every person who speaks Spanish is guilty of using racist abusive language considering “negro” is used in everyday life in Spain & in South America? The real story is Evra didn’t once complain to the referee about this racist abuse during the 90 minutes of the football match. Why was this?

  5. You are missing the fact that to us ‘negro’ is a derogatory term that black American slaves. In Spanish it simply means the colour black. He is also quoted as saying negrito not negro. It is a fact that by adding Ito to a word in Spanish it is generally affectionate, for example perro means dog and perrito means puppy, gato means cat, gatito – kitten etc.
    when you talk to the Spanish about this they are incredulous and don’t believe it’s racist at all.

  6. The whole basis of your article is undermined by the fact that you repeatedly assert that Suarez said ‘Negro’. He didn’t, he said ‘Negrito’ which has a different connotation. Also no mention of the fact that Suarez is mixed race himself – his grandmother was black.

  7. None of us are mind-readers and in the absence of this ability and given the full context of the situation, including Suarez’ cultural background, I prefer to give the benefit of the doubt.

    Let’s remember that evidence was very scant and Suarez accused Evra of trying to wind him up, if I remember correctly, using the term “sud Americano” also in a pejorative manner. Who started it? I personally believe that Ferguson sent Evra out, with the instruction to wind Suarez up.

    Were Suarez comments, however culturally perceived, intended to insult Evra? I suspect so, but possibly only as a response to Evra’s own racial insults towards Suarez.

    Suarez has many black friends and shows no suggestion of any racial prejudice towards his own black, if that’s the correct term, team-mates.

    My parents lived in South America and I also learnt Spanish, albeit not that well, so I have some perspective on the language and culture. It should be noted that South American Spanish is probably as different to that spoken in Spain, as American English is to our own language. For this reason also, care needs to be taken.

    I know what I believe. Suarez has made some mistakes, the biting incidents being the worst, but I put most of it down to his culture and upbringing. I also believe that he’s making a massive effort to behave in a manner appropriate to our culture now.

    So, hopefully people will leave him alone, though I suspect the majority won’t. It’s a sad world if any racism exists, but just as sad if the racism is directed to “sud Americanos” as it is to “Blacks” or “Negros.” By the way, has “Negro” now become an offensive term and is “Black” now an acceptable term for people of what used to be called “Negro” descent?

    Maybe the question reflects ignorance on my part, but I was raised by my parents to view all people of all races as equal and I don’t spent time agonizing over the correct terms for other races.

  8. The amount of commenters above who plainly have not and will not read and digested the full FA report is ridiculous. It’s because of mouth-breathing partisan dullards such as these that the issue will never be resolved.

    Dave’s points are quite obviously substantial but don’t let logic overrule your tribal loyalties. If you do want to read and analyse the report and then comment from a position of knowledge, it’s here:


  9. @pigman “By the way, has “Negro” now become an offensive term and is “Black” now an acceptable term for people of what used to be called “Negro” descent?”

    Yes on both counts. Where have you been hiding this last few decades?

  10. gtf on February 22, 2014 at 2:58 am said:

    “@pigman “By the way, has “Negro” now become an offensive term and is “Black” now an acceptable term for people of what used to be called “Negro” descent?”

    Yes on both counts. Where have you been hiding this last few decades?”

    Thank you gtf. So we have a problem, because “negro” is the Spanish word for black and it’s been accepted that Suarez and Evra were speaking Spanish, so from Suarez’ viewpoint, by using the word “negro” in Spanish, he was in fact saying “black”, which, according to your reply, is acceptable.

    You see, it’s all a matter of perspective and in my opinion, oversensitivity. I’m English, despite being conceived in Ecuador, but I don’t mind what anyone calls me.

    As to where I’ve been hiding? Well, as I said, my parents raised me to believe that all are equal in the eyes of God and I’ve maintained this throughout my life, so I don’t obsess over terms used to describe race, as I don’t see a differentiation. We are all human.

    I do wonder at what point “negro” dropped from being acceptable, because when I was very young, the old poem, “Eanie, meanie, miny, mo,” was a very popular method for making choices and contains a much more offensive term, which is still used sometimes amongst “black” people.

    In any case, “negro” being the Spanish word for “black”, shouldn’t be assumed to be offensive, otherwise all languages would have to be seriously reduced, by taking out all words which have offensive meanings in other languages.

    Common sense, a commodity in very short supply, needs to be applied.

    I also maintain, that if Evra called Suarez “sud Americano” in a pejorative tone, it’s just as unacceptable as using the word “negro” in English.

    One more thing. People have made their minds up about Suarez and are unlikely to change with continued discussion. I personally believe that Suarez is no angel, but also not and never was a racist. If you take an alternative view, what is to be gained by discussing it? and will Suarez ever be able to redeem himself?

    I doubt it, so why do we need to keep talking about it? John Terry was guilty in a much clearer way and yet received a much lower punishment. Is that because the FA are showing a racial bias, because Terry is English and Suarez is South American?

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