Eight long years without a trophy has left too many fans willing to turn a blind eye to proven racism
If you're not a football fan, don't give in to the temptation to give this one a miss. It's a story that is only partly about football and rather more about racism and what people do about it on those rare occasions when taking a stand on an apparently public issue exacts what feels like a personal price.
The issue in question relates to the proposed purchase by Arsenal football club of Luis Suárez. If you're not a regular reader of the sports pages, you might have missed it, so here's the context. Arsenal are a great club that have not won anything in eight years. Their supporters – and I count myself among them – are hungry, some would say desperate, for success. This summer the club's top brass encouraged them to believe that, finally, the manager would spend big, buying in the world-class striker the team so clearly needs. Each day, they would check the online rumour mill to see which international star was about to come to the Emirates stadium.
Then came word that Arsenal's top target was Liverpool's Suárez. That he is a huge talent, no one doubts. But he comes with what black Arsenal blogger Iron Man calls a Heathrow carousel's worth of baggage. Specifically, he ended the last season with a 10-match ban for biting one opponent – having earlier been banned for hurling racist abuse at another. The official report into that episode found that Suárez explained to Manchester United's Patrice Evra that he had kicked him "because you are black", later adding: "I don't speak to blacks."
This record has left Arsenal fans with what feels like a sharp dilemma. They would dearly love to see a player of Suárez's ability in an Arsenal shirt. But they don't want to have to cheer, and regard as one of their own, a man capable of proven racism. They have long believed – indeed it has been a source of comfort during the long, trophyless years – that Arsenal, and its manager Arsène Wenger, are somehow better than that, that they stand for an ethos and a set of values that sets them apart from some of their rivals. Adding Suárez to the team would expose that pride as a delusion.
Some of the most hardcore fans have come out against the mooted transfer. "Please Arsène, don't sign Luis Suárez," wrote @gunnerblog. Iron Man wrote an impassioned plea for his club to think again, fearing that if the move went ahead it would mean: "The fact that he offended an entire race means nothing as long as he plays football well."
The debate currently raging has become bitter. The widely read @arseblog, who has posted daily on the club for the best part of a decade, says "objection to the signing of Suárez has led to some of the most virulent abuse I've ever received in all the years of Arseblog". For my own part, I've been struck by the pragmatism of friends and fellow supporters who I'd assumed would be utterly intolerant of a man associated with such intolerance. "Everyone deserves a second chance," one tells me. "If anyone can tame Suárez, it's Wenger," says another. "It was the heat of the moment," says a third.
I accept that I'm fairly new to this game: I wrote recently of my conversion, late in life, to football, thanks to my devoted Gooner sons. I also understand that tribal loyalty runs very deep: even the loudest anti-Suárez agitator is never going to walk away from Arsenal over this.
But the response has been a revelation all the same. It suggests that it's easy to be outraged by racism – until such outrage comes at a cost. That the mind is capable of coming up with all kinds of doublethink when two desires clash: in this case, the need to believe one is an anti-racist and the urge to see one's team flourish. And that when staring a hard fact in the face means giving up something you want, even the most enlightened folk will often turn a blind eye.