Liverpool once again find themselves in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Yesterday evening news broke that Operation Black Vote – a group which seeks to promote racial equality in the UK – had made a complaint to Spanish insurance company Groupama Seguros regarding one of their adverts. The advert, which appears on Spanish television, stars Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina and has been labelled racist and homophobic for its portrayal of a black tribe.
In the wake of the Suarez scandal, and Liverpool’s much criticised handling of the Suarez-Evra race row in general, it is inevitable that there will be a media furore over this latest allegation of racism against a Liverpool player. However, it is important to bear in mind the difference in the gravity of both incidents: Suarez directly racially abused Patrice Evra while representing Liverpool F.C., whereas Reina has appeared in a personal capacity, on Spanish television, in an advert which is, at the very least, in extremely poor taste. Whilst this does not in any way diminish the fact that the advert is, at least here in the UK, deemed by some to be racist, it is a much different situation to the Suarez affair.
One element of the Suarez affair which was continually cited in his defence was that there were cultural differences between England and Uruguay, and that “negrito” would not be considered a racist term in Latin America. As was clear from the reaction of the press and the public, and indeed from the 8-match ban handed down to Suarez by the FA, the idea that a foreign national is exempt from social standards of the country he is in is simply untenable. Nevertheless, it has never been more apparent that continental Europe does not share such a firm stance on racism as the UK. When Sepp Blatter made his now infamous comment that a handshake was all that was necessary after a racist comment on the football pitch there was public outrage here in the UK, but the comment received a much more muted response on the continent. That isn’t to say that people are not entitled to be offended by the advert, but the context of the advert being purely for a Spanish audience – which given the lack of complaints emerging from Spain would appear to be comparatively unoffended – should be taken into consideration before condemning Reina. The flip side of expecting anyone in the UK to abide by the social standards of our country is that we must accept, even if it is begrudgingly in some cases, that other countries are entitled to have different cultural views.
Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that Reina has been slightly naïve. Even if the advert was filmed before the Suarez race-row, Reina should have been aware that such an advert would not be considered acceptable in the UK and that, as a key player for one of the biggest clubs in England, it could come back to haunt him. If the advert was released after this, however, it is far more irresponsible of Reina, given how damaging the Suarez scandal has been to Liverpool’s reputation.
What will perhaps be of greater importance will be how Liverpool handle the situation, and particularly how Kenny Dalglish responds if he is asked about the matter. The decision to send out the Liverpool team in t-shirts bearing Suarez’s face following the news of the player’s ban may be the most memorable aspect of Liverpool’s mishandling of the Suarez race-row, but it is arguable that it was Dalglish’s confrontational and petulant manner in interviews on the subject that did the most damage to Liverpool’s reputation. Whilst the Suarez support t-shirts were a tacit denial of any wrongdoing by Suarez, the protracted defence of the player by Dalglish was a slap in the face to campaigners for racial equality in football and continued to drag the club’s name through the mud over the following weeks. Dalglish’s blind defence of Suarez came to a head when Suarez and Evra met for the first time since the incident in the United-Liverpool derby last month and Suarez brazenly refused to shake Evra’s hand, with Dalglish claiming not to have seen the incident when asked about it in a post-match interview. The following day, Liverpool’s American owners finally stepped in to prevent any further damage to the club’s reputation and both Dalglish and Suarez were forced to apologise for their conduct.
The problem Liverpool now face is a tricky one: they will not want to be excessively harsh on one of their most important players, but they cannot be seen to be soft on racism. Punishment of Reina in any formal manner would be denouncing him as a racist, which would be egregiously unfair given that he was not acting as a representative of Liverpool football club and due to the relevance of cultural differences in Spain, where the advert was aired. On the other hand, this is not an issue that Liverpool should simply ignore. Accordingly, the best stance to take would be for Liverpool to accept that offence has been caused and to state that they feel the advert was in poor taste, but to reiterate the point that Reina was acting in a personal capacity and to highlight the cultural differences in attitudes to race.
One aspect that Liverpool can’t control, however, is the reaction of their fans. Almost as soon as the story broke, social media sites were flooded with comments from fans expressing their disgust at what they perceive to be victimisation of their club by the media, with many strongly refuting the allegations that the advert is racist and denouncing the claims as ridiculous. Although it is clearly a matter of opinion whether the content is racially offensive, the advert has clearly offended some people and the reaction of some Liverpool fans will inevitably be perceived as biased, which will only serve to damage Liverpool’s reputation further.
So while this is a relatively minor incident in comparison to the Suarez-Evra race-row, it is imperative that Liverpool, their supporters, and other members of the public accept that some people do find the content offensive, but it also crucial that the press and those offended keep it in context.