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When a nickname in one language sounds like something else in another
LIMA, Peru — A public inquiry by the British parliament has been set up in response to a racism row that has engulfed Luis Suarez, one of South America’s biggest soccer stars.
It's also launched a debate about cross-cultural norms.
Suarez, who plays for English club Liverpool, was this month suspended for eight games for allegedly racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, a French player of African descent.
Suarez admitted calling Evra “negro” — Spanish for “black” — multiple times during a tense game. But he insisted that the term is perfectly normal in his native Uruguay, where, he claimed, it functions as a kind of Spanish “dude” or “buddy.”
Referring to people by their appearance, including race, is a common practice in Latin America, where terms that might be best translated as “shorty,” “fatty,” “skinny,” “whitey,” and even “darkie” or “blackie,” are routinely used without giving offence.
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The Football Association (FA), which governs English soccer, has effectively ruled that that friendly usage depended on context.
And deploying the term in the middle of a heated clash between Liverpool and Manchester United, among the fiercest rivals in world soccer, simply did not allow for an amicable interpretation, the FA ruled.
Now, the House of Commons’ media, culture and sport committee is to look at the issue of racism in soccer, and in particular Liverpool’s unconditional backing for Suarez even after the FA had found him guilty of racism.
That support included Liverpool’s coach and entire squad donning T-shirts in support of Suarez the day after the FA published its verdict.
The controversy is hardly the first in the mercurial Uruguayan’s career. At the 2010 World Cup, he was sent off for using his hand to stop a shot on the goal line in a quarter-final against Ghana. The incident was arguably the most blatant violation in the history of the tournament.
Yet most of his countrymen are likely to forgive Suarez, whose quicksilver skills and eye for goal have been key in propelling Uruguay to the South American championship last year, and fourth place in the 2010 World Cup.