Edinson Cavani is awaiting news from the FA over what will happen about the controversial Instagram post he published on his story following Manchester United’s impressive comeback against Southampton last weekend, with the Uruguayan coming off the bench to score twice.
United had gone in 2-0 down at half-time but went on to win 3-2, with Cavani assisting Bruno Fernandes before scoring two goals himself.
That evening, his social media was alive with people praising the striker and he replied to a friend on his story, saying “gracias negrito”. After being made aware of the racist connotations connected with the word, he deleted the post immediately and offered an apology for the offence caused.
The message I posted after the game on Sunday was intended as an affectionate greeting to a friend, thanking him for his congratulations after the game. The last thing I wanted to do was cause offence to anyone. I am completely opposed to racism and deleted the message as soon as it was explained that it can be interpreted differently. I would like to sincerely apologise for this.
Unsurprisingly, there was a huge amount of backlash from some football fans and unreserved support from many United fans. As is so often the case, fans’ morals and opinions can be dictated by the shirt the offending party wears.
Some media outlets, like The Guardian, The Daily Mail and The Independent, incorrectly claimed Cavani had used the same word that had seen Luis Suarez banned for eight matches.
Those who had bothered to read the FA’s report on Suarez’s racist abuse of Patrice Evra knew this wasn’t true and plenty argued that the difference in context excused Cavani’s choice of words meant the incidents were entirely separate.
Before the FA had published their report in 2011, newspapers had reported that “negrito” was potentially the word used by Suarez but the former Liverpool striker had admitted during the investigation that he used the word “negro”. South American Spanish language experts claimed these words wouldn’t be offensive in Uruguay if used between friends and that if Suarez had intended the impact to be “conciliatory” it wouldn’t be considered abuse. After Suarez had received the experts’ report, he wrote a witness claiming his use of the word was an attempt at conciliation.
This was dismissed by the FA’s panel as it was clear that “the whole tenor of the players’ exchanges during this episode was one of animosity. They behaved in a confrontational and argumentative way.” Suarez had kicked Evra and was pinching his skin during what was a heated argument. The FA panel concluded “Suarez’s attitude and actions were the very antithesis of the conciliation and friendliness that he would have us believe.”
There is a clear difference of intent in the use of a different, but similar, word from Cavani. Rather than being during a hostile exchange, United’s striker was responding to a friend’s praise when using the offensive term.
Another difference, other than intent, is the response of the two clubs. Liverpool’s manager at the time, club legend Kenny Dalglish, went to see the referee, Andre Marriner, and fourth official, Phil Dowd, after the game. Dowd revealed that Dalglish said to him “hasn’t he done this before?”
While it makes little difference if Evra had previously reported a racist incident, it’s worth noting that our former left-back never had. For Dalglish to suggest to Evra had a history of making up allegations of racism is really poor, particularly given that it wasn’t true.
After Suarez had been found guilty, Dalglish and the playing squad donned t-shirts of support for Suarez. Then captain and vice-captain, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, as well as current captain Jordan Henderson, were all proudly supporting their team mate who had just been found to have racially abused someone.
Dalglish made out as if Suarez and the club were being targeted unfairly with the ban and sung the praises of the striker.
“I think the boys showed their respect and admiration for Luis with wearing the T-shirts,” Dalglish said at the time. “It is a great reflection of the man as a character, a person and a footballer that the boys have been so supportive and so have the supporters. He has earned that, has deserves it and we will always stand beside him. They will not divide the football club, no matter how hard they try. I think if anybody had any doubt in their mind that the players and the football club, and everyone associated with the football club, support Luis Suarez, then they are under no illusions now.”
Evra was at home watching the game and couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the club backing the striker despite what he had done.
“I was so disappointed after the ban, when the team and Kenny Dalglish came out [with the T-shirts] in support of Luis Suarez,” Evra later said. “I saw [the T-shirts]. I was watching the game. I was like, this is ridiculous. It is unbelievable.”
Not long after, Dalglish was replaced as manager, which could be due to the team’s performances but also his atrocious handling of this incident.
“I wasn’t surprised at Kenny leaving,” Sir Alex Ferguson later reflected. “John Henry has obviously looked at that and felt it wasn’t handled in the right way. It certainly wasn’t a nice thing to happen and it must have been part of it.”
Eight years after the incident, following Suarez’s transfer to Barcelona, which saw him enthusiastically celebrate a goal against his former club in the Champions League and reducing his status among supporters, Jamie Carragher appeared on Sky Sports with Evra, and was the first to offer an apology to Evra. Soon after, the club themselves finally apologised too.
By contrast, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has immediately acknowledged that Cavani made a mistake, agreeing with Gary Neville’s claim that players need a better education on racism.
“We’ve communicated with Edinson and he is really deeply sorry for the mistake he’s made,” our manager said. “There was no malicious intent at all, just an affectionate greeting to a friend of his, but we explained to him that he has been asked by the FA to explain it. He will cooperate with them and we’ll support him. It’s an unfortunate situation. He’s just come from Uruguay into this country and [the word] has a different affection than we have, but we’ll support him and we support the FA because it’s important the FA have asked him to explain. We want to be in the fight against discrimination with everyone. I saw Gary said something on all players coming from different cultures should be educated and Edinson has learnt the hard way.”
There will of course be United fans who defend Cavani purely because he’s a United player, whether he did anything wrong or not. There are others who can acknowledge that while he didn’t intend to cause offence it doesn’t change the fact language matters and, regardless of intent, he shouldn’t have said it.
An interesting thought to consider is that it could be seen as wrong for English people to impose their view on other cultures. Social media has been full of football fans in South America who don’t even support United defending Cavani’s actions. As the language experts in Suarez’s case confirmed, these are words deemed inoffensive in Uruguay and therefore it isn’t up to English people to decide on what should or shouldn’t cause offence.
An interesting debate took place in my mentions which explored how condemning Cavani’s use of the word is a criticism of Latin America’s cultural context around language.
That said, the fact that “negrito” may be now used as a term of endearment in Uruguay doesn’t change the likelihood its origin was racist. It’s impossible for us to understand the context fully in England, especially through the eyes of a largely white population, and if the FA are to take a zero tolerance approach to racism, as they obviously should, then the club should accept the punishment that comes Cavani’s way.
As Ole said, Edinson will have learnt the hard way to watch what he says in the public sphere. While nothing like Suarez’s racist abuse of Evra, it is more similar, although still not the same, to the situation of Bernardo Silva and Benjamin Mendy, with the City midfielder making “jokes” about how the defender was naked because he was wearing a Black t-shirt or comparing his childhood photo to a cartoon golliwog. If Mendy is comfortable with this, that is for him to decide, but posting it publicly rightly becomes an issue. Cavani may continue to use the word with his friends, or he may explore the reasons behind why it’s offensive, but he cannot again say it in a public forum.
While Guardiola argued Silva couldn’t be racist because he speaks several languages and the player himself defended his actions with “can’t even joke with a friend these days…”, it’s encouraging to see United’s appropriate response to the matter. That’s not to say United have always got things right in the past, with Sir Alex Ferguson privately accusing Ian Wright of “playing the race card” and criticising Rio Ferdinand for not offering support to Kick It Out after their inadequate response to the racist abuse of his brother, but the club has responded well. They’ve acknowledged Cavani shouldn’t have done it, the player himself has apologised, and no doubt will be accepting of the likely punishment that comes his way.
In a period where we’ve seen children across the country take up reading because Marcus Rashford said it was cool, we cannot underestimate the influence that footballers have on society. People may argue they shouldn’t be our role models but the fact is so many look up to and idolise them.
Cavani can take this one on the chin and hopefully many more will learn from his mistake, regardless of his intent.