English football greats, commentators and current players have contributed to furious backlash against a decision to punish Edinson Cavani for using a racist term.
The Manchester United forward was banned for three matches and fined $180,000 by the Football Association announced on Friday in a decision that’s shocked the game.
The 33-year-old summer signing had produced a matchwinning display at Southampton on November 29, providing an assist for Bruno Fernandes before netting two goals in a 3-2 comeback win.
Cavani posted a social media message on Instagram shortly after the match, replying to a message of congratulations using the Spanish term “negrito” (small black person).
The Uruguayan swiftly deleted the post and issued an apology after being made aware of the connotations, but the FA felt compelled to take it further.
“A comment posted on the Manchester United FC striker’s Instagram page was insulting, abusive, improper and brought the game into disrepute,” the FA said in a statement.
“The post also constitutes an ‘aggravated breach’ … as it included reference, whether express or implied, to colour and/or race and/or ethnic origin,” the statement added.
But many in the game have described the ban as a massive over-reaction.
Ex-Liverpool player John Barnes, a Jamaican-born English international, was vocal on Twitter.
“The exchange between Cavani and his friend is one of mutual love and respect and can’t be interpreted or misinterpreted in any other way,” he wrote. “This does nothing to either promote or solve the issue of racial equality.”
Media heavyweight Piers Morgan also spoke out. “Ridiculous that Cavani has been banned for using a term to a friend that’s considered inoffensive in his own country,” Morgan tweeted. “No racist intent, no offence felt by recipient. Dumb over-reaction by the FA. A quiet word about language sensitivities would have sufficed.”
Ander Herrera, a former teammate of Cavani, leapt to the defence of his friend on Instagram.
The Spaniard, 31, blasted: “If they ban you for that. The world is going to s***. Big hugs and stay strong Edi.”
Uruguay’s Spanish language academy even weighed in, saying the words “negro” or its diminutive “negrito” — similar to “gordo” (fatso) or “gordito” and “flaco” (skinny one) — are commonly used as terms of endearment.
“In the Spanish of Uruguay, for example, in couples or among friends, between parents and children, one often hears and reads expressions such as… gordito, negri, negrito…” the Academia Nacional de Letras said in a statement.
“In fact, a person so addressed is not necessarily overweight or dark-skinned.” The academy issued its “strongest rejection” of the sanctioning of Cavani, and said the federation’s “questionable resolution” was the result of “poverty of cultural and linguistic knowledge.”
The statement concluded the FA had “committed a serious injustice to a Uruguayan athlete of the highest international level and has exposed ignorance… regarding the use of language and in particular Spanish, without taking note of all its complexities and contexts.”
Cavani responded to his suspension with class. “Hello everyone, I do not want to extend much in this uncomfortable moment for me,” he wrote on Instagram.
“I want to share with you that I accept the disciplinary sanction knowing that I am foreign to English language customs, but I do not share the point of view.
“I apologise if I offended someone with an expression of affection towards a friend, nothing further was my intention.
‘Those who know me know that my effort is to always seek the simplest joy and friendship!
“I appreciate the countless expressions of support and affection.
“My heart is at peace because I know that I always expressed myself with affection according to my culture and way of life. I send you a sincere hug.”
Fellow United star Marcos Rojo offered words of support, writing: “Those who know you know the kind of person you are!”
Manchester United issued a statement saying Cavani was not aware his words could have been misconstrued and “sincerely apologised” for the post and to anyone who was offended.
“Despite his honest belief that he was simply sending an affectionate thank you in response to a congratulatory message from a close friend, he chose not to contest the charge out of respect for, and solidarity with, the FA and the fight against racism in football,” the club said.
United said they hoped the independent regulatory commission appointed to decide the sanction would make it clear in its written reasons that the former Paris Saint-Germain player “is not a racist, nor was there any racist intent in relation to his post”.
– with AFP