Late in the first half of Friday’s FA Cup tie between Liverpool and Everton, Roberto Firmino leapt out of the stands and charged towards Mason Holgate. Firmino had been sent over the advertising hoardings violently, shoved forcefully in the back by Holgate as the two ran out of the field of play while chasing the ball.
It was a dangerous act by a player who had recently given up a controversial penalty, and Firmino was fortunate not to end up injured. He was, though, visibly angry as he faced up to Holgate. He shouted in Portuguese, appearing to spit “Tu ta louco? Filho da puta!” at Holgate as referee Bobby Madley stepped between the pair.
“Are you crazy? You son of a bitch!” is the closest English translation to what the cameras caught Firmino saying, and in the circumstance it almost seems restrained. Holgate, though, was incensed, angered in turn, and after trying to get to Firmino physically he could be seen asking Madley if he had heard what was said.
Anything more—what Holgate might have heard or thought he heard—is conjecture. But it’s clear he believed something more than what could be seen by cameras had been said, either due to a language gap between Liverpool’s Brazilian and Everton’s Englishman or because those cameras didn’t catch the entire exchange.
It was later confirmed Madley had filed an extraordinary incident report based on the fact Holgate believed he had been racially abused, and the FA will investigate the incident. There is no reason to doubt Holgate’s belief something untoward was said—his quick anger should be proof enough of the genuine nature of his report.
The hope, at least for Liverpool fans, will be that in the end what we see Firmino saying was the sum of it and that Holgate only thought he heard more—a misunderstanding based on the fact that Firmino was shouting angrily in Portuguese and that in the midst of the melee Holgate heard what he genuinely believed to be a racial slur.
That is at least plausible, and in his post-match report for The Mirror, David Maddock suggested that is exactly what had taken place and that the incident had already largely been cleared up at halftime when Portuguese-speakers in the Everton dressing room explained Firmino’s words to the incensed 21-year-old centre half.
If that’s all it was, though, it won’t change that Holgate was right to be angered by whatever he thought he heard and to have reported it. In society in general and too often in football as well we do an exceptionally poor job at crediting the experiences of those who have been the victims of abuse, racial or otherwise.
The experiences of racism in the game shared by Liverpool youngster Rhian Brewster recently are proof of that, and as Liverpool fans we cannot claim concern over his treatment only to then dismiss Holgate’s claims as fabricated or made in bad faith—to do so would be the height of hypocritical football tribalism.
There is a plausible and maybe even likely outcome in this case where Firmino didn’t say anything especially untoward and even showed restraint after being the victim of a violent act that was worthy itself of a red card and three-match ban—a ban that will hopefully be on the table as the FA investigate the incident.
That outcome, though, does not involve any villainy on Holgate’s part for reporting what he heard or thought he heard. That outcome can still involve his genuine belief that he was racially abused, and as such his anger and reporting of it—and the FA now looking into the matter—remains both right and necessary.
That some Liverpool fans would consider branding Holgate a liar—before the matter is investigated, even—suggesting he might have made it up to get a Liverpool player in trouble, is disappointing. We cannot say racism in football is a problem that needs to be dealt with and then dismiss an inconvenient claim out of hand.
As Liverpool fans it’s not wrong to hope it will have all been a misunderstanding. But it is wrong to to question the genuineness of Holgate’s anger or suggest he will not have reported what he thought he heard in good faith, or to suggest should it turn out to have been a misunderstanding he should face punishment.
There is an outcome where Firmino didn’t say anything particularly wrong and Holgate reacted in genuine anger thinking he had—an outcome where, following the initial shove at least, neither did anything wrong. That’s the outcome we should be hoping for rather than one that demands either be made a villain.