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After torrid World Cup, Evra embroiled in controversy yet again

The first was after 15 minutes, when English winger Stewart Downing tumbled to the ground trying to escape Evra's attention. It was a blatant dive and Evra, furious, brandished an imaginary card towards the referee urging him to book the player. "That's not what we want to see in this game, behaviour like that," said Sky TV's co-commentator Ray Wilkins. He was talking about Evra's waving, which was fair enough; but he could have been talking about Downing's dive, which did not get a mention.

Then around the hour-mark, Evra was booked after a set-to with opponent Luis Suarez. As the jeers and whistles from the Kop, home to Liverpool's most vociferous supporters, rained down on him, Evra dipped his neck and kissed the club badge on his United shirt. It was passionate, provocative, and not particularly clever.

Within minutes after the final whistle, before Evra even had time to go into the dressing-room, he stopped for a few words about the game with a journalist from French TV station Canal Plus. Before the cameras rolled, the journalist asked about his running battle with Suarez, and Evra told him he had been racially abused, had made the referee aware, but did not want to talk about it. Evra was seething and the journalist, sensing a story, asked him anyway. Evra took the bait.

That was the backdrop to last weekend's biggest story, and Evra was confident that evidence would back him up. "He tried to get me to crack, we have video, there are cameras everywhere and you can very well see on his lips the word he says to me more than 10 times. I have no worries on that front," he told Canal Plus. Before his quotes had even aired in France, an FA spokesman confirmed that the incident would be investigated. Evra was called to a hearing on Thursday.

Suarez immediately denied the claims and Liverpool is equally adamant about the Uruguayan's innocence. "The football club and everyone at the football club is totally, utterly and fully behind Luis Suarez," said Liverpool coach Kenny Dalglish at a news conference. The Daily Mail reported that Sky Sports could find no video evidence in footage from the game to support Evra's allegation. However, Evra, his coach Sir Alex Ferguson told a press conference on Tuesday, "is adamant he wants to follow it on." Suarez must be presumed innocent unless evidence proves otherwise, but it is the strength of antipathy towards Evra, the alleged "victim" in this case, that has been surprising.

Liverpool fans allied themselves to their player and claimed Evra "has previous." But that's not true: in 2006, when a deaf United fan claimed he lip-read abuse from Liverpool's Steve Finnan towards Evra, the defender neither heard it nor complained; in April 2008, when the FA threw out a complaint of racism towards Evra from a Chelsea groundsman, it was United coaches Mike Phelan and Richard Hartis, who claimed to hear the alleged abuse.

Last June, Evra told L'Equipe about his upbringing -- born in Dakar to a Senegalese father and a mother from Cape Verde, and lived for two years in Brussels before moving to France -- and revealed the taunts when he declared for France. "At that time, I was a traitor to the [Senegal] nation, the monkey who pulled down his trousers in front of the white man." He made no official complaint, but has not been back to Senegal since he was 10.

In France, too, Evra has gained little support, with scant media coverage of the alleged Suarez incident. He has not been forgiven for his role, as captain, during the fiasco of France's 2010 World Cup campaign, when the French players threatened to go on strike in South Africa. After the French federation gave him a five-match ban, Evra felt he was being made the scapegoat for what he, and other players, said was a collective and unanimous decision. (He had only just been appointed captain and it remains widely thought that senior players including Thierry Henry and William Gallas were constantly trying to undermine coach Raymond Domenech.)

Marcel Desailly, a France World Cup winner who played in England for Chelsea, has openly backed Evra. "I was the victim of racism during Euro 96 [which was played in England]," Desailly told The Specialists. "It's important that the FA act fast in this case to stop it festering." Jacques Crevoisier, former Liverpool assistant coach and now a consultant for several big clubs, spoke to Evra for half an hour after the match, and told Canal Plus that the player "was very upset."

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Not many others have, except, crucially for Evra, Ferguson: the pair's relationship is so close at United that teammates call the Frenchman "teacher's pet." Evra first came to Ferguson's attention during Monaco's run to the 2004 Champions League final. One incident in the semifinal against Chelsea was particularly instructive: in the opening minutes, Evra was the victim of a bad tackle from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. There was a hole in his sock, through which he could see the wound and a bit of bone. "My felt like it was hanging off," Evra told Canal Plus, "but I played on. Ferguson later said it showed my character, and he liked my determination."

He needed to show that quality after a torrid United debut against this weekend's opponents, Manchester City, in January 2006. Evra was taken off at halftime -- he later described the 45 minutes as "like being stuck in a washing-machine," while Ferguson just told him to "watch and learn about English football" -- as United lost 3-1. Since then, Evra has become a key player in the team's success, winning four league titles, one Champions League and eight other trophies in five years. He was selected in the PFA's Team of the Year for three years running between 2007 and 2010.

Ferguson almost lost Evra in summer 2010. Real Madrid and Inter Milan had made offers, the player's family were unsettled and he even put his house up for sale. After the World Cup, though, Ferguson summoned Evra to his house (a rare moment for any player), said he respected his decision if the family wanted it, but added: "You are an essential part of this team, so I don't see why you would want to leave." Evra stayed, and then admitted to Canal Plus: "Maybe my decision would have been different under a different manager."

Ferguson sees a kindred spirit in Evra, who once evoked the coach's team-talk before a game in 2008. "He comes from a difficult part of Glasgow. Wayne Rooney is from a poor part of Liverpool. The same goes for Ryan Giggs, and was also true of Tevez and Ronaldo [who were there at the time] and that's no coincidence," Evra told L'Equipe. Ferguson, he explained, wants fighters in his team. "He showed us that this team had a soul," Evra said.

The feeling is mutual. Evra was reluctant to take the United armband for the first time in a Champions League tie in Wolfsburg in late 2009, especially as British players Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Paul Scholes and Michael Owen were all starting, but Ferguson convinced him. "You're the leader, you're the man I put my trust in," he told him. Evra went on to captain United in its League Cup final win over Aston Villa, and title-deciding victory over Arsenal, later that season. "In terms of personality, Patrice Evra is a powerful force," Ferguson told L'Equipe last year. "He has a great influence on the team."

Unlike his approach to Wayne Rooney, who was dropped for last season's game at Everton, and for the Liverpool match last week, Ferguson has never hesitated to pick Evra. When he was on the front-page of a tabloid for non-football reasons in March 2010, Ferguson picked him for successive wins over AC Milan (4-0), Fulham (3-0) and Liverpool (2-1); despite just one week of pre-season after that damaging World Cup campaign, Ferguson threw him in to the season opener against Newcastle (3-0). This week, Evra started in United's European win at Otelul Galati and may wear the armband again if Nemanja Vidic misses Sunday's big game against City.

Darren Tulett, the Canal Plus presenter who broke the story last Saturday night, was taken aback by the anti-Evra sentiment. He wondered if the reaction might have been different had it been Danny Welbeck, or Rio Ferdinand, both Englishmen, making the allegation. It's an interesting question, especially when you consider the Wilkins comment: Evra may have been United captain, but he is feisty, and provocative. And he is French.

The most likely outcome of Evra's racism claim, according to most pundits, among them former referee and Daily Mail columnist Graham Poll, is that it will not be proven, and the reputations of both men involved will be tarnished as a result. That is a terrible shame (and for Suarez too, let's not forget). There will be no winners in this unsavoury tale.

Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.