LONDON // All it would have taken was a simple handshake.
But the refusal of Liverpool's Luis Suarez to extend his hand to Manchester United's Patrice Evra last weekend has had far-reaching implications and resulted in public hand-wringing over the extent of racism in English football.
David Cameron, the prime minister, has called a summit of sporting chiefs in London next week, the American owners of Liverpool were reported yesterday to be flying over to try to sort out the mess, and the bank that pays millions of pounds each year to have its name on the Merseyside club's shirts has made its displeasure known.
The handshake incident comes less than a week after John Terry, the Chelsea and England defender, was stripped of his captaincy of the national team and criminally charged with racially abusing Anton Ferdinand of Queens Park Rangers during an English Premier League match on October 23.
The unease over the Terry situation ignited into a full-blown crisis on Saturday afternoon in the match between two of England's most bitter rivals.
Suarez - a Liverpool striker who had recently completed an eight-match ban for racially abusing United's Afro-French defender Evra in the teams' previous encounter - refused to shake Evra's hand in the pre-match line-up. Before the game, Suarez, a Uruguayan, had agreed to the handshake. After the match, the Liverpool manager, Kenny Dalglish, defended Suarez and claimed he was blameless.
Uproar ensued, both at the game and in the British press, where the incident continues to dominate the sports pages. Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, branded Suarez a "disgrace" and Mr Cameron called next week's meeting of sports chiefs and players' representatives.
The tentacles of the affair spread to the United States. John Henry and Tom Werner, who head the Fenway Sports Group that owns both the Boston Red Sox baseball team and Liverpool, were forced to intervene in a bid to defuse the row.
By Sunday afternoon, both Suarez and Dalglish had issued apologies, primarily, it is believed, because of the American owners' fury at the player's conduct.
The Daily Mail reported yesterday that Mr Henry and Mr Werner would be flying into Britain this week. Their awareness of the gravity of the situation had, no doubt, been heightened by a lengthy article in The New York Times that said: "If the Fenway Sports Group is to be the responsible team owner in soccer that it has proved to be in baseball, it needs to get hold of Liverpool, its club in England's Premier League, and repair its global image fast.
"It is time for John Henry and Tom Werner, leaders of the Fenway Group that controls Liverpool, to state clearly the direction the team will take on this issue."
At a charity reception last month, Mr Cameron said campaigns such as Show Racism the Red Card and Let's Kick Racism out of Football had made a real difference. But he said he was concerned by recent events in the sport.
"My message is clear. We will not tolerate racism in Britain. It has absolutely no place in our society. And where it exists, we will kick it out."
However, a survey published yesterday showed that while England has made great progress in race relations since black players had bananas thrown at them 20 years ago, there was still a long to way to go to root out racism both on and off the field.
Research based on 2,000 online interviews with football fans conducted by Staffordshire University showed that half had witnessed racist remarks and chants while attending games over the past year.
Although this was a reduction from the 67 per cent recorded in a similar survey in 1999, Jamie Cleland, a senior lecturer in sociology who helped lead the study, said it showed that a great deal still needed to be done.
"English football is more multicultural than ever and, while fans in the 1980s might have believed black players 'contaminated' the national game, fans today have grown up in a progressively inclusive environment," he said.
"Racism appeared to have disappeared, but in fact has been with us consistently. The racism issue has not gone away."
Ged Grebby, the founder of the Show Racism the Red Card charity, said Suarez should receive a three-game ban and should undergo racism awareness training.
"He doesn't realise how bad racism was in the English game in the seventies, eighties and early nineties and how much role models have played a key part in fighting racism within the sport. His unwillingness to shake hands with Evra says a lot about him.
"But he needs an education programme as well. He needs to know the importance of his own role because he doesn't seem to know that."