Pepe vs. Suárez: What happens when evils collide?

If a player you hate — say, Real Madrid’s Pepe — fouls another player you hate — like Barcelona’s Luis Suárez — does that make the foul right? Or does that just make it more entertaining?

It sounds like a strange question, but consider: For centuries, philosophers and students of rhetoric have dissected the idea that “two wrongs make a right.” Generally, this claim arises in two distinct situations. In the first, a bad person gets caught, say, stealing, but says another guy’s also stealing, therefore his theft’s okay. Logically, this is a simple, informal fallacy. Regardless of what others do, you can still be morally repugnant.

However, the more interesting situation arises when we do bad things to bad people. For example, what happens if you steal something from a thief? Is there a way that we can see that wrong as justice? A “right?”

In the upcoming Clásico, this moral dilemma will play out every time the Merengues defender clashes with Barca’s debuting star. If Pepe reverts to his malevolent self, he’ll be acting on Suárez. And if Suárez responds, he will likely do so by gnawing another notch into his culinary belt.

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First, some background. Pepe, a Brazilian-born Portuguese international, is, at his best, a gritty, tough-as-nails central defender known for hard tackles and physical play. Athletic, intuitive, intelligent, Pepe’s enjoying his eighth season at the Bernabéu, but during the José Mourinho era (2010-13), when violence became art, Pepe crossed the line on numerous occasions. He even stamped on Leo Messi’s hand.

Barça fans hate him, probably rightly so. Even Real Madrid fans have uneasy feelings about him. Many expected Ralph Varane to replace him by now, but, after a solid 2012 Euro campaign with Portugal, Pepe was reborn. He refuses to bow out.

If Barça fans hate Pepe, then even more people probably loathe Luis Suárez. From his racial taunts of Patrice Evra (and bogus explanation), to biting three different players, to his occasional diving, reasons abound to loathe Suárez. Of course, he does score goals by the bucket loads, many of which are spectacular. In that way, he’s a more racist, more bite-y Hristo Stoichkov – an aggressive No. 9 with the speed to run behind a defense or turn a defender inside-out. Barcelona paid 81 million euros for him this summer knowing he’d be suspended until at least this Clásico.

When the two lock horns, moral ambiguity will cloud our minds, but also the ref’s eyes. In a sense, each player’s reputation will justify a slanted viewing and snap judgments. Did Pepe just viciously slide into Suarez? But, wait, Suarez is a diver! Did Suarez just handle the ball? Well, Pepe was grabbing at his jersey with both hands. Did both fall after jumping for a corner? Who fouled who? Or, rather, who was more badly fouled by the less culpable fouler?

For any society to function, we must have a set of rules, and most of those rules will be based on morals. But here’s the messed up part: Society sometimes has to tweak or break those rules to enforce them. Taking an item without permission is bad, but what do the police do upon catching a suspected thief? Take that item from the alleged thief. Thus, when we see Suárez get properly tackled or even receive a hard a foul, a part of us smiles. When Pepe gets outmuscled on a header (like in the notorious semifinal vs. Dortmund a few years back), our eyes glimmer. Delighting in “just desserts” is a part of sports after all.

But, come Saturday, what happens when the punisher also deserves punishment? What is Suárez is the target of Pepe’s next outburst? Or Pepe feels the wrath of the Uruguayan’s incisors? When two anti-heroes collide, does that make one of them a hero?

Come Saturday, get ready to see some yellow cards, but more shades of gray than black and white. And perhaps some white and blaugrana.