In a recent post early into the 2014 FIFA World Cup I was illustrating one of the key appeals of World Cup football being the ‘drama’ and the dramatic ironies that often permeate tournaments and the undertone of Greek tragedy/myth to some of the more classic examples, raising the spectacle beyond the level of mere sport and into the realm of human drama. I cited Zinedine Zidane in 2006 and David Beckham in 1998 among other memorable examples.
The fact that a few days later the most memorable moment of a largely memorable tournament emerged in the form of Luis Suarez’s now infamous biting incident simply reinforced the point: almost every memorable World Cup features a particularly memorable narrative revolving around a specific individual. And Luis Suarez has become that individual in 2014.
Luis Suarez went into this tournament one of the very few ‘stars’ currently in the sport (at the international level anyway; 2006 would be the last ‘star’-filled World Cup); a player with baggage, but also with great talent and pedigree, coming off the back of extraordinary form at club level for Liverpool. Suarez was already something of a redemption story in England, having journeyed from past vilification and controversies to attain vindication through performance and ‘forgiveness’ from the industry, so to speak.
So he goes into the World Cup in a position to add to his growing reputation and pedigree and help an increasingly successful generation of Uruguay to excel on the biggest stage. He is so highly regarded that he is fielded in spite of recent injury and lack of match-fitness; against England, the nation that gives him his (considerable) living, he shines. It is a glorious moment as he single-handedly restores Uruguay’s possibilities and single-handedly eliminates England from the competition with two superb goals. Like Messi and Neymar, Suarez was the focal star rising to the big occasion and carrying the relative dead weight of his team-mates.
In the next game he struggles against Italy and, frustrated, he shocks everyone by biting Italy’s Chierlini – a regression to a child-like act of violence he has already been infamous for in past instances. The redeemed, changed man is reverted to villain in the blink of an eye. In the space of a few days he goes from a moment of career-defining glory to reputation-defining madness. His reputation in Uruguay may be secure, but his reputation outside of his home country was irreparably damaged. His subsequent ejection from the tournament leaves his national team substandard and ineffective, resulting in their elimination.
It’s just another classic World Cup drama/narrative just like those I was already mentioning before the tournament, especially Zidedine Zidane’s. While Zidane’s remains more dramatic due to the bigger stature of the player and the fact that it occurred in the World Cup final, Suarez’s World Cup story will be remembered and spoken of for years and years to come. It’d certainly make the list I compiled of the 20 Most Memorable World Cup Moments if I was writing it again now.
This has every ingredient of the classic World Cup drama/narrative; a famous, prodigiously talented player (it wouldn’t have the same effect if it was a relatively minor name), a demonstration of brilliance (against England, a match for which he wasn’t even fully match-fit), a controversial history (previous biting incidents), and finally a moment of insanity in which he is his own undoer.
The further classic element in this instance is the complex psychological dimension to the act and the question of why someone as successful and wealthy as Luis Suarez can resort to such animalistic, primal behaviour in a (very) public arena. Unlike Zidane’s assault on Marco Materazzi in 2006, Suarez wasn’t provoked by the Italian defender. It’s possible that Suarez was simply frustrated and highly fired up; running around for 90 minutes in terrific heat and in the kind of naturally confrontational and antagonistic circumstances of a competitive sport will do that to you.
Whatever the reason for his actions, Luis Suarez, aside from being probably the greatest striker in the world at this time, is one of the most interesting figures in world football; and will probably make a highly engaging psychological study for those not even interested in football or the World Cup. There’s almost certainly something deep-seated from his childhood to do with biting; others have noted that he often bites his jersey or his own hand at tense moments in games for Liverpool.
What actually annoyed me about Suarez’s moment of madness is that by essentially eliminating himself from the tournament he made Uruguay’s progression (at the expense of both Italy and England, both of whom I would’ve rather seen progress into the second phase) pointless, as Uruguay without Suarez appear to be utterly third-rate.
As for the biting act itself, it could be argued there are much worse offenses committed on football pitches (more ‘standard’ fouls, for example, that cause serious injury) or cynical simulations and manipulations that alter or determine the course of games and tournaments. Even in terms of anti-social behaviour, I personally think being spat at is far more offensive than being bitten – Frank Rijkard in the Italia 90 World Cup, for example, did this, as did Italy’s Francesco Totti in 2002.
In an ideal world we’d be remembering Suarez’s superb solo performance against England in the second group game; but instead it’s his unprovoked violence in the third game that has garnered all the headlines and overshadowed everything else. Like Diego Maradona, he is the great talent and great national hero coupled with the nasty streak and lack of sportsmanship; beloved of his own people but difficult for anyone else to properly like. But this side of his character is nothing new; the biting incidents aside, I always disliked Suarez’s role in denying Ghana a semi-final place in the 2010 World Cup by committing a hand-ball on the goal-line in the final minutes of the Ghana/Uruguay quarter-final clash.
It was so brazenly and unremittingly unsporting an action; a demonstration of that ‘do-anything-to-win’ mentality that again invites comparisons to Maradona – the idea that it doesn’t matter how you win, so long as you do win.
On the one hand that mentality is thought by some to enable players like Suarez and Maradona and teams like Uruguay to often succeed and progress while teams like England have a low competitive success rate partly because they don’t have that mentality and don’t resort to ‘unsporting’ behaviour; but on the other hand there’s something to be said for fair play and the desire to win only with ‘honour’. It’s the reason most of us were glad, for example, that West Germany and not Argentina won the Italia 90 World Cup final.
As for the issue of whether FIFA’s disciplinary action against Suarez has been too harsh or not, that’s a debate for others (Uruguayans and Liverpool fans, in particular) to continue. But whatever happens in the rest of Suarez’s career (barring a Uruguay World Cup final some day), he is always going to be remembered in the broader world for his bizarre teething issues and temper problems more than his talent and goal-scoring potency. Which is a pity.