Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Luis Suarez Bit Me!

A friend recently told me a story about his six-year-old grandson, a polite, sweet soul who I've known since birth. A request to get ready for bed was met with an unexpected tantrum of epic proportions. As the little boy stormed off, he suddenly stopped, turned very slowly to look at his grandfather through menacingly half-closed eyes, and hissed, "Fucking bitch!"

This tale came to mind yesterday as I watched Luis Suarez sink his teeth into the shoulder of Italy's Giorgio Chiellini, mostly because my response to both incidents was the same: my jaw dropped, my eyebrows lurched towards my hairline, and my palm covered my open mouth in an utterly futile attempt to stop myself from exclaiming, "He did what?!"

Anyone who thought that Suarez was on a mission of redemption following his brilliant form for Liverpool last season has been brought crashing back to reality. Following two years of racism, diving and arm nibbling, the striker seemed to have found some peace. He is, according to most sources, a loving family man, a quiet good humoured chap who gives time and money to charity. He propelled a young Liverpool team with a creaky defence to Premier League runners-up with his mixture of audacity and skill. As Chiellini pulled back his jersey to reveal the impressions of Suarez's teeth sunk deep into his skin, it seemed the last ten months have been nothing more than a false dawn.

Some Uruguayan papers are, it seems, trying to argue Suarez's corner, claiming that he was retaliating having been on the end of a flailing arm from the Italian defender earlier in the game. (Incidentally, the rumour that Chiellini has accused Suarez of being an alcoholic is untrue. Apparently his claim that the Uruguayan has always been in need of a small aperitif was a simple transcription error.) Fifa, in a desperate attempt to look like they're doing something more meaningful than piss off the entire population of Brazil, are launching an investigation. 

And let us not forget - as if we could - this is not his first incisor indiscretion. The man has previous, a dental record, if you will; an oral fixation that borders on the Freudian. There is something bizarrely infantile about Suarez's inclination to bite. And as such it is not only a transgression of the rules of the game, but also the machismo-fuelled unwritten code of men's professional football. Chiellini said in a post-match interview that Suarez was a "sneak", a choice term which seemed to carry a double-meaning. First it was obvious reference to the play-acting that accompanied the snack attack, with Suarez clutching at his teeth as though he'd just fallen victim of an evil orthodontist. Yet there was another, implicit, connotation. The Italian was questioning Suarez's masculinity, as though he wasn't 'man enough' to square up to Chiellini.

As I'm in Jackanory mode I should say that this brought to mind another story, though possibly one of the apocryphal variety. When the decathlete Daley Thompson retired from athletics he tried his hand at football, first with Mansfield Town, and later with Stevenage Borough. During one of his matches he was sent off for headbutting an opponent. Afterwards an unrepentant Thompson said, "I thought this was supposed to be a man's game." And the former Olympian isn't the only exponent of the Glasgow kiss. Zinedine Zidane marked his retirement on the bridge of Marco Materazzi's nose; Alan Pardew's cost him a total of £160,000 in fines; Duncan Ferguson practically turned it into an art form.

Violence on a football pitch comes in all shapes and sizes, from the kung-fu kick to the two-footed lunge, the wild stamp to the good old fashioned bare-knuckle brawl. It would seem that in the beautiful game there are acceptable forms of unacceptable violence. Suarez's penchant to chow down on defenders crosses a line. It's not just ungentlemanly conduct; it is somehow unmanly. In the end it was left to Joey Barton to offer a little contrarian perspective via Twitter: “I love Su├írez. I love his passion for the game. I would have him on my team every day of the week. I am also aware you can’t defend him here. All things considered I’d rather receive a bite than a leg-breaking challenge. Whilst he should be punished, it is not the end of the world."

Obviously nobody could or should condone what Suarez has done, although there may, perhaps, be one man who won't have minded Luis Suarez's latest controversy: Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers. The Reds have shown that they will go to any lengths to retain the services of their star forward - whether that meant defending his racial abuse of Patrice Evra, stoically standing by him as he served out his ban for biting Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic, or ignoring a contract clause that could have seen him move to London. Despite last season's title challenge and Champions League qualification, there was always the possibility that, should Suarez light up the World Cup with his undoubted talent, a club such as Barcelona or Real Madrid would make Liverpool an offer they couldn't refuse for the Uruguayan striker. That seems most unlikely now. 

The potential lack of suitors brings its own problems. Namely, how much more negative publicity can Liverpool tolerate before they are forced to jettison Suarez? As Anfield legend Robbie Fowler said today: "I’m flummoxed for words. It’s a real, real tough predicament most Liverpool fans are in. They love him as a player, but he’s continually dragging the club’s name through the mud. It’s not right, especially after how they helped him last time. They tried to rehabilitate him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he went now.”

As one of those Liverpool fans of whom Fowler speaks, I understand all too well that "real tough predicament", although I'd suggest the club hasn't helped itself, and has at times been prepared to jump straight into the mud, crawling along on its hands and knees all of its own volition. Last year I argued that if Liverpool were serious about restoring their reputation off the pitch as well as on it, they should show Luis Suarez the door. I wished I was wrong. I hoped that he would back an anti-racist campaign and show how much he'd changed. I hoped that he would offer fans a full apology for the way he'd treated us. I hoped I could finally enjoy his footballing brilliance without that horrible, almost guilty, feeling. None of that happened. This is one of the few times I'm not happy to be proved right. But Suarez has to go.