There is something about biting. It’s more ignominious than an elbow or a trip. Perhaps it’s the animal stupidity involved. There’s no deceptively casual way of going about it. We can watch several replays of a rough tackle and not be entirely sure how much the recipient is actually hurting because, sure, he caught a few studs to the calf, but wasn’t it the calf he isn’t clutching? When Uruguay’s Luis Suárez weaponizes his mouth, we recognize it instantaneously because the reaction is not practiced theatricality so much as what the hell? followed by did this cretin just bite me? Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini was the third such player to experience this on Tuesday. He was spooked, then indignant, then perhaps struck by how weird it was that Suárez didn’t elect for a more civil form of pain infliction like, say, kicking Chiellini in the achilles.
This would all be funnier — and let’s be clear: it’s still very funny — if Suárez were an unhinged savant whose only remarkable traits were intermittent and sudden urges to use his largish teeth as a competitive advantage and an ability to score goals from unlikely angles, but as the old Charrúa proverb goes: “He who tastes the flesh of another man without even asking is probably also a jerk in a bunch of other ways.” And Suárez is. Relatively low on the list of reasons to hate him is that he’s an importunate on-pitch presence — diving, hectoring referees, committing minor assaults behind the play — but then there was that time he racially insulted Patrice Evra. Then, when Evra tried to be the bigger man — he said to the press he didn’t think Suárez was a racist — Suárez refused to acknowledge Evra in a pregame handshake line and seemed to believe he had a right to be upset with Evra for getting him in trouble with the FA.
After being given a couple hours to collect his thoughts, Suárez described his mid-game snack as just “something that [happens] on the pitch” and implored fans and the media to “not make such a big deal out of [it].” He doesn’t think he did anything particularly heinous. He was jockeying for position inside the box and kinda sorta clamped his canines into Chiellini’s shoulder. He was trying to provoke the Italian into fouling him (or something). It was a tactic, not a transgression. Soccer, like any game that’s governed chiefly by a referee’s sensibilities, has many line-steppers — see: Pepe when he’s up against a striker who isn’t afraid of him — but Suárez has a unique understanding of the laws of the jungle, and his understanding that is there are no laws; this is a jungle, after all, and I will fight you with everything I have. It’s Jordanesque hyper-competitiveness taken to its logical extreme. It’s almost admirable, until you see it in practice and realize it’s buffoonish.
Suárez should miss the rest of the World Cup and probably will. (Early Wednesday morning, FIFA officially opened disciplinary proceedings against Suarez.) ESPN’s postgame coverage with Roberto Martinez and Ruud van Nistelrooy featured some serious-faced and unequivocal judgments that this absolutely needs to happen, because there’s no place for biting in our game, etc. I’m not sure who decided analysts must always meet these sorts of episodes with graveness and calls to action, like they’re talking about a civil rights injustice, but that is lamentably the way things are, and anyway, Martinez and van Nistelrooy are wrong. There is a place in the game for Luis Suárez. His talent creates one. Liverpool have been fielding transfer offers for him since shortly after he arrived at Anfield, and the enquiries aren’t likely to stop. (Though that rumored Barcelona switch is in jeopardy now. Cannibalism and Catalanisme don’t mesh.) Suárez will be suspended by FIFA, then return to Europe and score 30 goals next season. His mania is an ant beneath the monster truck tires of his skill.
Brian Phillips wrote a piece on Suárez last year that was mostly about how fans have trouble processing great athletes who do bad things. We want to think every accomplished player is Derek Jeter, classily sexing the female population of lower Manhattan and being purposefully boring in interviews, because then we can link their on-field success with a certain being-deep virtuousness. Most great athletes thwart this desire simply by being human and screwing up publicly in typically human ways. They reveal themselves to be capable of hubris or cynicism or unflattering drunkenness. Hopefully what we do, when we realize athletes have flaws and most of them aren’t all that egregious, is give up the dumb dream of sports purity and start thinking of athletes merely as people with culturally important jobs as opposed to monks with above-average leaping ability.
Knowing the simple truth that athletes are ordinary in a lot of ways is a key to understanding them better, but what about Suárez, the metaphorical and actual devourer of defenders? He doesn’t do normal bad things, and he does them with disconcerting regularity. He is a menace, a clown and a breathtaking goal-scorer. Maybe our mistake is in trying to mash these three concepts together and to deliver judgment on that Frankenstein of personas. We are fans and so have certain privileges that Suárez’s friends and colleagues don’t. We can compartmentalize him. We can love the art, hate the artist, or, alternatively, love the art, find the artist abjectly hilarious and not a little disgusting.
Luis Suárez is someone to reckon with and do work on — the right sort of obsessive could write a long and difficult book about What He Means — but we don’t always want sports to be intellectually taxing or morally fraught, especially when we’re in a match’s thrall. This doesn’t mean we need to watch like a stupid person might. Instead, we must be able to hold discreet ideas in our minds simultaneously. Surely, we’re smart enough to enjoy Suárez — to like him, in a way — and to also know he’s a spectacular jackass. We can try to make sense of Suárez as a figure in our spare time, but when he’s on the pitch, he’s a necessarily less complicated entity. He makes us feel things with his powerful right foot and slapstick aggression. This is nothing to experience guilt over. We are fans. To us, this is what he’s there for.