A Sporting Bite

Why biting - and not the two-footed tackle - disgusts

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When the now Barcelona and Uruguay striker Luis Suarez bit Italy’s Georgio Chiellini on the shoulder in last year’s World Cup, the reaction was almost universal: disgust, incomprehension, a desire to punish. Suarez’s apparent predilection for the rapid deployment of his teeth had already seen him receive bans for biting PSV’s Otman Bakkal and Chelsea’s Branisval Ivanovic. We all saw what happened, at every angle conceivable, in endless slow motion, the sudden downward motion of his head, Chiellini’s shoulder-baring response. Suarez’s seemingly pathological inability to accept responsibility, his clutching-my-teeth act, his subsequent lack of remorse, had only served to strengthen resolve. That he was going down was beyond doubt. The only question was for how long, and what the nature of the punishment. The world demanded satisfaction – and got it.

Luis Suarez received a four month ban from all football related activity, which included nine international games, a ruling that put him out of the World Cup, his exclusion virtually signing Uruguay’s death warrant. Both Liverpool (then Barcelona in its place) and Uruguay would appeal, seeing the ruling as excessive. Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica joined hundreds of supporters to give the expelled Suarez a hero’s welcome. For others, it wasn’t nearly as harsh as had been asked for, and did not compare, they argued, with punishment meted out for other prominent bitings. Mike Tyson was famously fined £3 million and had his boxing licence temporarily revoked for biting Evander Holyfield on both ears. South African rugby player Johan Le Roux was hit for 18 months after biting All Blacks Sean Fitzpatrick’s ear. Gareth Jones was sentenced to a year in jail for biting Gareth Hobbs’s earlobe off. Granted, each of these drew blood and, in the case of two, parts of the ear, but even footballer Francisco Gallardo was fined and suspended for nipping his own teammate’s penis, the prearranged post-goal celebration impressing neither mate nor the powers that be. Suarez has never, as far as known, drawn blood, or bitten a friendly penis, but he had form, and was lucky, say some, not to have received a much lengthier ban.

It’s difficult now to do proper justice to the anger that met Suarez’s action, the ‘bite heard around the world.’ Time’s whistled by. He’s virtually rehabilitated, a marauding and admired presence in a Barcelona attack triad that has all of us purring at its feet, those choppers limited to grins and food.  Still, back then, when it happened, the world of the pundit was beside itself, the English press especially so, its American and European counterparts not far behind. Alan Shearer was ‘staggered’. Hansen and company agreed that Suarez ought to seek help. Robbie Savage proposed a lifelong international ban. If not quite as satisfied as it might have hoped to be, the vast majority largely supported FIFA’s speed and judgement. Justice had been done, a feeling (bizarrely) summed up by ex-Brazilian superstar, Ronaldo, who compared the punishment to that which he metes out to his own children: ‘If my little children bite me, they are sent to the dark room with the big bad wolf. This is football’s equivalent.’

Thing is, though you’d hardly know it, unless you were there, or lived in South America, it wasn’t a satisfaction shared by nearly all. In a wonderfully illuminating piece Love Bite: Why Uruguayans Revere Luis Suarez, the anthropologist Daniel Renfrew has some fine ideas as to exactly why. Clearly, for Uruguayans, there’s much history here, particularly in respect of the peculiarly predictable Anglo Saxon bent for pressing down on their – and, by extension, South American – rights to self-expression, their individuality, their sense of freedom. However, Renfrew presses for a deeper, more mystical case. Uruguayans’ love for Suarez, their forgiving of him for the bite and for the neutering of his own team, is born of a ‘foundational character and footballing identity’ that goes beyond the rule that we do not bite our fellow humans. He cites in support three classic South American characteristics: the mythical fighting spirit of la garra Charrua; its cheeky extension, viveso creolla, the cheat who cheats in the name of his team, whose cunning is deployed for the greater good; and el pibe, the concept of the utterly forgivable adult-child, the wonder kid, the blessed one. In short, and for whatever reason, if I say the biting incident was almost universally deplored, I don’t really mean ‘almost’ or even ‘universal.’ Suarez – Charrua, viveso, pibe – is above the bite.

On all of this we take Renfrew at his expert word. I like what he has to say. It makes sense, especially with a view to Suarez’s charmed existence, but what do I know: I’ve never been to South America, let alone Uruguay. When speaking of intra-national characteristics in a diverse population of nearly 400 million people, it’s as easy to stereotype, I would guess, as it is to pimp the cultural muscle of mythical entities, folk characteristics or the acts of heroic adult-children. Much more straightforward would be the opinion of the likes of Uruguayan author Andreas Campomar, who as well as blasting the ‘incomprehensible’ anti-Suarez commentary, championed a much more scientific approach to the incident, calling into question the significance of Suarez’s crime itself. ‘Far worse things have happened on the pitch, even where English players are concerned.’ What, for example, the ethical basis of obsessing so much more over an event that resulted, at the end of the day, in a small and fading bruise, than the moment Colombia’s Juan Zuniga broke Neymar’s back? I’m being a tad dramatic (it was more fractured than broken), but the perversity of a reaction – from a purely rational point of view – that holds biting and spitting as more reprehensible than two-footed tackles, or the elbow, the head butt, or whatever it was that Zuniga was doing, is reasonably clear: nobody, as one pundit put it (Gary Neville, I think), has ever had to miss the following game because they were bitten by a member of the opposition. More than one two-footed tackle has ended a career.

Clearly, as Campomar’s defence of Suarez implies, there’s more going on here than simply a foul in a game of football. It’s bigger even than his assessment, the old enemy unfairly appropriating a moment in sport to get one over on the Uruguayans. Rather, the bite is judged both a crime within the rules of a game and as a crime against civilised human behaviour. In this respect, the extent of our reaction to Suarez’s bite says more about us, our shared anxieties, than it does Suarez. Biting is taboo in just about any culture. It signals a loss of control, an unacceptable regression to an uncivilised state of being, be that as a child, or the ecstatic privacies of the bedroom, or to a time when we ate of each other and our dead. It’s something we frantically socialise out of our children. Biting means we become the unknowing toothed child, the animal we were, a being that requires a special kind of explaining. Hence the labelling of Suarez as mad or bad, a man hard to understand, that needs punishing and helping, in equal measure. He is our scapegoat, through which we escape our own animal instincts, our discomfort, our super old selves.

All of which, and to finish, sounds like an apology for Suarez and his fellow sporting biters. It’s not. It’s a simple request: that we judge a foul in a game of sports on the basis of the laws of the game, and in respect of how dangerous it is, when measured against other dangerous fouls. If it is so bad as to warrant an external investigation, the involvement of the police, the judiciary, incarceration, then the same principle applies: let the law lead, rationally. As for the instinct to disgust, I suggest we take a leaf out of the Francisco Gallardo’s book, he of the wonderfully inexplicable penis nip. Genuinely surprised as to the sudden barrage of interest, and in particular the news that he was under investigation, he is reported as saying; ‘I don’t think what I did was very noteworthy.’ He’s right. No one was hurt. It’s not important.