Full disclosure: I am a Liverpool fan, and the owner of a Luis Suarez jersey. Last October, I wrote an exploratory list on Suarez titled “Luis Suarez: Badass or Jackass?”. I harshly condemned all of his missteps—his attempted forced transfers, his scorched earth style of play, and all of the things he’s done on the field to get suspended (including his two previous biting incidents in Holland and England).
But I’m also not oblivious to his talents, or the manner in which he goes about getting results. Suarez embellishes contact when it’s convenient for him—if there’s an immediate path to goal to be exploited, he won’t go down easily under contact. But if he’s facing his own goal at the center circle while trying to control a pass, he has no qualms about turning a nudge into a foul. He’s a pariah on the pitch, and very annoying to watch if your rooting interest isn’t aligned with Suarez’s team.
In yesterday’s Uruguay-Italy match—a decisive fixture that would see its winner advance to the knockout rounds of the World Cup—Italian midfielder Claudio Marchisio deliberately stomped on Arevalo Rios. Before Suarez did what he did ten minutes later, Marchisio was the match's villain.
His studs were up, nowhere near the ball, and firmly on Rios’ calf. Marchisio was correctly given a red card, and Italy were reduced to ten men for the final 30 minutes of the match. This is the kind of challenge that breaks legs and ends careers, but it’s also more common than you’d think. Players use their studs to stab at and crush opponent’s limbs at full speed. They slide into the back of players’ legs, deliver high boots into each other’s chest, and headbutt each other. Modern soccer is a much more physical sport than many Americans give it credit for. These fouls, while potentially dangerous to players (and universally accepted methods of “cheating.” How many times do you hear an announcer call a challenge a “smart foul”?) are mere footnotes in the grand scheme of matches, seasons, tournaments. They certainly don’t incite the kind of reaction and fall-out that a Luis Suarez bite does.
Twenty minutes after Marchisio’s straight red, Suarez bit Giorgio Chiellini—an elbow-throwing, hair-pulling scumbag defender in his own right. Suarez toppled to the ground holding his teeth, and Chiellini exposed his shoulder, where a dentist-quality imprint of Suarez’s incisors, canines, and molars were there for the world to see. If the circumstantial evidence wasn’t definitive (but Suarez tripped into Chiellini!), the replay is:
Suarez escaped without any punishment from the referee, and Uruguay marched down a minute later to score the match-winner. Everyone was salty.
Suarez is an absolute disgrace sorry. Biting players is gross and against everything about the game. Talent for sure but no thanks. #URU— Taylor Twellman (@TaylorTwellman) June 24, 2014
What a disgusting human being Luis Suarez is. Cheat, cannibal, racist.— Mark Cox (@KCForestDarlo) June 24, 2014
"Lets cheat to win" - Luis Suarez— Alex Davis (@davis_418) June 24, 2014
Chiellini played the victim card after the match, deflecting blame for the loss: “Suarez is a sneak and he gets away with it because FIFA want their stars to play in the World Cup.” Chiellini conveniently failed to mention Diego Costa and Robin van Persie, who both received suspensions from FIFA earlier in the tournament for bad behavior.
He’s a pariah on the pitch, and very annoying to watch if your rooting interest isn’t aligned with Suarez’s team.
This marks the third time that Luis Suarez has bitten an opponent during a match, which by all accounts, must be an international sporting record. Only Mike Tyson (who trended on Twitter after the second and third bites) has derived so much infamy from what’s been regarded as a “disgraceful,” “sub-human,” and “cheating” act.
Was it wrong? Of course. Nobody within their right mind goes out and bites another dude while playing a sport. It’s a weird outlet for anger. Hair-pulling, spitting, headbutting, tackling, punching, cursing someone out—these are all normal knee-jerk reactions people have in response to their shit getting turned upside down. Costa headbutted Bruno Martins Indi like last week while Spain fell to the Netherlands. Costa’s also been spat and snotted on in recent La Liga matches, because he’s a bigger pain in the ass than Suarez is. Joey Barton tried to fight all of Manchester City in 2012. Hope Solo allegedly beat up her nephew last weekend after he smack talked her. By nature, athletes are inflammatory, and if we still lived in tribalistic settings, some would be off-the-wall killers.
For Suarez, he happens to turn to biting (or in one case, headbutting) when he’s at risk of seeing what he wants collapse in front of him. He bit Chiellini from a place of fear—fear that Uruguay would be eliminated from the World Cup if they didn't win. It’s how he reacts as a sore loser in the heat of competition, and it continues to bewilder us. Suarez said after the match, "Things like that happen all the time." It's not normal to have such a casual tone in light of biting an opponent just minutes before. Biting is just so animalistic and primal that it shocks and horrifies the general public. Biting another man? Isn’t that what Floridians on bath salts do to each other? Or what that veiny bald guy did to that kid’s parents in Game of Thrones?
Honestly, in a non-True Blood world, people get bit every day out here. Like you’ve never nibbled on an areola or ear lobe or been bitten by any house pet before. Suarez’s bites may have been painful for his victims, but did they deliberately change the course of a match? Sure, against Chelsea and Italy, he wasn’t sent off and his team subsequently scored results-altering goals (Suarez did the scoring himself against Chelsea), but how is he a cheat for it? Because two referees and their assistants took no action? Was Suarez thinking, “I’m gonna bite this motherfucker, not get sent off, and because they’ll be freaked out, we’ll score”? He’s a quick-thinker on the pitch, but a reactionary one at that. Nothing about his bites are premeditated—they’re dumb, but they’re also in the moment and from a place of desperation.
His on-field attitude was summed up well by Liverpool owner John Henry: “He is a good person 99 percent of the time, and 1 percent of the time his desire to win overcomes everything else. So he had moments where he made very high-profile mistakes. But those mistakes were always in the heat of competition.”
But to understand those mistakes, and to have a conversation above the lame “he’s a cheat and a racist and sucks and look at his big nose and ugly teeth” dialect that’s been pushed and beaten to death, a look back is needed.
In 2003, Suarez was a volatile youth player for Nacional. He was one of the club’s best teenage prospects, but also someone who had attitude problems (surprised?). Wright Thompson reported that during the last match of his youth career, Suarez was given a yellow card (a bad call according to witnesses), and vehemently protested to the referee. He was given a second yellow and sent off for his protests, and in response, headbutted the referee.
Thompson explained the incident in his reporting: “A red card meant he'd miss the next game. The team that had been his family through a difficult youth would play its final match without him. It was the last game of his childhood, and he'd watch it from the stands. He had scored 63 goals that year, one shy of the club record, which he desperately wanted. Larranaga [the referee] had thrown him out of a game, but he also had ripped him away from his family.”
Not only that, but Suarez’s girlfriend had moved to Europe a month prior. Larranaga’s decision, in Suarez’s mind, was a measure that would kill his dream of signing with a European team upon graduating from his youth career. If a move abroad didn't materialize, he wouldn't be able to be with his then-girlfriend, who’s now his wife and mother of two.
Like you’ve never nibbled on an areola or ear lobe or been bitten by any house pet before.
Anytime Suarez goes over the edge, it’s because he sees his goals disintegrating before his eyes. It’s a level of violent anger that can be tamed (he managed to complete his latest 31 goal Premiership season without incident), but never fully suppressed. And it stems from his fear of his past. His mother scrubbed floors to keep his family alive, and Suarez collected coins while street sweeping as a teenager. It’s a level of abject poverty that Suarez never wants to go back to. Those impoverished times are ingrained in his mind as motivation to seize every chance keep moving forward, as far away from the streets as possible. Even if it means biting a player, or two, or three.
And for Suarez, it’s worked out. That’s what happens when you possess franchise-altering talent and perhaps the biggest appetite for winning in international soccer. Two months after biting Otman Bakkal in Holland, he transferred to Liverpool for nearly $40 million. After serving his 10-game suspension for biting Branislav Ivanovic, he tied the Premiership’s single season scoring record, swept England’s Player of the Year awards, and led Liverpool to second place in what was their best Premier League campaign ever. Suarez likely be suspended for the remainder of the World Cup following this latest bite, but his team will still advance.
Suarez’s character is admirable and despicable at the same time. He’s highly defensive of his family and his outright will to win is unmatched in any industry—if we all shared a level of mental garra comparable to Luis Suarez, we’d be better citizens for it. It’s his means of expressing his frustration that’s truly troubling, but the same can be said about any self-destructive individual. The idealistic aspects of Suarez are consistently compromised because those shiny parts quickly melt when threatened.
If anything, Suarez has a legitimate mental health concern. Is it any coincidence that his latest attack occurred while Dr. Steve Peters, Liverpool’s renowned sports psychologist, who worked with Suarez this past year on his self-control, is actually working for Uruguay’s group rivals England? Only Suarez can say either way. Maybe he just needs 60 minutes with Dr. Peters.
A defense of Luis Suarez isn’t needed or warranted, but neither is a crucifixion. Suarez has taken his licks, and in the aftermath of each wave of criticism, manages to control himself for a little bit longer until that time comes. Next time, however, remember where Suarez comes from—not to give him pity, but basic humanistic acceptance and understanding of his flaws. It’s the only way he can move on too.