Fangs out, Luisito! FIFA, Violence, Luis Suárez, Colonialism, Biting, and Blood
Could there be any greater crime that the one Luis Suárez has committed? I am referring, of course, to the fact that he unapologetically led Uruguay to defeating and eliminating both England and Italy from the World Cup. That he not only scored twice against England but did so with a mischievous grin on his face. That he not only knocked out two European football giants but, indeed, he enjoyed it, he relished it, he showed the Europeans none of the respect that they feel entitled to by virtue of being European.
He was, in that sense, refusing to be a good colonial subject, refusing to be thankful for being included in the tournament, grateful for the privilege to play, respectful of the rules and norms, humble in victory and gracious in defeat. Rather, he had the nerve to be brash, cocky, and even a little bitey in the face of his “betters.”
None of this, of course, would be spoken aloud by the European and North American (and especially English) press and pundits who have declared all-out war on Luis Suárez since the late stages of Uruguay’s match with Italy. None of it would be part of FIFA’s disciplinary sentencing. Instead, they have all hammered the drum of “sportsmanship” and “class” and claimed that Suárez’s behaviour has no place in the game. And of course the behaviour they are supposedly talking about is biting.
Yes, by now it is the vicious chomp heard round the world: the vampiric barbarian, gnashing his teeth and cannibalizing his opponent in a ruthless display that drags the beautiful game into some savage period of uncivilized pre-history. “He’s an animal!” they cry. “How can we explain this to our children?!” The English press has said that Suárez has mental health problems. That he has a deep-rooted “biting obsession.” That he is a child. That he should be kicked out of football for life. FIFA has banned Suárez from all football activity for four months, concerned about the example his behaviour sets for “the eyes of millions of people on the stars on the pitch.”
And yet, colonial narratives notwithstanding, the video hardly lives up to its billing. No amount of camera technology can find a moment that shows anything more than an awkward head thrust and a nibble, at best, on the Italian defenders shoulder. If Suarez had hoped for a meal, what he got was a paltry hors d’oeuvre. How typically European.
Yes, Giorgio Chiellini put on a brilliant performance, his exposed shoulder sure to ignite the roars of indignant talking heads desperate for an excuse to attack Suárez. But it must be admitted that Chiellini was in no way injured, not even slightly. He stayed in the match, his lazy and underachieving defending unaffected by Suárez’s fangs, and indeed despite his dramatic performance he couldn’t even produce any blood for the carnival of moral outrage to draw upon. What kind of savage bite fails to break the skin?
Arguably, it doesn’t matter whether the bite was successful or not. Suárez has a “history” of biting. Indeed, he has twice flashed his incisors at opposing players and in both those cases they were much more effective in at the very least breaking some skin. And while no violent bite can be found in the tape of Suárez and Chiellini, it is clear that Luis intends some kind of contact, a headbutt or a bite, even if he didn’t accomplish it well. So yes, it is undeniable that when Suárez gets upset and wants to get an edge over an opponent, biting is in his repertoire.
Just as cleat-stomping is in Claudio Marchisio’s. He was red carded in the same match for driving the spikes of his boots into an Uruguayan leg. And yet, no tribunals and show trials and media assassinations against Marchisio. No calls for an end to his sponsorship and a ban from FIFA. No moral outrage, no pathologizing his infancy to find his “history” of using his spikes, no significant reaction at all. In fact, unless you saw the match, I bet you hadn’t heard about it. While I don’t want to have anyone’s teeth nip into my shoulder, I would certainly prefer that to having three metal spikes aggressively driven into my calf, especially if that calf was essential for my football career.
Indeed, beyond the hysteria about Luisito’s dancing teeth, it is a fact that football is replete with violent challenges and injury-inducing clashes, many of which have left players significantly more affected than anything Suarez can do with his mouth. Chiellini himself threw several aggressive challenges during the match, not the least of which was his elbow to the face of Suárez. Portuguese defender Pepe headbutted Thomas Muller in their match last week, and that same Muller was once punched in the face by then-teammate and current media darling Arjen Robben. We could take it beyond the pitch and observe other forms of violence that aren’t eliciting four-month suspensions: European fans have been showing up at Ghana matches in blackface. A neo-Nazi ran onto the pitch during a match last week. Eclipsing all of this is the violence that has been perpetrated by FIFA and the Brazilian state against poor Brazilians, who have been ignored, attacked, evicted, and in some cases killed in order to facilitate the World Cup, as documented by Dave Zirin and many others.
So why is Suarez the man receiving draconian punishment and public shaming?
Maybe the explanation can partly be found in what he represents in football. Though he is by no means the first player to occupy this role, Luis Suárez is perhaps the standout example of a contemporary footballer who is undeniably one of the greatest strikers in the game, despite working class roots in the slums of Montevideo that made his rise to prominence anything but a sure thing. The odds were stacked so powerfully against him that the whole thing must still, at times, seem like a mistake or a miracle or both to Luis Suárez, the fourth of seven children from a broken home in one of the world’s many and massive urban slums.
In fact, his story is heartbreaking and inspiring in equal measure, and is well told here. For Luisito, like millions of children in the global south, football was his ticket to a better life. More than that, it was the only way he could be with his partner, Sofia, whose family had provided Luis with stability and support through his difficult youth. When Sofia’s family moved to Europe, Luis knew that the only way he could be near them would be to play his way into a European league.
He did just that, but it was not easy. At several moments along the way, when his chances seemed like they might slip away, his desperation was manifest in outbursts of relatively minor violence. A headbutt against a referee in Uruguay, a bite to an opponent in the Dutch league. Understandable and minor, yes, but these are nevertheless not moments for Suárez to be proud of.
Indeed, making a saint of Luis Suárez is neither an easy nor appropriate task. His reputation was further marred by an incident in 2011 in which Suárez called Patrice Evra “negrito,” a term which in Spanish can be used as endearment. Suárez’s grandfather was black and was called “negrito” by his grandmother. But mestizo culture in Latin America contains a kind of ingrained and normalized racism that, in all likelihood, was the real motivation behind Suarez’s outburst. Suárez would not be the first mestizo player to express this brand of racism and it cannot be excused, though it should be distinguished as different from more hateful and violent forms of white supremacist racism.*
It is clear, then, that Luis Suárez is not an ideal role model. He, like so many of us, is a product of his society and, as such, he is flawed and troubled as are we all. Nevertheless, his life simultaneously reflects a beautiful story of love and redemption and possibility. The joy that often exudes from him on the pitch is palpable, the charm and charisma of his public persona in Uruguay is captivating, and the unabashed love he exhibits towards his family is impossible to deny or find fault. One look at his beaming smile can tell anyone with a modicum of sensitivity that his warmth and love are real. And so too is his darker side and the desperation and anxiety that compel it into being, albeit that desperation should be understood as a product of social dynamics, not individual psychosis.
There is something profoundly honest about Luis Suárez, for better and for worse, and ultimately for better. It is precisely his moments of weakness, violent yes but not radically so, that make him so compelling. Fundamentally, it’s not ok to bite another person. But then, fundamentally, it’s not ok to ask a child to grow up in desperation. Which is the greater crime? Should we judge all people by the same moral yardstick, or should we first ask who built the yardstick and why it is so flattering to its designers? Why are some forms of violence acceptable and others not? Does the context of Luis Suárez’s life change the way we understand his hunger for Italian defenders?
I believe it does. The football establishment, stodgy and conservative and colonial, does not like Luis Suárez. They don’t like his nerve, his unpredictability, his irreverence, or his protruding front teeth. They don’t like that he combines those qualities with almost impossible skill. They prefer Giorgio Chiellini, privileged boy from Livorno who graduated with honours, holds a business degree, and is embedded amongst the shadowy fascism that dogs Italian football and especially Chiellini’s Juventus club.
But I think it is fair to ask the question why does Luis Suárez occasionally bite his opponents? What motivates these acts of violence? It is clear that – for all his flaws – his occasional outbursts are not motivated by hatred.
In fact, it is worth concluding on the thought that the relatively minor acts of aggression that has Suárez has registered – recall that his recent nibble was not even the most violent act of that match, never mind the broader footballing world – are at least partially motivated by that early desperation to escape from poverty and isolation. How ironic that FIFA should heavy-hand down a sharp punishment against Suárez for an act that has its roots in poverty, while FIFA is responsible for acts of aggression against impoverished Brazilians that are almost incalculable. Indeed, the entire infrastructure of the corporate spectacle that is the World Cup is a bloodsucking affair wherein FIFA, Coca-Cola, Budweiser and their friends suck wealth out of Brazil, physically attack anyone who resists their will, and build stadiums on top of the rubble that will be empty decaying symbols of the wealth that International Football stole from Brazil for decades to come.
Luis Suárez was supposed to be one of the poor kids who would be buried underneath the World Cup. Instead, he found love and he found a family and he found football and determined that he would not, under any circumstances, give them up. He rose, instead, to the top of the World Cup, defied the colonial narratives and defeated the English and Italians before being kicked out of the tournament. Along the way, he made some poor judgement calls. But he made them for reasons that are infinitely more forgivable than much of the violence that takes place in football.
And, so far in this World Cup, he has yet to draw blood from his opponents. That is more than can be said of the organization that has passed down his sentence.
Tyler Shipley is the editor of Left Hook.
* Author’s note: after publishing this piece, it was rightly called to my attention that this paragraph served to trivialize and dismiss mestizo racism and the use of the term “negrito” as hurtful racial abuse. This was not at all my intention, but on reflection, the critique is absolutely fair and I owe a sincere and significant apology for the careless way this paragraph was written. I am familiar with the way the term is used in Central America, if not specifically in Uruguay, and I should have known better than to be so callous in my dismissal. What I was trying to do – ineffectively, in retrospect – was distinguish between acts and expressions of white supremacist racism, on the one hand, and manifestations of racism that emerge out of the colonial experience and the creation of racial hierarchies “beneath” whiteness, on the other. Mestizo racism towards black or indigenous people in Latin America is a product of the position mestizos held in the colonial hierarchy. Mestizos themselves, however, regularly find themselves the subjects of white racism in other contexts. In that sense, my point was to try to complicate Suarez’s location in the ongoing racist legacy of colonialism, whereby people who are subject to colonial racism are encouraged to replicate those dynamics along a complicated and deeply problematic hierarchy.
However, I did not articulate that point clearly, not at all. Instead, in my haste to respond to British tabloids which have capitalized on Suarez’s racism to justify their own attacks on him, I trivialized and downplayed a serious and hurtful piece of Suarez’s history and indeed of Uruguayan and world history. I have understood the term “negrito” to be very context-dependant. Since “negro” translates simply as “black,” it is sometimes used as a self-identifier (as in the case of an organization in Honduras called the Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña). Nevertheless, I know that it is also used as racial abuse, to maintain the social distinctions within communities, and to hurt people. It was incredibly careless of me to slide past this without more emphasis, and I apologize to all who have read and been hurt by that.