FIFA's disciplinary board handed Luis Suarez a four-month ban from any soccer-related activity after he was seen biting an Italian opponent. He also received a stiff fine, is not allowed to play in Uruguay's next nine international matches, and will miss the start of the domestic season with his club team, Liverpool. His World Cup is over in a most ignominious fashion.
But what did Luis Suarez do that was wrong? It may seem a ludicrous question to many. But compared to the level of sanctioned violence in hockey and North American football, what Suarez did is trivial.
"We didn't choose him to be a philosopher, or a mechanic, or to have good manners -- he's a great player," said Uruguay's president, Jose Mujica, expressing a commonly held belief in his homeland that Suarez was being unjustly vilified. "I didn't see him bite anyone. But they sure can bash each other with kicks and chops."
In that moment, on the pitch, there was no morality, there was only the objective. Annoy. Distract. Italians know the tactic as well as anyone. Marco Materazzi so aggravated Zinedane Zidane in the 2006 World Cup Final that the French captain turned around and hit the Italian with his head. He was red carded. France played the rest of the game a man short. Italy won the Cup. Mission accomplished.
"Soccer is a ritual sublimation of war," says Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano in his landmark masterpiece Soccer in Sun and Shadow. "Eleven men in shorts are the sword of the neighbourhood, the city, or the nation. These warriors without weapons or armour exorcize the demons of the crowd and reaffirm its faith: in each confrontation between two sides, old hatreds and old loves passed from father to son enter into combat."
How many sporting moments can completely capture an entire planet's imagination within seconds of it happening? And continue to be the butt of endless jokes, analysis, moral indignation and millions of words shared by the world's press and broadcast across television screens for days on end? Only soccer has that power to transform on a global scale. For good or bad.
The emetic gasp of pretentious disbelief at Suarez' moment of madness, by rooftop journalists 10 stories above Rio's Copacabana beach, could be easily measured with a seismograph attuned to the dull thud of approaching male bovine scatology.
In Uruguay, indeed in all of South America, people may not universally approve of Suarez and his hunger to win, but they certainly understand. It happens.
There's a great story in The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2014/jun/25/luis-suarez-giorgio-chiellini-violence-deceit that tells the tale of Suarez as a youth player with Nacional, one of Uruguay's top clubs. A championship was on the line and in the final match of the season, with 15 minutes to go, Suárez flew into a Danubio player. The referee showed him a yellow card and Suárez appeared in his face. The ref went back to his pocket for a red. Suárez snapped and head butted the official, who fell to the ground writhing in pain. "He was bleeding like a cow," said a local journalist.
There is that darkness in the shadows that Galeano speaks of so eloquently in his book.
But in this World Cup, an entire continent celebrates the game played their way, on their land, and it is a beautiful thing to see.
"And one fine day the goddess of the wind kisses the foot of a man, that mistreated, scorned foot, and from that kiss the soccer idol is born. He is born in a straw crib in a tin-roofed shack and he enters the world clinging to a ball. The ball laughs, radiant, in the air.
He brings her down, puts her to sleep, showers her with compliments, dances with her, and seeing such things never before seen his admirers pity their unborn grandchildren who will never see them."
South Americans think of themselves as one country in ten parts. The great rivalries still thrive, especially between the two giants, Brazil and Argentina. Such is the quality of the television broadcasts that it is clear to see and especially hear that this is a completely unique spectator experience. Different from the gentrified soccer vibe now on display at the major European capitals. The historic exportation of much of South America's wealth applies to soccer as well. The richest clubs buy in bulk from Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia. Ticket prices at Europe's biggest clubs have long since passed the line where working class people could imagine being able to afford to go to games.
The fan experience has been more than just an eyeopener for Norte Americanos who have scoreboards and announcers and recorded music to prompt them to scream and shout at sporting events. These supporters represent a way of thinking that is unique in the world; a collective of historical expression.
The Argentina games, the fans, the raucous roar and lyrics in unison; one song recalls the 1990 World Cup and gloats about what they imagine to be a successful invasion this summer.
It runs: "Brazil, tell me how it feels / to have daddy in your home / I swear that even as the years go by / We'll never forget / How Diego dribbled / And Caniggia stuck the needle in/ you've been crying since Italy until today / You'll see Messi / Bring the cup back to us / Maradona is greater than Pelé."
In perhaps his most famous book, Veins of Latin America, Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, Galeano organized the various facets of Latin American history according to the patterns of five centuries of exploitation. The veins of a continent are comprised of gold and silver, cacao and cotton, rubber and coffee, fruit, hides and wool, petroleum, iron, nickel, manganese, copper, aluminum ore, nitrates, and tin. When those veins are cut open, they gush into the coffers of wealth in the United States and Europe. And for the last 30 years, soccer players can be added to that list.
This wholesale exploitation of its natural wealth by foreigners, the gringos and yanquis, is the most important of all narratives for the people of the 10 countries that comprise the continent. Simon Bolivar was the great leader who led the struggle for independence in Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, but it was a rag tag bunch of English railway workers in Argentina in the late 1800s who inadvertently changed the way people transformed their identity. Those workers brought a ball and started kicking it around and the locals were hooked. Football at that moment transcended military and economic might. The game became the currency of personal wealth and identity of the soul. It is why the 2014 tournament has been so magical, despite its sometimes dark twists and turns. It has succeeded on the pitch in the face of yet another in a long line of exploiters, FIFA.
In countries where soccer has been and continues to be a primordial symbol of collective identity. I play therefore I am: a style of play is a way of being that reveals the unique profile of each community and affirms its right to be different. Tell me how you play and I'll tell you who you are. For many years soccer has been played in different styles, unique expressions of the personality of each people, and the preservation of that diversity seems to me more necessary today than ever before. These are days of obligatory uniformity, in soccer and everything else. Never has the world been so unequal in the opportunities it offers and so equalizing in the habits it imposes. In this end-of-century world, whoever does not die of hunger dies of boredom.
So if you cannot forgive Luis Suarez, or are morally outraged at his actions, understand where he has come from. How his values, and the values of an entire continent, shaped by centuries of slavery, of exploitation, of murderous dictatorships, that these are sobrevivientos, survivors. And soccer is the lifeboat. It is beyond mere passion. It is madness. Those who have spent time in South America know exactly what I speak of.
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