Luis Suarez: victim of colonialism?

Blog #1

The media are quite clear on the case of Luis Suarez. The facts appear to be clear: he broke the bounds of civilized behaviour and has been punished for it. What is the fuss?

The rules of sport were, famously convened on the ‘playing fields of Eton’. Sport was created as preparation for war and war, back in the 19th century, was full of rules. Sport was something for the privileged and the rules – which include ways of behaving as well as the actual terms of engagement - reflected their time and their ethos. Just as important as playing by the rules are the unwritten rules, that competitiveness stops at the end of a match and everyone can have a drink together afterwards; competitiveness is not personal. Just as in war, of course. For all their current anti-Anglo bias, the governing bodies, with their French bias are just as value- and class-laden as we are about the nature of sport and how it should be played.

Sport in other parts of the world is not seen in the same way. In South America it is not the norm to leave competiveness at the door when a match is finished. In Columbia, after all, Andres Escobar was murdered after scoring an own goal in the 1994 World Cup. Maradona, seen as a ‘cheat’ in Britain (and in Europe generally) is hailed as virtually a living God across most of South America, largely because of incidents such as the ‘hand of God’. He was not ‘bound by the rules’ but invented his own logic of winning. In South America, to win is what matters. Not how, or in what way or indeed by following any unwritten rules. Just win.

As The Uruguayan coach of the 1966 Uruguay team (“…animals”, Sir Alf Ramsey) said: other countries have history and culture, Uruguay has only football. To be from Uruguay is to be a part of football. This tiny nation has always punched way above its weight in football; because it matters in an emotional and existential way far beyond anything we understand.

Suarez, like his Argentinean predecessor, was brought up in the sort of poverty that remains unimaginable in this country. And today he is rich to an equally unimaginable level. I heard an ex-playing colleague on the radio yesterday saying that someone who prevents Suarez from doing his job, playing his football, scoring goals or winning games, he is trying to send him and his family back to the gutter from which they have only so recently escaped. Football for Suarez is not ‘professional’ but personal. Very.

Suarez, like many South Americans,  is seen as a ‘cheat’. Europeans, on the other hand, are ‘professional’. Glen Hoddle on the TV on Sunday explained that if a defender made a poor tackle, and ‘left his leg in’ then the experienced footballer could decide whether or not to make contact and so bring about a penalty. This was professional. So Robben was ‘justified’ in crashing to the ground if the tackle was poor, even if not touched. Meanwhile on the radio I heard Danny Mills explaining that taking out an attacking player who has outwitted the defence was proper ‘professional’ conduct. Not only is such an assault acceptable, but it is a selfless act, the defender ‘takes one for his team’.  So Mills’ ‘professionalism’ is about assaulting a better player who has beaten him under fair conditions, and this is actually a noble act of sacrifice for the greater good. A professional foul which breaks an opponent’s leg would not attract the sanction of Suarez’s bites. European professionals dive for penalties and scythe down better skilled opponents, but South American ‘cheats’ lie, roll around the floor in pretend agony and in Suarez’s case, have a habit of sinking their teeth into opponents shirts.

This is not to defend Suarez. His behaviour has been childish, petulant and (frankly) stupid, but I think not as malicious as the ‘professional’ defenders foul, which he of all people has so often been the recipient. His biting is childish, a piece of playground theatre, a symbol of his affront and anger at being deprived of his ability to rise from the gutter and be a member of the elite. In his three biting incidents, no one has actually been hurt, or really threatened; these are not real acts of vengeance but symbolic rages. Not good, not nice, but also hardly career threatening.

We seem so secure in our morals, that such cheating behaviour is unacceptable, and yet what is the moral basis for what we do feel is acceptable? What makes our professionalism acceptable? When the current Uruguay coach talked of the English language press leading the assault on his countrymen, he was evoking the colonial and imperial past of a European power, still bullying a county whose only identification is with football.

A little more reflection is in order, I suggest.


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