By: Sam Borden
The most ruthless soccer players often use their hands or elbows or knees to rough up opposing players. The most reckless — or dirtiest — might even use their cleats. Then there is Luis Suárez.
Suárez, the Uruguayan striker who has emerged as one of the best players in the world over the past year, is a biter. And, it seems, a serial one.
For the third time in his career, Suárez is facing potential punishment for appearing to sink his teeth into an opponent. This time, it happened on the biggest soccer stage of all, the World Cup, during Uruguay’s 1-0 victory over Italy on Tuesday. Late in the second half, Suárez bumped into Giorgio Chiellini, an Italian defender, while jockeying for position in the penalty area and then dropped his head into Chiellini’s shoulder. Chiellini immediately recoiled as both fell to the ground.
The scene was surreal: The referee — a Mexican named Marco Rodríguez, whose nickname is Dracula because of his resemblance to a version of that character on Mexican television — did not notice and paid no mind to Chiellini’s attempts to pull his collar aside to show what appeared to be bite marks on the back of his left shoulder. Then, only moments later, Uruguay scored the only goal of the game, benefiting from an earlier red card, for a cleat-first challenge to the leg, that left Italy a man down after the 59th minute. The 1-0 victory simultaneously eliminated Italy from the tournament and made certain that the Suárez incident would become an unappetising reference point in the annals of soccer history.
A tournament that produced Diego Maradona’s Hand of God goal in 1986 — when Maradona punched in a crucial goal with his fist against England — and Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt in the 2006 final now has a new infamous body part: Suárez’s incisors. After the match, questions abounded: What was Suárez thinking? What will happen to him now? And, perhaps most pointedly, after two previous instances like this, how in the world could Suárez have done it again?
This much is sure: Uruguay will play a Round of 16 match on Saturday, and it is very possible that Suárez will not be involved. FIFA, the governing body for world soccer, has a disciplinary panel that can issue suspensions for on-field actions that are not seen by the referee. FIFA announced late Tuesday that it had opened disciplinary proceedings for Suárez, and that he and Uruguay had until Wednesday evening to “provide their position and any documentary evidence” in support of Suárez.
The longest suspension for an on-field action at the World Cup is eight games, to Mauro Tassotti of Italy in 1994 for breaking the nose of a Spanish player with his elbow. Last week, FIFA suspended Cameroon midfielder Alex Song for three games for an elbow that led to his ejection from a loss to Croatia. Suárez can probably expect more.
More immediately, the post-game reactions were predictably inflamed. The Italian coach, Cesare Prandelli, began his news conference by announcing his resignation after his team’s early exit but quickly pivoted to condemning Suárez, saying that although he did not see the bite when it took place, he “did see the bite marks on Chiellini’s shoulder.”
“It’s a shame,” Prandelli said. “It’s a real shame.” Suárez denied biting him, despite photographs of Chiellini’s shoulder circulating publicly and seeming to indicate otherwise. “I had contact with his shoulder, nothing more,” he said. Chiellini said, “Suárez is a sneak, and he gets away with it because FIFA wants their stars to play in the World Cup.” Óscar Tabárez, the Uruguayan coach, also said he had not seen the incident (nor any video or photographs of it afterward), but he leapt to Suárez’s defence anyway, vehemently attacking journalists for, in his opinion, unfairly targeting Suárez. Tabárez added: “This is a football World Cup, not about morality, cheap morality.”
Suárez’s first biting incident came in 2010, when he was playing for the Dutch club Ajax. In that instance, he was suspended for seven games for biting an opponent on the neck, prompting a Dutch newspaper to call him the Cannibal of Ajax. He apologised in a video posted online and shortly after the incident was sold to Liverpool, a top club in England, vowing to display better behaviour.
Alas, the biting continued. In April 2013, Suárez was caught on video — but, again, not by the referee — biting Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea. This time, Suárez was barred for 10 games, though he argued the customary three-match suspension for violent conduct was sufficient. When it handed down its sanction, the three-member disciplinary panel made a point to criticise Suárez for not appreciating the “seriousness” of his actions. In combination with several other controversial incidents, including an earlier suspension for racially abusing a black opponent and a perceived penchant for diving more than the average player, Suárez saw his reputation plummet.
This past year, while having one of his best goal-scoring seasons for Liverpool, Suárez also sought to repair his image. In an interview with The New York Times in May, conducted in part while he rocked his sleeping infant son, he said he wanted to be a better example for his two young children. He was different now, he said. The petulance was in the past. Referring to his previous biting episodes, he said: “Obviously, it’s not the most attractive image that I can have for myself. But that’s not what I want to be remembered for. I want to do things right. I really, really do.”
Instead, it seems he has plunged himself back to a familiar nadir, and it may have ended his World Cup. Zidane, of France, was suspended for three games for head-butting the Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final, though that penalty was of little meaning; Zidane was ejected from the game after the head-butt, and he followed through with his plans to retire from international soccer after that tournament. He never played for France again.
If FIFA considers Suárez’s history as a repeat offender, his punishment could be severe. Uruguay, a semifinalist in 2010, has at most four games left in the World Cup. According to Tabárez, the Uruguayan coach, losing Suárez would be difficult because Suárez “is an important person within the group.” For the moment, however, Suárez has to deal with only the snarky justice dispensed on social media. Evander Holyfield, the former boxer who infamously had part of his ear bitten off by Mike Tyson, wrote on Twitter, “I guess any part of the body is up for eating.”
That was only topped, perhaps, by the official Twitter account of McDonald’s Uruguay, which wrote to Suárez, “If you feel hungry, come take a bite of a Big Mac.”