Maradona’s defence of Suarez a reminder of Argentinian superstar’s past indiscretions
Even the Uruguayan president backs the biting striker’s cause
A woman takes a photo next to an advertisement featuring Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, mocking the biting incident against opponent Giorgio Chiellini during the World Cup match against Italy, on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph: Getty Images
Last week in this space I was writing that Luis Suarez was the closest thing this generation of footballers has to Diego Maradona. This was after Suarez had emulated Maradona’s 1986 feat of scoring two great goals to (effectively) knock England out of the World Cup.
I wasn’t expecting Suarez to take the comparison and run with it by doing something in the very next match to ensure that he would also emulate Maradona’s 1994 feat of being kicked out of the World Cup after two games and hit with a total ban from football.
Maradona feels some kinship with his latter-day imitator – almost certainly more so than he does with Lionel Messi, whose form here in Brazil looks ominously likely to eclipse his own triumph in Mexico. Diego was filmed enjoying Suarez’ goals against England with the Uruguayan co-host of his TV show, Victor Hugo Morales, whose commentary on Maradona’s 1986 goal was almost as good as the goal itself.
This week, Maradona appeared on the show wearing a T-shirt that said “Luisito – Estamos con vos” – Little Luis, we are with you. He was joined on the line by the Uruguayan president, Jose Mujica. Together they railed against the injustice of what had happened to little Luis.
“The Fifa sanction is shameful,” said Diego, “they have no sensitivity towards the fans, they might as well handcuff him and throw him in Guantanamo . . . Suarez didn’t kill anyone. This is an unjust punishment, the act of an incredible mafia.”
President Mujica agreed: “We feel that this is an assault on the poor because this gang will never forgive him because he never went to university, he isn’t educated, he grew up on the field, and he is a natural rebel and expresses his anger naturally.”
People say the strangest things when they are trying to defend the indefensible. Mujica is effectively saying that Suarez bit Chiellini because this is what poor people are like, which is much more insulting to the poor than anything Fifa’s ruling says. Mujica is a left-wing politician who grew up poor himself and it is hard to imagine him making such an argument in any other context. But Suarez is an extraordinary footballer so the fans of the teams he plays for are capable of extraordinary logic in his defence.
Suarez’ problem is that lots of football players grew up poor but for some reason he’s the only one of them who is in the habit of biting opponents. He is quite literally in what Bill Simmons called “The Tyson Zone”, having passed the point at which his behaviour retains the capacity genuinely to shock people.
Maradona and Mujica both argued that the nine-match plus four-month suspension and 100,000 Swiss franc fine was excessive. It wouldn’t seem excessive to Tyson, who was initially banned for life from boxing (though his licence was reinstated after one year) and fined $3 million after he bit Evander Holyfield in the ring in 1997.
Suarez can’t complain. In a way, it’s just like when he handled the ball on the line against Ghana. He knew the risks. He did what he did. Now he has to take the punishment. The only party to all this who might be entitled to complain are Liverpool FC, who lose their best player for almost a third of the season because of something he did while representing another team.
Of course, it’s not yet certain that Suarez will still be a Liverpool player while he serves out that suspension, though if they do decide to sell him, it won’t be because of his latest bite – they’ve proved that they don’t care about that – but for other, possibly misguided reasons, such as the belief that with so many of England’s World Cup squad now on the books, they will be just as strong without Suarez. Adam Lallana can be trusted never to get banned for biting anybody, but he’s no football genius.
As for Maradona’s Fifa mafia, they must be quietly ecstatic with how things have gone so far. Sepp Blatter seems to have been keeping a low profile, though Fifa insist there is no deliberate policy to avoid showing him on the big screen at matches. He did appear briefly on the screen before Italy v Uruguay in Natal, but he had disappeared before the crowd had time to focus its derision. The tournament has been universally acclaimed as the best since the 1980s, and the football has distracted everybody enough so that there have been no significant protests against Fifa and the nexus of greed and corruption they had come to be associated with.
That might change if Brazil are unexpectedly knocked out this week. As long as Brazil are still in with a chance of winning this country will be interested. They are not interested in any of the other teams: you get the sense that this is about nationalism more than sport.
If the hosts go out, the World Cup will instantly become an alien entity which for some reason will be continuing in the cities of Brazil in the absence of the only participant that gave it meaning. Without the promise of Brazil bathing everything in a golden glow, people might suddenly remember all the things they hate about Fifa and the World Cup. Then the Brazilian police, a constant, heavily-armed presence on the streets, could find themselves with more work to do.
For now, the main topic of discussion in the Brazilian media, after Suarez – against whom they take a pretty hard line, though you can imagine it would be different if he were Brazilian – has been the race for the Golden Boot between the two great artilheiros – the artillerymen – Neymar and Lionel Messi. Thomas Muller, who also has four goals, sometimes gets a mention too, but this is a Brazil v Argentina thing and Muller spoils the narrative.
You wonder how Neymar, five years younger than Messi, can possibly handle the pressure. The Brazil team exists within the largest bubble of hype that currently exists anywhere in the world. Wherever they go there are cameras, microphones, screaming fans, supplicant politicians, heavily-armed soldiers, helicopters hovering overhead, and a crowd of excited people on motorcycles in hot pursuit. Neymar is right at the centre of this.
Half of the people of the country are walking around wearing shirts with his name on the back. The ride Brazil is on is going to end in either national rejoicing or sickening despair - followed by poisonous recrimination - and it all depends on him. Neymar is 22 and he already knows how Kennedy felt during the Cuban crisis.
So far he’s delivered everything Brazil asked of him, but it must be intimidating to see the cool efficiency with which Messi has matched his tally. Neymar’s first goal against Croatia and his second goal against Cameroon looked like a player operating near the limits of his ability. Messi’s four goals have also been brilliant, but he leaves you with the impression that he’s got even more in reserve.
In the group stage he ran through a repertoire of old standards – the dribble and shot, the precise long-ranger, the poacher’s power finish, the flighted free-kick. These are goals we’ve already seen him score 20 times or more, the sort of goals he seems to be able to summon at will if his team needs it. Maybe in the knockout stages he is planning to show us something truly original.