In the first half of Uruguay’s final group game against Italy at the 2014 World Cup, Luis Suárez launched a late, clumsy challenge on Andrea Pirlo, upending the playmaker with the subtlety of a man taking down a tree with a blunt axe. As Pirlo tumbled, a flailing forearm struck Suárez around the ear. Suárez, assuming the role of the wronged man, held his head, stared at Pirlo, looking hurt and shocked - shocked! - that anyone could do such a thing.
Around 40 minutes later, the score still 0-0, Suárez did similar. But this time the catalyst was something more unusual. Add Giorgio Chiellini’s name to the list with Otman Bakkal and Branislav Ivanovic: for the third time in his career, Suárez had bitten an opponent during a match.
Before that tournament he was on a PR campaign. This was a new Luis Suárez. Not the one who racially abused Patrice Evra, or bit Ivanovic and Bakkal, or punched Dominic Adiyiah’s header off the line against Ghana. “I want to change the bad boy image that has stuck for a bit because I don’t think I am at all how I have been portrayed,” Suárez told Sports Illustrated.
Warming to the theme, he also 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.”
Pre-tournament knee surgery meant he wasn’t fit enough to play in Uruguay’s opener, a defeat by Costa Rica, but in their second game he scored twice against England to knock them out.
Uruguay had to beat Italy to go through but the game was stodgy, both teams toiling in the Natal heat: Suárez looked like a man playing with weights on his legs. On 66 minutes, the ball broke to him, through on goal, but Gigi Buffon dived to save his jabbed shot.
According to Suárez, this was the seed of what followed. He explained in his autobiography that in both previous incidents, frustration caused his dental outbursts. He bit Bakkal while playing for Ajax when “we were on a bad run that would lead to our manager Martin Jol getting the sack”, while the Ivanovic incident came after “I gave away a stupid penalty”.
And so it was again. “If I had scored that goal,” he wrote, “then what followed would never have happened. I would not have done anything. Nothing.” So it was all Buffon’s fault, really.
On 79 minutes, Chiellini half headed away the ball and, as it bobbled out to the left, Suárez steamed in. The two jostled, then fell to the floor. Nobody nearby seemed to react. Matteo Di Sciglio, five yards away, protested vaguely only after seeing how outraged and bemused his team-mate was. You can’t blame him.
Referee Marco Rodríguez - serendipitously nicknamed Chiquidrácula - gave a free-kick to Italy. Since he didn’t even book Suárez, what infraction he thought he saw is unclear.
A livid Chiellini chased Rodríguez, pulling aside his shirt to show the teeth marks. In a misguided act, Gaston Ramírez attempted to cover the shoulder as if that would make it go away. Suárez sat on the floor holding his teeth. In his previous biting episodes he’d targeted fleshier areas. Chiellini, a man who looks as if he was chiselled rather than born, would have been altogether tougher.
In the stands, it was unclear what had happened. Some thought it was a mere headbutt but within a couple of minutes realisation dawned. Journalists looked at each other in disbelief: oh my god, he’s done it again.
Even those with access to replays weren’t convinced, including Jan Åge Fjørtoft, now a TV journalist. As proof of his scepticism, he bit his hand then compared the marks, tweeting the results. Twitter can be awful but when a former Swindon striker chews part of his body and posts the picture to indicate a footballer hasn’t bitten another, you remember why you log on.
Chiellini, obviously, was more certain. “It was ridiculous not to send Suárez off,” he said. “Suárez is a sneak and he gets away with it because Fifa want their stars to play in the World Cup. I’d love to see if they have the courage to use video evidence. The referee saw the bite mark, too, but he did nothing.”
As for Suárez, butter refused to melt. “These are just things that happen out on the pitch that you shouldn’t make such a big deal out of,” he shrugged.
Suárez was so deep in denial he even pleaded innocence to his wife. When Diego Godín scored the winner, he didn’t celebrate with his usual gusto. “I was already thinking about the aftermath,” he said recently.
The aftermath began quickly: that night, Brazilian TV played Suárez’s bite trifecta on a loop. Two days later, despite sticking to his story (“I lost my balance . . . hit my face against [CHIELLINI], leaving a small bruise on my cheek and a strong pain in my teeth”), Fifa banned him for nine internationals, all football for four months and fined him 100,000 Swiss francs.
The Uruguayans cried fake news. “You couldn’t have seen it today because nothing happened,” captain Diego Lugano said. “You have to be stupid to think that mark on Chiellini is from today.”
Coach Óscar Tabárez opted for a proverb: “As we say in Uruguay, there are people who are hiding behind a tree waiting for someone to make a mistake.” A Uruguayan TV station accused English journalists of whipping things up. “It would be good if these Englishmen,” they intoned, “remember how they won the World Cup in 1966 with a ball which was not a goal.”
The Uruguayan federation appealed (unsuccessfully), Suárez’s lawyer claimed a “European-based” campaign and the country’s president declared Fifa were “fascists” and “a bunch of old sons of bitches”. The ban was served, a Suárez-less Uruguay lost 2-0 to Colombia and he wouldn’t play again until October. Even Chiellini thought the ban was excessive and Suárez said he would never attend another Fifa gala. He has, though, apologised to Chiellini.
Four years on, there is temptation to thoughtfully reappraise the incident. “I don’t think I have ever actually injured a fellow professional,” he wrote. “I know biting appals a lot of people but it’s relatively harmless . . . None of the bites have been like Mike Tyson on Evander Holyfield’s ear.” But then the urge subsides and you’re left only with the initial reaction: biting is something children do but rapidly learn is weird.
If you’re still on the fence, then let the final word go to someone we should listen to. “Biting has no place in sports,” Bruce Springsteen said after he was inexplicably asked about the incident. If the Boss says biting has no place in sports, then biting has no place in sports. - Guardian Service