This is the day after the incident that will no doubt be the one for which this World Cup is best remembered (it will take something pretty tasty in the remaining games to dislodge it). The tournament now divides into pre-bite and post-bite. The world is already awash with virtual newsprint expressing various shades of bemusement, amusement or (most often) outrage at Luis Suárez and his ravenous teeth. I hesitate to add to the surfeit of noise. But really, why is one footballer biting another so uniquely shocking?
Matthew Syed, fulminating in this morning’s Times, says ‘there is a case for a lengthy worldwide ban that sends an unmistakable signal that talent can never justify the kind of behaviour that, in other circumstances, might bring a man before a judge for common assault.’ But football matches are full of assaults that would, in other circumstances, count as criminal acts. They break each other’s legs, for God’s sake, and it’s not always by accident. The Italian defender Chiellini, who looks like he can look after himself, went down under Suárez’s attentions as though he had been punched, but he hadn’t. I guess it hurt, and he certainly had the scars to prove it, but they were only pinpricks compared to the damage that other kinds of fouls can do.
Is it the curious intimacy of the contact? Biting, or anything involving the mouth, seems categorically distinct from the usual run of flailing elbows and wild lunges. It looks wilful because it belongs to a completely different realm of human activity: eating, or perhaps love. In no sense is it part of the game. But for that reason it can hardly have been deliberate. What was Suárez trying to achieve? To get Chiellini to punch him in retaliation? There are far better ways of managing that. It was such a stupid thing to do that it must have been impulsive. The problem with a defence of crime passionnel is that Suárez has form. It’s his third bite, which suggests at the very least that there is a part of him that is beyond all reasonable control. That makes people very uncomfortable.
In the end Suárez’s problem is not that biting is so much worse than the other things that players do, but simply that the other players don’t do it. Once norms exist, however arbitrary, universal adherence makes any breach a very serious matter. Whatever it is that Suárez can’t control is something that everyone else can control. That makes him a real renegade. It’s like the moment Eric Cantona jumped into the crowd at Crystal Palace to karate kick a fan who had been giving him terrible abuse (something for which he was very briefly jailed). In some ways what was most surprising about that incident was that it doesn’t happen more often, given what footballers do to each other and what fans do to each other. How many players must have wanted to return in kind some of the poison coming their way from the crowd? But since it doesn’t happen, there was something truly shocking about seeing Cantona breach the invisible boundary that separates the violence that happens on the pitch from the violence that happens in the stands. Suárez has breached another such invisible boundary and it looks like he is really going to pay for it.