Teething Troubles

Ian Penman

On the subject of the Suárez bite, the World Cup pundits (David Runciman aside) were in agreement for once: ‘He’s sick’; ‘He’s obviously got a problem’; ‘He needs to get help.’ But in a kind of casual-wear version of ‘political correctness gone mad’ not a single one of them mentioned what’s staring us all in the face – the Suárez overbite. No one thought to mention those outrageously present teeth. But isn’t it possible that the back story is right here, hidden in plain sight? It’s not hard to imagine him receiving real grief for those teeth in his earliest years: children can be devastatingly cruel. If Suárez goes into analysis now, what chance his therapist will discover that on some deep unconscious level football was but a detour to his real goal – the revenge of those outsize teeth? That lurking somewhere in the backyard soul of Luis Alberto Suárez Díaz is still a hurt and resentful little boy? ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’ always struck me as one of the more misconceived bits of popular wisdom. Broken bones are nothing, a detail, a cinch to mend. But cruel and blithely repeated nicknames can haunt the soul for decades. A kiss on the wrist when he scores; a bite out of the old, jeering world when it stands in his way.

So what kind of help will Suárez seek, or be offered? No doubt one of those main-chance ‘sports psychologists’ who now haunt the money-brushed boundary-free touchlines of international football; the same sort of glib, post-Diana-grief ‘psychologist’ who turns out to pronounce on Big Brother and other media trifles, who plugs books with titles like 'Refereeing Your Inner Foul' and uses lingo like ‘arousal regulation’ and ‘the ability to self-correct’. I caught the tail end of a news item on Suárez, featuring sound (ahem) bites from a so-called ‘sports and business psychologist’. The explanation given in this expert’s dot-dash of feeble clichés was: ‘It’s all down to the boy Suárez’s background: he came out of such a kill or be killed ghetto mentality it’s maybe not surprising he still lashes out. Maybe he even used to defend himself in an identical way back then.’ Only there are countless thousands of rough-diamond kids from non-shiny backgrounds who’ve gone into sport and trained themselves upward to glory. How come 99.9 per cent managed to avoid a fateful dentistry fetish?

Doubtless there are situations where a decent, canny sports psychologist is precisely what a manager needs, e.g. when trying to balance the huge egos birthed by a ludicrously unbalanced star system against the need to uphold team spirit. But one thing is clear: whatever ‘help’ Suárez got the last time this happened doesn’t seem to have taken. Sports psychology works to strengthen and insulate the player’s on-field ego; but when it comes to real, probing analysis, post-Freudians pretty much agree that the ego is the first enemy of progess, and needs to be broken down. As Lacan put it, echoing Freud, the patient 'can only refind himself by abolishing the ego’s alter ego'. Or as gangsta rappers Clipse once warned, ‘Don’t let yo’ ego trick yo’ ass.’ The idea that it might take years to isolate and remedy deep-seated personal trauma is not going to be welcomed in a world in which contracts for new managers come with redundancy therapy written into the small print. So much money now rides on star players like Suárez (and the idea that they’re ready to go, always ‘on form’) that the taint of real neurosis (or even real disabling depression) signalled by protracted psychoanalytical consultation would have to be concealed from stockholders, agents and brands with a stake in the player’s image.

Suárez appears to have absolutely no ‘performance related’ problems, which are the sort of thing sports psychologists tend to specialise in. He rises to the big occasion. He doesn’t snack on opponents just before important games. He doesn’t bite people afterwards in the tunnel, or coming down from a winning high (or losing slump) in the hotel spa. To catch the breathtaking beauty of Suárez in flight is to behold the very model of someone who thinks with his body. A kind of flaring physical grace, untrammelled. But then a split second later this bristling, ugly, rat-like shadow in his brain can speak up, with what passes for logic back there, and internal abjection is made piercingly external.

Freud long ago recognised and anatomised a tendency to bafflingly irresistible self-repetition, a compulsion to relive some episode of great frustration or pain, always returning to the same anxiety-strafed place, the same cul-de-sac: ‘He is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience, instead of... remembering it as something belonging to the past.’ This may be the part of Freud’s legacy we most resist: not the sex stuff, but the idea of something truly unconscious, something we genuinely have no control over. In their flustered, head-shaking way, this was precisely what the pundits tried to express: not simply how on earth could Suárez do this again, but how could he do it now, in this crucial game in this huge tournament with all the world watching? You don’t have to be a certified analyst to counter: well, when did you expect him to do it?


  • 30 June 2014 at 9:26pm
    ds74 says:
    c’est ce qui d’une morsure reste dans la gorge : le mors

  • 1 July 2014 at 4:53am
    Amateur Emigrant says:
    Surely he can afford a decent orthodontal makeover on his wages? Voila! Neurosis gone! Then he could relax into kicking, elbowing and head-butting opponents like everyone else.

  • 1 July 2014 at 4:23pm
    Saffy says:
    I agree with you, Ian Penman and am reminded of the creepy/unfortunate would-be mayor of New York, Anthony Weiner and his seeming inability to stop sending photos of his weiner via twitter. Children can indeed be very cruel.