The Bite

David Runciman

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.


  • 25 June 2014 at 6:03pm
    503melchendorf says:
    Thanks for stating the blindingly obvious, Dave. So if LS is engaged in impulsive behavior beyond all reasonable control, shouldn't the authorities insist on his getting professional help during his suspension? He needs to think about what he's doing. Luxurious inactivity will not help him achieve this goal.

  • 25 June 2014 at 9:07pm
    mwest says:
    The bite is the central, incipient, human act of doom-enchantment in the Book of Genesis. Flowing like innocence from the mouths of babes, it first appears among the earliest of our visible instincts, which we both exalt and fear. And with only lovers left alive, Suarez doesn’t stand a hope in Hell.

  • 25 June 2014 at 9:16pm
    ibivi says:
    Suarez is bonkers and Fifa should have done something about him before the World Cup. He's done it before it turns out. It is the most outrageous thing I have seen in football. He needs to "pay" with more than money.

    • 26 June 2014 at 8:42am
      Jake Bharier says: @ ibivi
      What do you have in mind? Dentistry? A muzzle?

  • 26 June 2014 at 2:18am
    Amateur Emigrant says:
    I'm surprised David Runciman thinks the bite "can hardly have been deliberate". A leg-breaking challenge or an elbow in the face can be accidental or made to look accidental, but a bite can be nothing but deliberate, even if it is delivered in a condition of toddler-rage which probably best describes Suarez's mental condition at the time. People don't get accidentally bitten in any sport on a regular basis.

    His ridiculous attempt to disguise the bite as accidental in the immediate aftermath, comically holding his fulsome choppers and looking for blood on his fingers, is the giveaway, especially since he mentioned nothing of a blow to the mouth in his post-match comments, just a shoulder in his chest and a blow to his eye, studiously avoiding mention of the teeth. The movement of the two players is all Suarez to Chiellini, not the reverse which could plausibly account for accidental incisor to shoulder contact. The reaction too of Chiellini is identical to that of Suarez's previous victims - a startled, violent flinch, shocked disbelief that he had been bitten.

    • 26 June 2014 at 2:48pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Amateur Emigrant
      From the context I'm pretty sure DR means that it can't have been pre-meditated.

  • 26 June 2014 at 6:11am
    zbs says:
    Seems just sort of hilarious to me. What ever this "condition" is, I prefer to witness the bizarre fullness of human brilliance and folly together on the field and always rankle at self-righteous indignation that would have sportsmen conduct themselves like moderate politicians. To rail against Suarez's jaw-clutching dive is a variety of hypocrisy that robs the institution of diving of any meaning. Give me the weirdos.

  • 27 June 2014 at 6:17am
    tony lynch says:
    Cannibalism before killing seems pretty objectionable to me, if not Mr Runciman.

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