Football is a passionate sport. There’s none quite like it. If religion was the opiate of the masses, football is the methadone. It can elicit the most extreme of reactions from the most conservative of people, tears from the most stoic of men, and scenes of jubilation unrivaled by most sports. Children and adults unite in adoration and appreciation of a club, a player, or an awesome goal.
Sport, perhaps, is one of the few places along with finance, politics and celebrity where indiscretions and flaws can be overlooked and tolerated on the basis of talent – and this is especially true of football, where triumph over adversity is part of the story of many to have played the game – Pele and Maradona, for example. It’s full of romantic tales – local boy done good, rags to riches. All of these only serve to enhance the popularity of this pastime.
When Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield during their boxing match in 1997, taking a chunk of his ear with him, the punishment for this was a $3 million dollar fine and the rescindment of his boxing licence in Nevada, a move that was upheld by subsequent states, effectively banning him from boxing in the USA. Though the ban was later overturned, he would serve over a year out of the sport, returning to the ring in 1999. Overwhelming opinion was that biting was unacceptable, even in a sport where success is determined on your ability to hurt your opponent physically.
So we fast forward to now, and Liverpool & Uruguay player Luis Suarez, who has just been banned for nine international matches and four months of all football-related activity by the world football governing body FIFA, following his bite on Giorgio Chiellini during Uruguay’s game against Italy at the World Cup.
It’s not the first time Suarez had bitten an opponent on the field – in fact, it was his third such transgression. Previous bans of seven and 10 matches respectively had failed to overturn his penchant for using his teeth on the field of play. This time was different; this was on the world stage, in a World Cup which promised to be marred by political unrest in the host nation but, to FIFA’s relief and advantage, had been relatively controversy-free until the Suarez incident. An international ban would not be enough of a statement to make. A strong sentence was necessary. Children bite. Animals bite. Adults should not bite. Professional athletes should not bite.
Football often is a great mirror of society. All the flaws of the latter can be found in the former. From the stands to the pitch to the administrative bodies, football has a sexism problem, a racism problem, and increasingly a class problem, with the working class priced out of a sport that they helped to elevate to such heights.
Opinion has been divided following the ban. There are those, such as the Uruguayan team, the press and even Maradona, who think the punishment is too severe for the crime. There are also those who think the ban is just, as it is the third time in four years he has done such a thing. Controversial stars are part of the allure of sports. They elicit polarising and extreme opinions from those who hate and love in equal measure. Yet every so often there are controversies we are unable to overlook.
Whilst this was a third bite, and as unacceptable as biting is, Suarez has actually been found guilty previously of a far worse crime – racially abusing an opponent on the pitch.
For that, he served a mere eight-match ban – a ban which was met with indignant howls from fervent Liverpool fans. A ban which – in the press as in the stands – revealed that football, much like society, still had a racism problem and it couldn’t be confined to just the supporters; it was now playing out on the pitch.
In any other profession, were you to be found guilty of racially abusing a colleague in their place of work you would not have a job to come back to. That Suarez was not only able to return to his job a mere two months later, but would go on to be seen, through the eyes of a few high profile journalists, as redeemed is part and parcel of the problem, and why we find ourselves here again with this deeply flawed player.
Significantly, this third bite and subsequent ban has not been enough to impede on Suarez’s career options. The player is rumoured to be in talks to move to Barcelona in an £80 million transfer, the club seemingly unbothered by the non-apology for the incident offered by Suarez, where personal responsibility was absolved in double-speak. “I’m sorry my teeth hit you when we collided” isn’t quite “I’m sorry for biting you” but at least an apology of sorts emerged, despite previous claims at the time that he was a victim, not the perpetrator. Patrice Evra is still awaiting an apology for being racially abused.
In the aftermath of Suarez’s racial ban, many were subjected to some of the worst racial abuse online. Abuse that came from challenging the media and journalists that this, unlike his previous biting or cheating at the World Cup in 2010, would have far more serious repercussions to just excuse as another indiscretion.
And so we return to football mirroring society. When we fail to properly hold people to account for their actions, not merely because they’re high profile or role models, we do a disservice not just to the game, but wider society. We reinforce injustices across wider society, and allow them to play out.
For this reason, we can accept the ban as retrospective justice of sorts and properly examine why we so often overlook that which would not be done so in most professions.
Perhaps, had racism been treated as seriously by the FA as biting has been by FIFA, if fans and journalists had engaged their sense of morality rather than looking for the easier story and resorting to tribalistic tendencies, then Suarez would not have been predisposed to bite a player for a second time, let alone a third.
Jude Wanga is a human rights campaigner, activist & freelance writer. Follow her @JudeInLondon
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