Thrice Bitten, Once Shy

Thrice Bitten, Once Shy
June 27, 2014 Chris Rowland

By Anthony Stanley (TTT Subscriber Dannyluke10).

“It’s in the man.  I would think that in five years’ time if there was a certain nerve hit or chord rung with Suarez in a different situation he would react in the same way”

– Dr Thomas Fawcett, Sports psychologist, speaking after the Ivanovic incident.

The morning after the night before and I sit trawling through website after website trying to play the role of amateur psychological detective. The tabloids, those shining beacons of morality and national upholders of collective principles, have already, with predictable haste, pounced and have delivered their damning verdict. My first reaction was shock – let me be clear on that – but I can’t afford to be hackneyed or facetious; I have an emotional investment in Luis Suarez. His brilliance on a football pitch cannot hide the fact that here is a deeply flawed individual. But is he a pantomime villain who should inspire disgust and loathing? Of course not; like everything in life the truth is not a cosy labelling but a multi-faceted one – it is a tale of an individual who has become a superstar but is reviled and abhorred by the majority of football fans.

When Luis Suarez was fifteen, he allegedly head-butted a referee who had brandished a red card at him (before going further, I urge anyone who hasn’t already, to read Wright Thompson’s masterful ‘Portrait of a Serial Winner’, the research from which I will borrow from in the first part of this piece).  Now, there are conflicting reports and some still claim that this didn’t happen. The sports editor of one of Montevideo’s papers, Romulo Martinez Chenlo, claimed that Suarez had merely fallen and, accidently, heads had collided. This is symptomatic of the Uruguayan attitude to a national hero (and in South American culture, a head-butt is probably worse than a bite) but the facts are murky and lead the reader into a troubled tale of corruption and organised crime, again indicative of the footballing world that helped to forge Suarez. Ricardo Gabito, an investigative journalist, would eventually be shot after trying to uncover a hazy web of cover ups that had been spun around the incident; none of this was the young striker’s fault but it shows that the footballing environment he grew up in was a long way removed from what we would probably perceive as the norm.

Suarez himself had met a girl, Sofia Balbi, who would eventually become his wife. Her family, unlike Luis’, were middle class and comfortable – often the teenager would have regular meals in his girlfriend’s house and her influence directly affected his gradual maturation as a footballer. She, and the life that she symbolised, became central to all that Suarez craved. As Wright Thompson beautifully wrote:

“Suarez’s poverty is one of the many narratives about his life, and, although it is often used as a trope to explain his violence, it’s true. He did grow up poor, his life mirroring the hard childhood of Ricardo Gabito. His mother scrubbed floors. He couldn’t afford soccer shoes, which once kept him from trying out for an elite team. But the allure of the rags-to-riches storyline often distracts people from the broken-family storyline, which shaped Suarez most of all. His father abandoned them, and Suarez, entering his teen years, started skipping practice, drinking, staying out late. He was lost. His coach often went into Suarez’s home to drag his striker to practice. He played with all of the rage fans see today, but none of the determination, and none of the grace. Luis Suarez was wasting his life”.

Sofia Balbi and her family, who Suarez identified with a sense of redemption, moved to Spain a month before the young player received a red card for head-butting. It was the embryonic stirrings of a state of mind that would define the player for the next decade; when threatened on a football pitch, it’s not the ball that defenders are chasing and trying to get back, but his family and his new way of life. To quote from Thompson again:

“…the theory goes, anything that threatens his ability to score, and win, isn’t processed in his subconscious as the act of a sportsman but, rather, as an act of aggression against his wife and his children”.

This can partly explain Suarez’s behaviour on a football pitch; the falling over, the series of indiscretions, the transformation of a character that appears shy into a devil on the pitch, one who will use every tool in his possession to achieve the desired victory.

But many footballers possess this trait, to a greater or smaller degree; of Cantona and Keane it was said they’d lose a vital part of their essence if you took away their combative nature. Suarez isn’t merely combative though; he can be downright Machiavellian in his ‘the end justifies the means’ mentality on a football pitch. But the biting lies outside this paradigm; in some ways defies description. Though there have been numerous examples of sporting bites, there has, until now, never been three chomps from the same protagonist.  We know Suarez lashes out when threatened and there is a primal taboo to biting; like spitting it is morally abhorrent, probably a result of the infection it can bring.

As Dr Fawcett said:

“It’s not pre-planned, it’s a very spontaneous, emotional response…(done) on impulse”.

But that’s not fully satisfactory is it? Where does this impulse derive from? Against Chelsea when Suarez bit Ivanovic, he had given away a penalty to the Blues but the game was hardly season-defining. Yesterday was a different case of course but what explains the magma of unbridled ambition and competitiveness bursting forth as a bite?

What makes it so troubling lies in the fact that it can’t be explained. It can be explored and speculated upon, but perhaps beyond the remit of a psychiatrist’s office, this dark side can’t be illuminated by football fans or journalists. Is it something pathological of which treatment could possibly cure? (Again let me stress, though I was shocked, the misdemeanour itself is relatively harmless compared to say an elbow smashing a nose. But the imagery, the internet footage of a clearly chomping Suarez is fundamentally disturbing and, in one swoop, plucks any moral high ground we, as a club, may think we possess out of our reach).

The tribalism that is so inherent in football means that rival fans will now never forgive Luis Suarez and that’s fair enough – we are all guilty of that with opposition players. Last season’s partial redemption is now dust in the wind. He will be hated, he will be harangued and quite possibly have effigies in his honour. But will the Herculean mental strength he has displayed in the past get him through this labyrinth of loathing or will he seek pastures new? And that is partly the paradoxical crux of the man; he has shown a titan’s mental fortitude on so many occasions and yet appears to be a synapse away from a disaster on others, which – and let’s not kid ourselves here – were still present last season, particularly towards the final games.

There is, unquestionably, a fragility in Suarez’s psyche, a dark flipside to his undoubted genius.

The rest of this article is for Subscribers only.