This is a love story.
Cast your mind back, if you will, to the summer of 1990. The lazy narrative has it that this was the year a generation fell back in love with football after the sociopolitical and sporting traumas of the 1980s. The point at which the perception of the sport changed irrevocably. Maybe, for once, the prevailing narrative is right. England’s pyrrhic success certainly garnered enough goodwill to be flaunted as a casus belli against the old First Division and eventual progenitor of the hyper-financed Premier League. Likewise, the tournament’s starring individuals formed a pincer movement on the zeitgeist – the unabashed populism of Gazzamania and the bourgeois sensibilities of An Evening With Gary Lineker applying a rehabilitative, even redemptive, balm to the popular image of the game.
As a nine year old, already nursing a nascent football obsession, Italia 90 was less about falling in love with football than the realization that a wider world existed beyond the parochial confines of the mesmerizing Liverpool team of Barnes, Beardsley and Rush. Beguiling countries with multiple syllables and rogue z’s suddenly became the subject of intrigue. Cameroon and the United Arab Emirates’ contrasting fortunes led to a furious thumbing of an atlas. Recently expatriated, even the grimness of Scotland’s defeat to Costa Rica was mitigated by the opponent’s mysterious quality. Twenty-four years on, I can’t recall another time where football seemed so exhilarating – an endless map of unfurling possibilities.
All of which brings us nicely, if belatedly, to Uruguay. The record books do scant justice to La Celeste’s performance in Italy. Two goals, one win, and a second round exit hardly looks the stuff of legend, but the team of Ruben Sosa and Daniel Fonseca were matched only by Cameroon in their ability to excite my juvenile enthusiasm. Like Cameroon, they had both the geographical obliqueness and mellifluous moniker to grab the attention. Equally, their melding of pace, grace and unabashed physicality made for an utterly absorbing proposition. Best of all, they had the drama – heading for an ignominious exit against South Korea until Fonseca’s injury time header inspired the kind of players-and-suited-staff pile-on that cemented their place in my affections to the point that I was disconsolate when they were hit by an Italian smash-and-grab in the Round of 16.
What Uruguay also had was history. A nation with a population smaller than Scotland who had somehow contrived to win two World Cups and maintain a regular presence in the knock-out stages until the 1970s. It was the perfect combination – an underdog with a tangible prospect of success. Uruguay would, I resolved, become my surrogate team for future World Cups – a failsafe for my already-stretched Anglo-Scottish dualism. It wasn’t to work out. Failure to qualify in 1994 or 1998, coupled with a showing in 2002 only marginally less risible than France (with the notable exception of this goal) saw them drift from memory, fading even further after making such a show of qualification in 2006 they lost to Australia in a play-off. By 2010 Uruguay had become something of an afterthought – a hazy recollection of a childhood conceit. And then, primarily thanks to one man, it all changed.
Playing up to a contrarian streak, I had originally intended not to mention Luis Suarez in this preview. Looking back, it was never going to be possible. Moreover, it would be wilful to the point of counterproductivity. Whichever way you slice it, Suarez dominates both the view of Uruguay’s performance in South Africa and just about everything since, culminating in the temporary hysteria that took hold following his meniscus scare. In South Africa Suarez was unplayable – his performance against the hosts the very epitome of World Stage Arrival and his winner against South Korea the most memorable of a curate’s egg of a tournament. By the time of the Quarter Final against Ghana, Suarez was already one of the tournament’s highest profile players and widely earmarked as a potential player of the tournament.
So much has been written about what happened next that it seems unnecessary to dwell on it here beyond saying that anything that reduces Peter Drury to spluttering apoplexy is alright by me. Whilst the incident is routinely ascribed to Suarez’s personality and pathological desire to win, equally pertinent is that fact that he only ended up as perpetrator because Jorge Fucile missed with his similarly athletic dive. Rather than being a solo indiscretion, the incident emblematized La Garra Charrua, the ferocious will to win that has become synonymous with the Uruguayan character and which leaves only the Dutch as comparators in per capita football overachievement.
What endures about this moment is the manner in which as Suarez leapt to cuff the ball away, I was instantly transported back to childhood – eschewing the prevailing narrative mood that ‘Africa is a country’ and punching the air with delight at the gloriously underhandedness of it all. This was regression at its finest. This was what football is about.
Freud’s theory of regression is, of course, a staple of the armchair psychiatrist. As adults, overburdened by stresses or the trauma of the ageing process – all diminishing hairlines and mortgage repayments – we seek solace in infantilisation. If the ubiquity of a psychological trait can by ascertained by the extent to which it has been monetized, then regression is big business. From cupcakes to corporate bonding weekends, this latent human desire has been commodified to within an inch of its life and sold back to us at twice the price. “Don’t worry about hating your colleagues. We’re off to Go Ape next week!”
Of course, this regression is not a universally bad thing. Indeed, large parts of football are founded on regression. The joy of performing a sliding tackle in the rain, scoring a goal, humiliating your opponent with a piece of skill all owe a debt to their capacity for emotional recall – generating no more or less pleasure as an adult than as a child. As fans, we are inherently regressive – constantly benchmarking players against the unmatchable standards of the idols of our youth. Moreover, as a Liverpool fan I’ve been aggressively pursuing this regression on a weekly basis for two decades, willing limited players to remind me of why I fell in love with the game. Finally, with Suarez, we once again have a player to facilitate such dreaming.
No player matches Suarez for clouding the manifold sins of the modern game. For all that I know that the Premier League is a ludicrous, overblown, overpriced facsimile of the game that I fell in love with, so brilliant is Suarez as a football exhilarant that I barely notice. A player of such fundamental and discordant brilliance – the football equivalent of a lobbed firework – watching Suarez in action is an instant regression to being nine years old, a bulwark against insidious adulthood and the abject illogicality of top-flight football. No matter how sportingly or monetarily corrupt the game becomes, a chronically overpriced and lopsided Rollerball-sideshow fuelled by gangster capitalists and petroleum despots, this capacity for regression keeps us coming back. If the excitement of youth captures the game at its purest form, then Uruguay is Xanadu and Suarez Rosebud. Hala la celeste.
Posted by Ron Hamilton