Thrice Bitten: Suarez and Football’s Unspeakable Masochism

It’s almost a given nowadays that football fans indulge in a form of quiet masochism. Even supporting one of the behemoths of the club game offers more in disappointment than in satisfaction: a season like Manchester United’s Treble-winning campaign in 1998-1999 or Barcelona’s comparable feat in 2008-2009 constitutes nothing more than a rule-proving exception. Lower down, the situation is beyond parody. I’ve been watching Darlington for 24 years now, a ‘career’ of fandom that has seen two promotions and an admittedly astonishing last-minute FA Trophy win ‘balanced’ out by three relegations, three administrations, inane stadium moves, two play-off final defeats, countless plodding seasons in mid-table, injuries to star players, unimaginably disappointing signings, defeats in winnable cup-ties to opponents who then draw Premier League sides, corrupt owners, lying owners, deluded owners, a made-up sponsor and an attempt to solve drainage problems on the pitch by covering it with thousands of worms, all of whom died immediately to leave an un-drained playing surface decorated with an invertebrate version of Goya’s Desatres de la Guerra. I know, in other words, that I am going to be disappointed. This is the acceptable face of footballing jouissance.

However, in my efforts to find something to say about you-know-who doing you-know-what, it struck me that the masochism of disappointment is matched by something a little more disturbing. To begin with, watch (almost certainly ‘rewatch, come to think of it) the footage of Suarez’s bite of Giorgio Chiellini:

I watched this a number of times last night and this morning and, the more I did so, the less the bite seemed to possess an essential quality of, well, bitiness, if it ever did in the first place. A thought experiment here: which adjectives come to mind to describe the phenomenon of being bitten? ‘Sharp’? ‘Lacerating’? Both of these, for sure, but I’d also submit ‘acute’ to try and really get to the specifics of this form of pain (always bearing in mind Elaine Scarry’s argument that the semiotics of pain are necessarily lacking, that language stumbles at corporeality). Being bitten by, for example, a cat is an experience of strange acuity, a clarification or awakening to the fact of one’s own embodiment. Cod-psychology perhaps, but physical masochism is always, in one sense, a demand for visceral proof of the materiality of the world.

Every viewing of Suarez’s bite brings home its visual fuzziness, its lack of capacity to provide acuity. At no point have I found myself wincing in the way that staged violence in films provokes; I would say that this is actually quite standard for off-the-ball fouls in football. For all of the punches and headbutts and elbowings that occur, and must surely hurt substantially, few of them seem to be captured with any sense of tactility. To try and prove this to myself, I’ve been re-watching Duncan Ferguson’s headbutt on Raith Rovers’ Jock McStay, an offence deemed so far beyond acceptability that the Rangers striker was jailed for three months:

Now I’ve played enough football in my life – and spent enough time being a teenage boy in a British comprehensive school – to know just how much pain getting a head square in the face involves. It’s a lot, if you haven’t had the pleasure. And yet, once again, the video fails to convey any sense of violent pain’s immediacy. Compare Joe Pesci’s pen-stabbing scene in Casino to get an idea of how visual media can transmit the phenomenology of pain:

On one level, we watch the video of Suarez biting or Ferguson butting countless times because we want to try to position ourselves in the debate. However, I believe that this is not the whole story. After the first viewing fails to confirm physicality to us, we watch again and again and again, hoping for some of that acuity while paradoxically lessening the possibility of experiencing it thanks to desensitization. Eventually, the loop is just stuff happening banally on a screen, drained utterly of any guarantee of presence. It fails to provide what is ultimately the dark masochism of football, the desire to steal the pain from its on-pitch victim: perhaps the moral debate around Suarez is a way of sublimating the strange wish that it was us being bitten.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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5 thoughts on “Thrice Bitten: Suarez and Football’s Unspeakable Masochism

  1. riazmeer says:

    For many of us who (over)watch football, Suarez’s behaviour is not painful, but on the contrary joyous. This is because football; the fan rituals around it, the business interests, the administration, the media relationships, the game itself, become through repeated exposure banal in the extreme.
    Whilst not condoning such phenomena, a bite, a kung-fu kick on a spectator, a heart-attack, a fan riot, lifts the spectacle out of the familiar, and places the game in a more direct association with the (real) world around it.
    Such events do not feed into a subconscious masochistic tendency on the part of observers, but instead reminds us that the game is just the game, whereas real life is often much more painful.

  2. It’s an interesting argument, and one I have a lot of sympathy with (we covered this in Euro 2012 – https://straightoffthebeach.wordpress.com/2012/06/20/ghost-goals-and-other-ontological-problems/ – and an argument of the book I’m writing is the idea that ‘just a game’ is an ideological construct). However, I don’t think what you’re saying sits in a mutually exclusive relationship with masochism.

  3. riazmeer says:

    Here’s one to test your masochism theory

    http://www.zie.nl/video/ingezonden/Wouters-vs-Gascoigne/m1fzb3cfo25a

    I feel this one (although admittedly not as badly as Gazza)

  4. I feel that one more that the Ferguson – McStay one, certainly. Also an interesting moment for counterfactuals, isn’t it – what would have happened had Wouters been (deservedly) sent off? England had some rough times with referees in WC94 qualifying.

  5. muzz says:

    even in the link below’s lengthy search for the detail of when a 15-year-old suarez twatted a ref, the two prior bitings take precedence over the racism. all backs up the bigger argument that we love to debate relatively minor transgressions such as a headbutt or a bite but cant handle the wider truth of the world around football as shown by deplorable verbal racist attacks.

    http://espn.go.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/10984370/portrait-serial-winner-luis-suarez-soccer-most-beautiful-player

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