Category Archives: Uruguay

 Suárez’s Bite and Zidane’s Headbutt

Last night Luis Suárez bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in Uruguay’s important match. It seems clear already that it will be one of the events of this World Cup which will remain in cultural memory the longest, and the immediate reactions to the biting incident on social media were particularly extreme. The key reactions I observed were comparisons of this incident to Zidane’s famous headbutt in 2006 (see for example here), and a sense of deep disgust at the idea of biting someone (to take a prominent example, Alan Shearer described the action as ‘disgusting’, but the words ‘Suárez’ and ‘disgusting’ will bring up endless results on Twitter’s search function). I want here to suggest some reasons why these may have been the two main reactions and how they are linked. Before beginning though, it’s important to stress that these are not the most important issues surrounding the incident. Most importantly it confronts us with the question, ‘Why does Suárez biting someone affect his marketability as a club footballer, and status as a player of international stature, so much more than the fact that he has racially abused other players?’ This piece will attempt to answer why this incident had such an affective charge; sadly the answer to why its affective charge is more potent than that of racism is probably more simple – that our culture, and particularly the big business of club football and its consumers, is still marked by racism. But it will also suggest a way in which Suárez’s racism can be thought of in relationship to his biting.

Both Suárez’s bite and Zidane’s headbutt were particularly striking because they took place outside the normal parameters of play. This is probably true of all fouls – they are interruptions, singularities, events, which disrupt the smooth flow of time within the match. Nonetheless, there is scale of the extent to which foul play takes on the status of a singularity or event which stems not only from how violent the event is, but how far outside the parameters of normal play the event is. Bad tackles act more like temporal punctuation than interruptions to the smooth flow of time within the match. Both Zidane and Suárez’s events though wholly alter the temporal experience of the match, and take on a marked meaning outside the structure of the match as a whole. They are temporally and semiotically superfluous to the game itself. Both incidents involved the head, which though a perfectly legitimate tool in the game, is immediately semiotically marked by its distance from normal play the moment it is used outside normal play, since it is as far away from the foot as possible. * Zidane’s headbutt occurred outside of the current locus of play, whilst Suárez’s bite was superfluous to any immediate object required by the game, and seemingly unprovoked by circumstances in the game itself, in contrast to a punch thrown during a break in play, or in response to a particular situation. Suárez’s object could have been achieved just as easily by a shove or shoulder-barge.

Both incidents then take on a particularly remarkable appearance as events, points of occurrence which take place outside both the normal parameters of play and normal experience of temporality in the game. They can be extracted from the match in order to make and reflect on wider points about the psychology of the players involved, and it is these psychological aspects that I believe make the events particularly fascinating to us, and in both cases, these two are connected with a sense of untimeliness. In his now classic essay on the aesthetics of football, ‘Zidane’s Melancholy’ , the Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint suggests that Zidane’s headbutt in response to a perception that ‘the hours seem leaden, longer, slow interminable’, and that the act was, ‘a final flight from the finished work’. The act, in Toussaint’s terms, becomes not only an untimely event in the context of the match, but an untimely event in the context of Zidane’s whole life, an act of radical rebellion against the slowing down of all lived experience: an escape route in a space with no exit.

There can be no similar admiration for Suárez’s act, though in some way it follows the same temporal logic. Perhaps, at first glance it seems to be similar, but lesser, since Suárez was nowhere near the end of his career, an act born of the frustration of a stalemate at a point that demands winning, an attempt to re-enliven dead time. But this was not what it was, the affect it invokes though is very different: disgust.

When Toussaint speaks of the ‘final flight from the finished work’, he is quoting from Freud’s essay on Leonardo da Vinci, and it is Freud who can provide one answer to why Suárez’s untimely act might be found disgusting. Zidane’s act was untimely because it filled empty homogenous time with an instant of excitement, at the end, somehow already beyond the end, in a melancholy space of the afterlife which was for a moment redeemed. On the other hand, Suárez’s act, and biting more generally, is atavistic. It strikes many with the experience of disgust because it reminds them of the orality of their childhood. In his study of the study of the ‘Rat Man’, ‘Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis’, Freud relates that his patient was once beaten by his father ‘because he had bitten some one’, and that his patient was deeply shocked to learn this because he was ‘refus[ed] to believe that at some prehistoric period in his childhood he had been seized with fury’. It is in this particular instance that a more general cultural disgust towards biting is detectable: it reminds us both of our childhood orality, our erotic love of sucking (on our mother’s breast, or anything else to hand), and our childhood rages. In Dickens’s David Copperfield, that seems to have influenced the Rat Man study, David bites his step-father as he is being beaten, ‘I caught the hand with which he held me in my mouth, between my teeth, and bit it through. It sets my teeth on edge to think of it’.  When David relates this he is speaking as an upstanding bourgeois citizen (as is the Rat Man); as we consolidate our memories in adulthood, memories of this sort disgust us. That is part of our experience of becoming adult subjects in a bourgeois and patriarchal world.

It may well be that Suárez’s act then is a sort of rebellion against the patriarchal authority of the football business that made him what he is, but nor is Suárez some sort of political hero. Yet there is a problematic side in desiring to repress orality altogether. The repression of oral pleasure has historically been part of a project of bourgeois, patriarchal, racism. In the Southern United States, for example, women slaves were punished for pica, for taking pleasure in eating dirt. Nothing like this could ever be said of Suárez’s orality, and perhaps, in this case we are right to condemn it. Here our disgust at his biting perhaps suggests a more general disgust at his behaviour. In the Rat Man study, the memory of biting his father reminds Freud’s patient of his affinity with rats that ‘he himself had been just such a nasty, dirty little wretch, who was apt to bite people when he was in a rage’. Rats, of course, are noble creatures, but the characterisation seems apt for the nastiness of Suárez’s rage, of his attitude towards those without white skin.

* It is incidentally striking that so many languages adopt the English word for football, or, when they do not, such as in the Italian calcio, adopt words explicitly connected to the feet.

Posted by Tristan Burke

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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

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Costa Rica, Joel Campbell and the lost cause

Cristian Gamboa plays a one-two with teammate Christian Bolaños nine minutes into the second half in Fortaleza. Costa Rica trail Uruguay 1-0 but have gradually being gaining the upper-hand, with centre-half Óscar Duarte having just gone close when left unmarked at the far post from a free kick. Bolaños’ return ball is rushed and slightly overhit. It’s heading for the corner flag. Another of the mundane incidences of error to be expected in a game played at high a tempo as this one. Gamboa, an overlapping full-back, might be advised to let it run out of play lest he be caught out of position on a subsequent break. But he goes for it anyway, hooking his right foot at the ball as it hugs the touchline just short of the corner quadrant. Such last-ditch crosses usually end up being skewed off over the end line or land too close to the goalkeeper but Gamboa makes clean contact and gets real pace on it. The ball drops back around the penalty spot. Celso Borges mistimes his run but he has inadvertently sold two Uruguayan defenders a dummy and behind him Joel Campbell has the time to take the ball down and rifle a peach of a shot past a static Fernando Muslera. It’s a great finish but it is the unexpectedness of the chance that is so stunning.

Coaches of underage teams will be showing Gamboa’s exploit to their charges as an example of why you should never give something up as a lost cause but the true beauty of the action is the way it opened space up and altered the field of play, conjuring something out of nothing. It is usually the fancier, more technical flourishes, the Cruyff and Zidane turns, the back-heels that accomplish this on the field. Rarely do you see the more industrial efforts of a bombing, lunging full-back open the game up like that. It wasn’t a game-changer as such –– the Costa Rican equaliser had been on the cards since the restart –– but it represented a conquest of on-field space that both sucker-punched the Uruguayans and gave an enterprising Costa Rica even more confidence in attack. Neither was it a fluke, any more than Campbell’s perfectly weighted through-ball to substitute Marco Urena (who hadn’t yet had a touch) for the third goal was. Gamboa’s cross went where it was supposed to, where it would have if he had more time to take a touch and send an out-swinger into the box.

I have to admit to being one of those that wrote Costa Rica off beforehand –– largely on the basis of their defensive frailty in last week’s friendly against Ireland, in which, to be fair, they were also very good going forward and they were reduced to ten men for much of it. But it ought not to have been such a shock. Though they had never beaten Uruguay before in eight attempts, Costa Rica were deprived of a place at South Africa 2010 only by a wrongly disallowed goal against a Uruguayan side that later reached the semi-final and which was younger and much better than yesterday’s. I’m not sure what ideological shift (or slippage) has facilitated the wonderful festival of football we are seeing in Brazil but I suspect it may have something to do with its being back in South America for the first time in over three decades. The fact that two highly technical sides set the tone in the opening match also helped. Costa Rica have shown they are clearly well equipped to play their part. England and Italy are unlikely to be as compliant or inept as Uruguay were yesterday but Los Ticos will give both a game.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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Preview 32 – Uruguay


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

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