If you needed any more stark an example of football’s ludicrous tribalism, it was privided by Luis Suarez yesterday afternoon. Liverpool fans were quick to defend his latest biting incident, even laughing it off in some quarters. Indeed, even Suarez himself brushed it off: “These things happen on the pitch, we don’t have to give them too much importance.” The problem is they only ever seem to happen when Suarez is around.
Rival fans were incandescent with anger, calling for permanent bans and suggesting that he should also be banned from club football, so severe were his actions. His crimes were committed in a Uruguay shirt and any punishment should be borne out under the same banner, but his club will still feel the repercussions from his most recent act of stupidity.
The last time Luis Suarez bit someone his club stood by him. It was possible to prescribe his actions to a fierce passion to win, to a hard upbringing in the difficult streets of Montevideo. An excellent recent ESPN article suggested that Suarez acted like he did not because he was afraid of losing a football match, but his entire hard-fought life by extension.
The more sympathetic could extend this explanation to his latest transgression. Just 10 minutes left of his latest World Cup dream, the immediacy of his nation’s need calling for drastic action. But this was not cynicism with victory at its core as that infamous last-16 handball against Ghana was in 2010 rather an off-the-ball act of aggression with no guarantee of any advantage whatsoever. Quite how Liverpool will be able to defend him all over again, I do not know.
The most reasonable reaction seems to lay somewhere between the two tribal extremes exhibited yesterday. Yes, his actions matter and deserve to be punished. If they are funny it is only as a result of the incredulity of a 27 year-old man biting an opponent for the third time. But they do not deserve to be front-page news as suggested by Adrian Chiles yesterday. It is still just a game of football, even if Suarez himself appears to have forgotten that.
Why does it matter to Liverpool fans? They support a global club who have already risked dragging their name through the dirt for the sake of defending their star player. Until yesterday he appeared to have repaid the club with a season’s worth of impeccable behaviour and performances to boot. When deciding whether to welcome him back with open arms the club will now have to consider whether or not they are willing to run the same risks again.
Except this time, they are no longer as arguably ambiguous – gone is the man who passionately over-reacted once or twice in a Red shirt, replaced by the repeat offender who refuses to learn from past mistakes.
Gone are the excuses, and Liverpool fans are left with a brilliant maverick whose goals may be impossible to cheer, whether he scores one or thirty one.