What should we do about Suárez? Laugh.
The Liverpool striker’s bonkers bite had football’s moralists foaming at the mouth, yet it was classic entertainment.
Firstly, I’d like to set the record straight here. I do not condone acts of cannibalism. It’s taboo in any civilised society. It was probably taboo in uncivilised societies too. There’s certainly no place in football for cannibalism. It’s wrong on the pitch. It’s wrong in the dressing room. It’s wrong on the terraces. Cannibalism is very, very wrong.
But what we witnessed at Anfield on Sunday wasn’t cannibalism. It wasn’t cannibalism-lite. It wasn’t the start of a slippery slope towards cannibalism. It was just a bite. Nothing more. Nobody got eaten. As TV replays show, it wasn’t a particularly well-executed bite (I’m sure the cannibal community would back me up here). No flesh was torn off. No serious injury was incurred. I don’t even think blood was drawn. So why are we making a three-course meal out of Luis Suárez’s little nibble? Why has a Football Association tribunal handed Suárez a 10-match ban? Why are there calls for Suárez to be sacked or sold by Liverpool? And why did the UK prime minister, David Cameron, feel compelled to wade into the debate?
To be fair, not everyone was consumed with pious indignation. Whisper it, but many football fans found it funny. That’s right, they laughed. These are not sick people. These are good, honest citizens who haven’t lost their moral compass. Sensible non-cannibalistic people like journalist David Aaronovitch who admitted in his Times column that his instinctive response was ‘hilarity’. At times like this, it feels like I’m living in a parallel universe. In one dimension – the 606-sphere – there are outraged pundits and irate callers to talk radio shows ranting and raving as if Western civilisation itself was starting to unravel.
And then there’s the dimension that I and many other fans inhabit. We see football as entertainment not moral instruction. It’s not only about tactics and statistics. We want drama and passion. A bit of slapstick, too. We think it’s funny when a footballer bites an opponent, or pushes a referee to the ground, or kicks a ballboy, or kung-fu kicks a fan. Of course, this type of behaviour is childish. But that’s the essence of football. It’s pantomime for grown-ups. We don’t just want squeaky clean heroes or anodyne role models. We want character and personality. We want rakish villains and bug-eyed nutters. Bring on the bad boys and the eccentrics. Bring on Paolo Di Canio, El Hadji Diouf, Mario Balotelli and Luis Suárez. Football would be a bland, colourless place without them.
I don’t understand why, amid all the moralistic tut-tutting and handwringing and headshaking over Suárez’s bite, not a single football pundit had the cojones to say: ‘To be honest Clive, I was pissing myself laughing.’ Were they really all so disgusted? If you followed the post-bite reaction on Twitter, you’ll have witnessed both these parallel realities. Sure there was plenty of frothing outrage. The thin-skinned snitches were out in force. But a sizeable swathe of the Twittersphere was ROFLing and LOLing. Within minutes of the incident, viral biting-themed jokes and Photoshop gags (Suárez as dangerous dog, Suárez as Hannibal Lecter – you get the picture) were spreading like wildfire. While Sky pundit Jamie Redknapp was describing Suárez behaviour as ‘madness’, the rest of us were racking our brains trying to concoct witty food-related footballers’ names for the hashtag #PlayersOnTheSuarezMenu (Sergio Biscuits, Bacary Lasagne, Alex Oxtail Chamberlain – you get the picture).
The Football Association failed to see the funny side, saying that the standard three-match punishment for violent conduct was ‘clearly insufficient’. Although Suárez immediately apologised for his actions, an FA tribunal banned him for 10 games, effectively a quarter of the season. Some have called for tougher sanctions against the ‘Kop Cannibal’. The Daily Mail’s Jeff Powell pointed out that boxer Mike Tyson was given a life ban for chomping on Evander Holyfield’s ear and argued: ‘The punishment for Suárez should be even more, to use the most cuttingly illustrative word, Draconian.’ I’m not entirely sure what punishment is more draconian than a life ban. Imprisonment? Deportation? Lobotomy? Execution? Whether it’s a 10-match ban or Jeff Powell’s preferred form of damnation, I have yet to hear any persuasive reason for punishing a bite more severely than other forms of violent conduct. Why is biting worse than an elbow to the face, a headbutt or a reckless studs-up challenge? If we consider the risk of harm, Suárez’s bite was far less dangerous than most red-card offences. It was considerably less brutal than Ben Thatcher’s sickening elbow smash into Pedro Mendes in 2006 which earned the Manchester City defender an eight-match ban.
It’s worth exploring why there is a moral stigma attached to biting. Although Suárez’s critics are rarely able to articulate why they are so disgusted, it seems that sinking teeth into flesh crosses an unwritten decency threshold. It doesn’t just breach the laws of football, it is considered immoral or uncivilised. Arguably, this is because biting contravenes the norms of British masculinity. It isn’t how real men should fight. Biting, along with spitting or pulling hair, is regarded as sly, underhand and essentially unmanly. It’s also not very British, either. One of the reasons Suárez is so vilified is because he doesn’t play by ‘our rules’. He bites, he dives and he feigns injury. Suárez’s compatriot Gus Poyet has pointed out the chauvinistic double standard at play. ‘He tried to bite someone on the arm; no harm really. A little pain’, said the Brighton manager. ‘But if a player goes over the top of the ball and tries to break a leg? That’s good because we are strong and we like the tackle. That’s where we are in England.’
What, you might ask, would be an appropriate punishment for Suárez? It’s difficult to judge because there is no moral consensus over the severity of the crime. Half the world is aghast while the rest of us are laughing. Perhaps the fairest solution is to apply philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s ‘greatest happiness’ principle. The FA should tot up the pleasure, which was so evident on Twitter, and offset it against the pain felt throughout the punditry world. I have no means to perform this ‘hedonistic calculus’ precisely, but I reckon the pain is more or less cancelled out by the pleasure. Utilitarians would conclude that Suárez’s action was morally neutral. Neither good nor bad. In other words, there should be no punishment at all. That would be the rational thing to do. But clearly there is no place in football for reason.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.