Sporting Intelligence
ColumnistsIan HerbertMelting potTell me why … genuine horror and pantomime plot are so blurred in Suarez bite case

Tell me why … genuine horror and pantomime plot are so blurred in Suarez bite case

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Luis Suarez’s mouth-on-arm action when Liverpool faced Chelsea in the Premier League yesterday ensured a sea of headlines and that Suarez became the focal point of a debate about behaviour in football. Again. It goes without saying that his was an extraordinary act, one already punished by his club and certain to lead to an FA charge and deserved ban. But, asks Ian Herbert, shouldn’t we consider how much vicarious pleasure this episode has created, and why? Isn’t it all just another act in the Premier League pantomime, an act where we cannot even be sure whether a bite was really a bite?

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By Ian Herbert

22 April 2013

It’s a very precarious business, suggesting that the reaction to the Luis Suarez incident might be lacking a little perspective. Any venture down that rocky road requires the caveat that what happened at Anfield yesterday was vile and abysmal. To have offended in this way once is a disgrace. To have done so twice is disturbing.

But let’s be honest. Where does the collective horror stop and where does the vicarious pleasure we can all take in this perfectly formed pantomime plot actually start?

A collection of pantomimes is what the Premier League season has come to resemble and the headlines in today’s papers reveal as much, where Suarez sinking his teeth into Branislav Ivanovic is concerned.

You’ll have found more than a few exclamation marks in there, on a morning which, as someone who rightly appreciated The Guardian’s representation of the story pointed out, was a reminder of the great value of print (right).

From “Same old Suarez always eating!” to “Gnash of the Day” in The Sun to The Guardian’s “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves?” and the i’s “Suarez’s bite leaves Liverpool with much to chew over!” the tone has reflected the tenor of much of the Twitter traffic in the hours since.

The #SuarezHungry and #PlayersOnTheSuarezMenu hashtags have taken hold and the jokes are still multiplying as I write.

“Suarez, still hungry? Uvanachick” states one advert (left) rapidly cooked up by Nando’s in Malaysia for their flame-grilled chickens. “You’ll never bite alone..” etc etc

Nice one Nando’s. The advert might not endear them to Liverpool fans any time soon but they can get away with it. And in a way that they would, quite naturally, not, if they were to have used some of the other atrocious moments on a field of play, from which footballers have emerged quite quickly to play for their clubs again.

The Roy Keane ‘tackle’ on Alf-Inge Haaland in 1997, for instance, or Keane’s stamp on Gareth Southgate, for that matter. No-one was suggesting that Keane should have played his last game for Manchester United after the first of those challenges but play the footage back again and tell me it was worse than what Suarez perpetrated at Anfield.

The question of whether bite is worse than a break to a player’s leg is a complicated one. Players will say ‘No.’ They’ll take what Ivanovic sustained ahead of Newcastle’s Massadio Haidara, under the boot of Callum McManaman at Wigan.

It’s partly a cultural thing, of course, tied up with that English football spirit which says this is a physical game and that to stamp is lower down the scale of the intolerable than the spiteful act of biting or spitting. It’s partly a media thing, too. Biting’s new, which means it’s news.

It’s a Suarez thing too. Any other player and it would be a serious inquest and news for one day.  A history of biting in sport would make for an interesting thesis, incidentally. The Guardian reported in 2002 on Aussie rules player Peter Filandia’s 10-game suspension for biting an opponent’s testicles during a game. Biting has happened and happens, among other places in the NBA and NHL, in English football (Defoe), and on the rugby field. The Northampton Saints and England hooker Dylan Hartley got an eight-week ban for it last year.

The search for some perspective will be helped by an understanding of what actually did happen, real-time, in that moment which was represented on our TV screens. If we are brutally honest and objective about the Suarez challenge, we have to say that we have no evidence that he actually did bite Ivanovic – only that he probably did.

What did the bite look like? Alan Smith said on the Sky Sports commentary: “He must have sunk his teeth in there I think. That’s what it looks like. Oh my word.”

And to be fair Smith could not have said more, because the only evidence we have is inconclusive footage and Ivanovic pointing to his arm. The contact, with the players in motion, lasts for something less than a second, and you can see that on the Sky footage via the Guardian below, around 43-44 secs.

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Time for that caveat again. Even to make to bite a player is a deeply disturbing act which requires the Football Association to give this the ‘extraordinary incident’  label applied to Manchester City’s Ben Thatcher after his assault on Portsmouth’s Pedro Mendes. That will let them disregard the referee’s report and issue a long ban.

But can we truly extend that acknowledgement to say that this story deserves the incredible subplot which links Suarez with Mike Tyson, who we’re told has started following the player on Twitter as if they’re going to chew on a few malicious practices together?

Tyson chewed part of a man’s ear  off, for God’s sake. Ivanovic is not suffering in the way that Evander Holyfield did. Just another part of the pantomime plot, with Suarez playing the evil villain.

All of which means we are looking at a player who is being justifiably pilloried but who has not committed the worst act in the history of football.

Liverpool’s psychologist Dr Steve Peters discusses the mind as a constant state of conflict between the rational human brain and the irrational chimp in each of us. The chimp’s emotional response causes it to “think catastrophically… overreact to situations and fuel them with high and intense emotions,” he writes.

Suarez is not the devil incarnate. He is a flawed individual, and though Peters has his work cut out, he is not beyond redemption.

Ian Herbert, who was shortlisted as Sports Journalist of the Year in the prestigious Press Awards, and highly commended in the SJA Sports News Reporter of 2012 category,  is The Independent’s Northern Football Correspondent (see archive of his work here). Follow Herbie on Twitter here.

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2013-05-28 11:34:43