When Oscar Tabarez managed Uruguay at the 1990 World Cup, he acknowledged that part of his job was to restore the reputation of his nation. Uruguay had disgraced itself at the 1986 tournament with some brutal tackling that culminated in Jose Batista being sent off after 56 seconds of the group game against Scotland - still the fastest red card in World Cup history - something that had at the time been justified by reference to "garra."
"Garra" is the quality that supposedly has enabled Uruguay, a nation of 3.5million people, to win two World Cups, to fight eye-to-eye with far larger countries. The word literally means "claw" but encompasses spirit, grit determination and streetwiseness. Tabarez, who has Che Guevara's command to "toughen yourself without losing your tenderness" written on the wall of his house in Montevideo, was determined to express the positive connotations of the term.
He did that to an extent in 1990, and with profound success since taking the job for the second time in 2007. His Uruguay has been tough, ruthless, pragmatic and resilient, and, in reaching the semifinal four years ago and winning the Copa America a year later, has stayed broadly on the right side of the line separating what is acceptable from what is not. Luis Suarez has taken them across that line.
Tabarez himself has yet to offer much of a public reaction, either to Suarez's bite on Giorgio Chiellini or his ban for from all football for four months and from nine international games. The Uruguay Football Federation, though, has spoken, and its reaction perhaps explains why Suarez's issues have not been tackled before.
The head of the federation, Wilmar Valdez, has indicated Uruguay will appeal against the ban, insisting that the evidence is not conclusive and claiming that photographs showing bite marks on Chiellini's neck have been manipulated, while the minister of tourism and sport, Liliam Kechichian called the sanction "excessive." Others in the federation have blamed FIFA, Brazil (who could face Uruguay in the World Cup quarterfinal), Italy and, most bafflingly of all, the British media.
Suarez said after scoring twice against England that he had been motivated by criticism of him in the British press, a genuinely bizarre response for somebody who last season was voted Footballer of the Year by the Football Writers Association despite having been convicted of racially abusing one opponent and biting another the previous season. And as anybody who has witnessed the seemingly endless loop of the latest biting incident on Brazilian television can attest, this is not just a British obsession. Biting is big news.
The previous heaviest punishment dispensed by FIFA for an on-field offense was the eight-game ban given to Mauro Tassotti after he elbowed Spain midfielder Luis Enrique in the face during the 1994 World Cup quarterfinal. Given Luis Enrique suffered a broken nose and lost a pint of blood, Suarez's apologists might perhaps argue that he has been hard done by given he left his victim with nothing more serious than a few marks on his shoulder.
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Perhaps there is something irrational about football's revulsion at biting - but there is some logic: a bad tackle or a flailed arm is at least an extension of something that happens in the game anyway. There seems to be an appreciation that sometimes the red mist descends and the arm is raised not for leverage in leaping for a header, but to hurt, or the foot is extended not to the ball, but above it: the consequences may be severe but at least the offense is understandable. Biting seems to come from a very different place indeed; it seems somehow unnatural.
The severity of he sanction also takes into account the fact that this is the third time Suarez has bitten an opponent. As well as the nine games for Uruguay, the four-month suspension means Suarez will miss nine Premier League games, one Capital One Cup game and three Champions League games - taking to 39 the total of matches he'll have missed in his career through bans for biting. If Liverpool feels aggrieved at that, given the offense didn't happen on its watch, it's hardly surprising, and on Thursday it was still investigating the possibility of a separate appeal.
The positive for Liverpool is that this may make other clubs less likely to attempt to sign Suarez, partly for reasons of reputation and partly because there's little point acting now to sign a player who won't even be able to begin official training until the end of October. Then again, there must be a limit even to Liverpool's patience. If a player has bitten three times in the past, who is to say he won't bite again?
The first step to redemption, perhaps, would be for Suarez for once to take responsibility for his actions and stop trying to blame others. After all, the best way to stop the media talking about you biting people is to not bite people at all.
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