Uruguay once again rallies behind flawed native son Luis Suarez

Team manager, captain and the nation’s media firmly behind their supremely talented if tarnished hero

To get a sense of just how protective they are towards Luis Suarez in his native Uruguay consider the case of Ricardo Gabito, an investigative journalist in that country.

He was shot in December 2003 at the behest of a local underage football official after reporting an attempt to pressure a referee into changing his report of a match in which the then 16-year-old Suarez head-butted the referee after being sent off.

Gabito recalled the incident to reporter Wright Thompson for a fine ESPN piece recently but went on to add that Suarez is now his favourite player.

Nobody suggests that the Liverpool striker had the slightest bit of responsibility for the shooting, just the head-butt, but Gabito might be expected to be a less supportive of a player whose actions gave rise to such remarkable consequences. Not a bit of it, he says. The Uruguayan reporter says he came from the same sort of poverty as the striker and understands the desperate fear of a reversal in fortunes.


Latest incident

"He bites (the piece was written well before this latest incident but, perhaps, like the various Swedes reported yesterday to have backed Suarez to bite someone at this World Cup at 175-1, its author had a hunch) because he is clinging to a new life," as Thompson puts it, "terrified of being sucked back into the one he left behind."

“Soccer was a vehicle for him to be saved,” says Gabilto. “He clung to that, as if to say, ‘This is where either I’ll be saved or I will sink’. On the field, I would have done the same thing as he did. To overcome and not surrender.”

The views of those within the game can also be ambivalent to such things. In this instance, Suarez’s team back then, Nacional, were going well in the league, there were records and titles at stake. The primary concern of Nelson Spillman, the official who hired the hitman (and who later, with his brother Daniel, went to jail for his trouble) was simply to ensure the player was available for the last game of the season.

The culprit

In rather more run-of-the -mill circumstances, Zinedine Zidane’s early prospects were boosted not blown when he took his time after being fouled badly in an underage club game before walking the width of the pitch, locating the culprit, laying a hand on each of his shoulders and head-butting him.

Far from being horrified, the scout who was there to watch him that day was reassured that, having previously seemed a little too timid, the teenage prospect was capable of standing up for himself physically.

Now, Suarez’s actions seem set once again to ensure that he will be remembered more for his moments of madness than for his sparkling skill. It is a little reminiscent of the sensational case at the other end of Zidane’s career, the head-butt on Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final.

For all his undoubted qualities, though, Suarez to date has had nothing like the career the French international enjoyed. Sure, he has scored a lot of goals, many of them rather wonderful, but he has, including Tuesday's tangle with Giorgio Chiellini, bitten opponents three times in four years on the field of play. He has twice, after his late handball against Ghana four years ago, contributed to his side progressing in the World Cup by a serious act of foul play. Then there is the ban he served for racially abusing Patrice Evra.

In Zidane’s case, Fifa’s job was easy with the three-match ban handed down largely academic; the player’s international career was over in any case. The same was true when Mauro Tassotti was suspended for eight games after elbowing, and breaking the nose of, Luis Enrique at the quarter-finals stage of USA’94.

Bright future

The younger Leonardo, who still had a bright future ahead of him with Brazil, got just four games at the same tournament for putting US international Tab Ramos in the hospital for several months with a fractured skull, again due to a swing of his elbow.

Ramos’s fate serves to highlight the fact that a blow to the head has the potential to cause far more serious injury than a bite to the shoulder but people are often prepared to make allowances for such the wild use of an elbow in what is regarded as the heat of battle. Approaching someone, getting the angle right and sinking your teeth into an opponent is harder to explain away for a man who owes his fame and fortune to the brilliance with which he makes split-second decisions.

Suarez received bans of seven and 10 games respectively for his previous assaults on Otman Bakkal and Branislav Ivanovic and after the latter incident it seems he was also required to attend anger management counselling.

It’s natural that so much of the talk yesterday focused on the length of the ban he might receive this time but the real sadness is that after a thrilling and trouble-free season with Liverpool, not to mention a brilliant start to his World Cup here, his reputation has again been indelibly tarnished

But don’t expect anyone in Uruguay to agree. After Tuesday’s game, the team’s manager and captain dismissed the allegations against their star player and the press back home made a show of itself yesterday.

It was all a little like the witness of the incident 11 years ago that Thompson encountered who, when asked what happened said: “He fell accidentally into the referee.” He is a man capable of uniting a nation, it seems, against the world.

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times