All the accoutrements for a canonization were in place well before the game was even played.
Though he wasn’t there to wear it, Luis Suarez’s jersey was hung in its usual place (the holy vestments). A huge crowd awaited him at the airport on his early return, many wearing Suarez masks (the faithful). There were testimonials up and down the nation to his quality (evidence of the miracles performed).
Jose Mujica, Uruguay’s populist president and a former guerrilla fighter, has been acting as God’s advocate in the proceedings.
“FIFA are a bunch of old sons of bitches,” Mujica grumbled Sunday. He called the Suarez suspension from all footballing activities for four months a “fascist ban.”
Shortly after his team had been easily pushed aside by Colombia, Uruguayan captain Diego Lugano was still speaking in panting, hyperbolic terms.
“It’s a breach of human rights that a player cannot go into a stadium where there are 80,000 people, or into a hotel with his teammates – that he cannot work for four months,” Lugano said. “He has committed an offence, but this ban is barbarity. Not even a criminal would receive this penalty.”
In fairness, if you or I had bitten a passerby on the street – and done it for the third time – we’d be receiving something less amenable than a temporary home leave.
If FIFA erred in any way here, it was in allowing the player and his supporters (almost all Uruguayans) to find some protest space between the crime and the punishment. They’ve used that conceptual ground to begin constructing The Martyrdom of Luis Suarez.
Here is the simple calculus of pro sports. If you are not very good, you don’t get away with anything. If you’re reasonably proficient, you get away with some things. If you’re great at what you do – truly great – you can do pretty much anything you like, and repeatedly.
As long as you have the ability to paper over sour memories with sweet play, people will forgive you anything. Apologies aren’t required. All you must do is be seen to be “taking responsibility for your actions” – which is to say, not actively suggesting they didn’t happen.
Ingeniously, Suarez did this in two discrete phases.
On Wednesday, offering his written explanation to a FIFA disciplinary committee, Suarez delved deeply into the more disorienting realms of ontology.
“I lost my balance, making my body unstable and falling on top of my opponent,” he said, in part, in a written statement. “At that moment, I hit my face against the player, leaving a small bruise on my cheek and a strong pain in my teeth.”
That message – plainly a lie – was sent to FIFA, but was meant for his supporters. This was the sand on which they could begin to construct their tower of rage.
Five days later, having stirred Uruguay to a froth, he did not so much retreat as make the next stage in his advance. In a second statement released Monday, he admitted in lawyerly language that Giorgio Chiellini “suffered the physical result of a bite.” He apologized unreservedly.
This was a message sent to his supporters, but meant for FIFA.
Admitting his sins up front would not have spared him expulsion from this tournament. Suarez knew that. Whatever the punishment, Uruguayans were going to be incensed. He knew that, too.
So he waited until the attention had shifted from what he’d done to what was being to done him before he changed gears. He’s having it both ways. You have to salute his tactical subtlety, on and off the field.
Suarez counted on a very basic patriotic need – that everyone wants to see themselves reflected in the world’s collective eye.
On this stage – the largest many of the competing nations here will ever occupy – that leads inevitably toward grandiosity. You’re either the conqueror or the thwarted victim. The only unacceptable thing is to have not mattered at all.
Uruguay felt the global barbs at South Africa 2010 after a shameful Suarez handball in the goalmouth allowed his country to squeak past Ghana, and into the semi-finals. That sense of distaste was amplified when the team carried Suarez – who’d been red carded for the offence – off the field on their shoulders.
Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan and the sport’s great poet, later called it “an act of patriotic madness.”
They’ve been nursing that sense of outsider frustration ever since, while watching Suarez routinely lampooned in the British press. After the loss to Colombia, it was time for conspiracies and the testimonials of persecution.
“We’ve had to fight against everyone,” midfielder Arévalo Rios told an Uruguayan newspaper. “The truth is they wanted us out.”
The truth is that Uruguay would not have gone very far here, with or without Suarez. They have a formidable team, but an old and tired one.
Losing immediately suits their purposes better. Now they get to nurse a grievance, rather than look to the failings of their talisman. No apology at this point changes that basic calculus. We’re well beyond facts.
That is its own sort of satisfaction. It’s one that can only be found at the World Cup, where all small slights immediately balloon to enormous, historical proportions.
These are the best and most lasting sorts of grudges – ones that aren’t grounded in truths, but in beliefs.
In being shunned, Luis Suarez has managed to conjure one of the World Cup’s true acts of faith.