June 25, 2014 | by Jonathan Wilson
When Zinedine Zidane head-butted Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final between France and Italy, he more or less blew any chance France had of winning the game. Materazzi is believed to have made some provocative suggestions about Zidane’s sister, and what’s winning the World Cup next to defending one’s sister’s reputation?
Luis Suárez’s action yesterday—he left an impression of his teeth in Giorgio Chiellini’s left shoulder—will, after his inevitable ban, have the same effect of terminally harming his country’s chances of victory. But unfortunately for him, Suárez doesn’t have a chivalric excuse.
Human beings frequently act against their own self-interest. Think of the highly successful British pop group KLF, two of whose members, self-described as the K Foundation, withdrew a million pounds of their own money from the bank back in 1994 and ceremonially burned it. It seemed like a good guerrilla art–type idea at the time, and then later it didn’t. But, like Zidane, K Foundation had a reason for acting as they did, more obscure but no less real.
That soccer players from time to time act as street-fighting men, butting, punching, and kicking, shouldn’t really surprise us: they are by and large young, spirited, tough guys, from tough backgrounds, involved in a game where you run around kicking and heading and frequently miss the object of your attention. Not long before the Suárez bite, Italy’s Claudio Marchisio was sent off for going in high and studs-up against the leg of Egidio Arevalo Rios. Intentionally or not, he could easily have broken Rios’s leg. In such cases the referee’s red card quiets the baying fans in the coliseum. A bite, however, plumbs the atavistic soul in all of us, and sets off a frenzy of response that is not so easily muted.
It’s the unmotivated, animal action that gets to us. So here, on Twitter, is a video of Suárez as Jaws, emerging from the ocean, choppers bared, to chomp a hole in Roy Scheider’s fishing boat.
Italy is the best country in the world at closing things down. It has an advanced system of wildcat strikes and a government office that monitors them to provide information for public benefit. Its labor force is tactically sophisticated—and so, too, its soccer team. Shut down a transport system? Shut down Uruguay? No problem. For an hour in yesterday’s match everything went according to plan, then Marchisio was sent off. Even after this setback, Italy looked more than capable of salvaging the necessary draw to send them through to the next round. Then Suárez bit Chiellini, got away with it, and a minute later Diego Godin rose to meet a corner, twisted, and had the ball bang off his back and past Buffon for Uruguay’s winning goal.
After the game, an unrepentant Suárez offered reporters an excuse for his behavior: “These situations happen on the field. I had contact with his shoulder, nothing more, things like that happen all the time.” Now he waits for reality to bite.
Jonathan Wilson’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. He is the author of eight books, including Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball. He lives in Massachusetts.