Soccer’s a loser by letting serial sinners like Suarez escape so lightly

Okay, I know this would probably be more appropriate on the back page, but I haven’t got one. And, besides, now and again there’s a sporting incident that stirs such rage, it becomes front-page news.

I won’t get too technical, for fear of offending those who’d rather watch a telly ad than a soccer game or paint drying in preference to a cricket match, because not everyone is consumed by the passion sport generates (personally, I draw the line at darts, because in my humble estimation anything vaguely termed ‘sport’ requires a six-pack rather than a beer gut).

But let’s kick on with events of last week involving a high-profile soccer star – one even tipped as a potential English Premiership’s Player of the Year for his goal-scoring prowess – who was suddenly siezed by a cannibal lust to bite a chunk out of an opposing defender.

Even in a game where spitting (or ‘gobbing’ as it is known) in someone’s face, hair-pulling, genital-grabbing, eye-gouging and stamping are common currency, Liverpool’s Luis Suarez literally trying to make a meal out of Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic was a tad over the top.

So shocking was the incident, I almost felt sorry for the London club, until I came to my senses.

It wasn’t just me who was incensed, either. The overwhelming majority of witnesses were, too, include the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who’s probably better acquainted with the Eton Wall Game than the so-called People’s Game.

And it was no use Suarez’s cronies claiming that, as a Uruguayan, he was culturally programmed to consume beef, because you simply don’t order the right arm of an opponent, a la tartar, in the middle of a football match.

VERDICT WITH BITE: How one newspaper judged Suarez's attack on Chelsea's Ivanovich

VERDICT WITH BITE: How one newspaper judged Suarez’s attack on Chelsea’s Ivanovich

Besides, the odious South American is a serial sinner. He’d bitten a player before during his days with the Dutch club, Ajax, and, last season, served an eight-match ban for racially abusing Manchester United captain, Patrice Evra.

In any other workplace the man would be summarily sacked – even charged with attempted grievous bodily harm – but not pro soccer. He’s far too important to be shown the door and, besides, a host of other obscenely rich clubs would queue to sign him without qualms.

Therefore one can safely assume, the word ‘morality’ doesn’t exist in soccer’s lexicon, despite its pretence at offering a ‘sporting’ example to kids who aspire to be like their icons.

So, instead, Suarez has been fined by his club (who aren’t saying how much of his £200,000-a-week wages he’ll forfeit), made a wishy-washy apology and announced he’d be prepared to plead guilty to the offence – as witnessed by half-a-billion telly viewers worldwide – so long
as it didn’t carry anything more severe than a three-match suspension.

Such ignoble contrition is staggering, but additionally so was Suarez’s plea-bargain chutzpah. Had it become legal precedent, safely assume the next axe-murder appearing before a judge would say, ‘I’ll cough up, m’lud, but only in return for six points on my driving licence.’

As it is, the arrogant psycho has been hit with a 10-match ban, which – surprise, surprise! – many in soccer’s blinkered milieu think is too harsh. One can only but wonder which part of Planet Zog they inhabit.

Still, the case got me thinking whether professional sport actually is what it says on the packaging or should it be redefined as ‘sportainment’: a fusion of roughly – an apt word under the circumstances – acting according to vaguely-interpreted rules and pure theatre, with the principal players dolled up in fancy dress?

Because today, soccer and most of pro sports are big business, where mega-bucks are at stake on and off the field of combat (and I use the word combat deliberately, since sometimes it’s not far off being as gladiatorial as anything presented to the baying mob in Nero’s Coliseum).

So, let’s not be fooled by the brusque handshakes foisted on participants before battles commence. If this rite of farce is intended to rekindle memories of bygone Corinthian spirit it fails miserable once the boots fly in.

In reality, it is as meaningless as that other, equally hollow sentiment, ‘Respect’, bandied around as a shoddy veneer to conceal the genuine enmity many players – and fans – feel for opposite numbers, whether it reflects colour, racial, nationalistic prejudice or plain, old envy.

So, let’s call pros what they are…‘sportainers’, because often – following best Hollywood practice – they are spoilt, money-grubbing, mercenary brats, vastly overpaid, over-weaned, overrated and over-mollycoddled.

Calling these exponents ‘sportsmen’, then, stretches credulity a goal-kick too far.

MUZZLE HIM? Could this be the answer to curbing Suarez's penchant for make a meal out of opponents?

MUZZLE HIM? Could this be the answer to curbing Suarez’s penchant for make a meal out of opponents?

And, of course, if these demi-gods err – on or off field – their warts and all are somehow excused, so long as they remain winners.

Cheating, though, doesn’t merely extend to soccer, because many other pro ‘sportainments’ have been similarly tarnished…cricket (‘sledging’ and match-fixing), horse racing (doping and race fixing), boxing (bribes to ‘throw’ fights), cycling (using illicit stimulants), snooker (match fixing) and – despite London 2012 being a ‘clean’ Games – many past Olympiads have been tainted by the spectre of drugs.

In rare instances, those who’ve gone far beyond the boundaries of acceptable misconduct have been justly banned for respectably swingeing terms, some for life and deservedly so.

But the People’s Game – not than most people can afford £70-plus for a Premiership match ticket – seems to be in a league of its own by punishing multi-millionaire miscreants with nothing harsher than a financial slap on the wrist and a sojourn in the sin bin.

The quality of mercy is anything but strained, because this ‘sportainment’ sold out to Mammon yonks ago and every participant – from legislators (look at FIFA’s disgraceful antics), to club owners, coaches and agents – have their snouts firmly in the cash trough.

Not least of all are the ‘stars’, professing undying fealty to a club and its faithful as their moolah mounts up.

But the next time you see a goal-scorer rush to the stands and kiss his team badge in an expression of undying allegiance, remember that in a week’s time he could be doing the same to another side’s crest.

And it’s not that I’m a spoilsport. Far from it (ask that sainted sports widow, Mrs. Ash). In fact I was a sportswriter for more years than I care to remember, witnessing games I wouldn’t inflict on my worst enemy.

‘At least we’re paid to watch this c**p,’ I once said to a colleague during one alleged match, which prompted a fan who’d overheard the remark to throw his meat pie at me (for the record, it was much tastier than that dished up on the field).

If nothing else, it underscored that fervent loyalties do exist in the game, if only on the terraces.

So, while I remain tantalised by the vision of 22 players knocking a ball round a football pitch, I prefer it portrayed as genuine sport – which is why I go to the local park on a Sunday morning to watch a kids’ joust.

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3 thoughts on “Soccer’s a loser by letting serial sinners like Suarez escape so lightly

  1. Martin says:

    Hugh, I would also call into question the integrity of some officials. I’m thinking of those who were investigated after claims of corruption and match-fixing during Euro 2012. But week after week, referees appear to suffer temporary blindness, and/or display episodes of reasoning that baffle us and the TV pundits, alike.

    For those who insist that most sport is ‘clean’, I would remind them that if a Formula One team can order Nelson Piquet, Jr. to crash deliberately during the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, anything is possible. The Suarez ban certainly isn’t over the top, any more than it was wrong to come down so hard on Lance Armstrong. If you break the rules, ‘big time’, you should be punished ‘big time’. Personally, I think Suarez deserves a lifetime ban. This is the way sport should bite back. It should hurt.

  2. M Morgan says:

    I am not from Planet Zog. Nonetheless, in my personal opinion, the 10 game ban was over the top. At its very worst, a bite (any bite) would mean the victim would have to endure some sort of jab. It would never be a career-threatening injury, which I have witnessed and which have been much more gruesome than Sr Suarez’s little nibble – which, in truth, was more humorous than dangerous. An easy example was Ryan Shawcross’s lunge at Aaron Ramsey, resulting in a nasty leg break from which he is arguably just now recovering from. Shawcross’s punishment was some bad press, a standard three match ban for a straight red card and a call-up to the England squad. And I’m not saying Ryan Shawcross is a bad guy, he just let his emotions overtake his good sense. Sort of like what happened with Suarez. The irking thing about the press on Suarez’s bite is that many of those who are calling for his professional footballer’s head would probably look back at Vinnie Jones’s famous grab at Gazza’s man bits as evidence of how the game back then was a real hard man’s sport and even be willing to laugh it off with a warm nostalgic shrug, rather than as anything more sinister or indicative of a prevailing flaw in sportsmen’s characters. And Gazza’s recovery from Jones’s crunching below-the-belt grab was probably no longer than what Ivanovic’s will be from The Bite.

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