x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

When the beautiful game devolves, it's time to bite back

Biting a chunk out of your opponent's body is not unheard of in sport, but normally it's only when anger and desperation fuse together to ignite a moment of primeval fury - not so when Liverpool's leading scorer sunk his gnashers into the arms of Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic.

An actor friend of mine, famed for his prodigious girth, was telling me this week of a comedy film he's just shot, in which he plays a holidaymaker who's captured by cannibals and put in a cooking pot. "Would you mind eating this clove of garlic?" asks one of his captors as they light the fire beneath him. "It'll enhance the flavour."

With more scenes due to be shot soon, I'm now thinking of putting footballer Louis Suarez up for a part in the movie. Not only is he eminently qualified for a role, but he's going to have plenty of time on his hands.

A week on from the infamous "Bitegate" incident, when Liverpool's leading scorer sunk his gnashers into the arms of Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic, the TV clip has lost none of its power to shock.

The most surprising aspect of the incident remains its apparent premeditation. Biting a chunk out of your opponent's body is not unheard of in sport (as boxer Mike Tyson, rugby footballer Dylan Hartley and indeed Suarez himself on a previous occasion are testimony). But normally it's only when anger and desperation fuse together to ignite a moment of primeval fury.

Not so here. Suarez's lunge for Ivanovic's bicep seems so calculated that I still find myself vaguely surprised he doesn't get out a napkin and cruet from the pocket of his shorts before plunging in.

Worst of all, it occurred on a day that had begun with a minute-long silence by way of tribute to Anne Williams, who died earlier that week. Mrs Williams, who lost her son in the infamous Hillsborough disaster of 1989 (when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death in the crowd), was one of the leading campaigners for justice for the fallen. Yet with the sort of cruel irony that only fate can manage, she died last week from cancer, aged 62, just as the details of a new independent inquiry into that terrible day was announcing how it plans to tackle the issue.

Mrs Williams is justly considered a heroine by the Liverpool faithful, and the silent tribute before last Sunday's game showed Liverpool FC at its very best: dignified and defiant. Yet within 90 minutes the whole episode had been eclipsed by Suarez's moment of madness.

Suarez has been handed down a 10 match ban for his troubles (the last four this season, and six at the start of next), a sentence he has reluctantly accepted although not without a grumble or two. Indeed, both he and the Liverpool management have complained about its disproportionality, with both parties declaring they are "shocked and disappointed" with the severity of the ruling.

Yet the unspoken truth behind Liverpool's refusal to overtly condemn their star player is only too apparent. Suarez is footballing gold, and without his 23 goals this season, Liverpool would have been nowhere. Not since Ronaldo lit up Manchester United has there been a player of such sublime and explosive artistry in the Premier League, and both Suarez and his employers know that his contributions have largely kept Liverpool in the top half of the table.

Some people may excuse Suarez's behaviour as being merely symptomatic of the colossal pressure top-flight footballers are under. Well, last Wednesday I, too, visited a football match: Grimsby Town versus Newport County in the Blue Square Bet Premier League playoffs (1st leg): a full six tiers down from the likes of Liverpool.

The reward for success in the fixture is promotion to the lowest tier of the professional game, and it's reasonable to suppose that all 22 players on the pitch collectively earn less in a year than what Suarez earns in a month.

In front of a sell-out (and highly partisan) crowd of nearly 5,000, the game was every bit as hard-fought and frenetic as anything you'd see at Anfield or Old Trafford, and offered many of the protagonists perhaps their last tilt at sporting glory. Yet despite the massive stakes, the match was played in good part, without ever spilling over into the sort of shenanigans that Suarez has been allowed to get away with for too long.

If Anfield's current golden boy indeed packs his bags and decides to take his genius elsewhere in Europe, I for one will not be sorry to see him go. For without scruples, the game is nothing. But even if he stays, his opponents can at least rest easy until early autumn.

Though they should still lay off the spicy food in the interim - particularly anything containing garlic. After all, we don't want to put temptation in his way.

 

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London