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Only Cannibalism Unites Us

Aldo Mazzucchelli


And England made it again. England won, and Suárez, the “dirty rat” of The Sun’s June 25th article—has been given a completely out of proportion ban. He has been severed from his profession, removed from stadiums and clubs, like a Hindi pariah. Suárez has been made a member of the lowest caste, an untouchable. But it looks like, this time, this has gone too far.

Luis Suárez and the British moral approach to football

History repeats itself.  A South American has once again been declared a savage. Luis Suárez’s punishment has been so out of proportion, and its excess so globally notorious, that the restraints imposed by civilization are beginning to give way.  Out of the World Cup and four months in “solitary confinment” because of a little bite? OK. Let’s talk, then, about the underpinnings of the rancid politics of football. We all know that savages do not respect the codes of civilizatory hypocrisy. And if the enforcers of these codes catch up with the savage in an attempt to discipline him, he eats them up.

Let’s start at the beginning: The English did not invent football. Football was more likely invented by the Italians. But if England did not invent football, they did create its rules. Indeed, the English seem to be better at inventing the rules of games than at playing under them—you only have to check the Premier League to verify this; almost all of those playing with some degree of artfulness in England are foreigners. The English seem to be better at erecting written codes than at allowing life to expand freely. And I suspect this has something to do with the fact that, being a relatively young culture at the time of their imperialist heyday, the British connected their newly established football rules, which were enshrined by the mid 19th century, to their self-assigned role as the civilizers of others. And by then, they lacked the wisdom that would have prevented them from taking it all in a mortally serious fashion. From the outset, for the British, football was a tool for the moralization and education of the bon sauvage—and as far as I can tell, they continue to understand it in such a way. They keep trying to use it in order to send moral and civilizatory messages to the savage. But the savage runs free past their British defence and scores. And they can’t stand it. One need only glance at the British tabloid headlines to realize that this is the case.

We have to admit the British did not do anything to anybody that they had not first done to themselves. Great Britain used football first to discipline its upper classes and to forge character on the playing fields of Eton and Oxford. There they developed that complex form of civilizatory hypocrisy known as sportmanship. Fair play today is the grandchild of this petty set of island morals, except that now it is soaked in Coca Cola and global marketing. And, especially, it is promoted and enforced on very different human beings and with a wildly different background than those young Englishmen. It’s interesting to remember that the discussion at the time of the creation of the current rules of football included a chapter on whether kicking the opponent below the knee should be considered a legitimate part of the game. In the end the idea was defeated, but it somehow sneaked into the ethics of the game as the British understand it.  As we have learned from this last episode, for them to kick (or to hit or punch the rival, as a general concept) is permitted. Even, sometimes, admirable. But they would not accept any cheating. They want to play football without anyone being cheated. This is how the English understand the game (I sometimes feel that instead of playing it, they understand it).

The Italians never bought into what the British were selling. Italians were playing calcio long before the British began practicing modern football, and they had little to learn from England, having invented most of it already—big metropoli, irony, calcio, and imperialism, among other things—and done a better job of it. So they simply decided to accept the British rules without ever respecting them too much, and being accused of playing in an “ugly” fashion and being ultradefensive has always been all but irrelevant for them. Playing approximately under English rules, they have four legitimate World Cups under their belt.

Those of us from the River Plate, have always been, and continue to be, mostly Italian—especially the poor immigrants of the late 19th century, who created tango and fútbol. Logically, we have been, along with the first hand Italians from the peninsula, the first irreducible savages football wise. A simple explanation of why Argentine and Uruguayan football have been so good for so long can be summarized  in one word: Italy. Football came of age in the River Plate basin, along with the political reforms that transformed Uruguay at the beginning of 20th century and were carried out in great measure by the sons of Italian immigrant workers. It came of age at the same time, and from the same at once scrappy and fraternal ethics; it came of age in the same barrios full of tenements packed with immigrants, out of the  same violent and creative happiness, and from the same excellence in art and precision in craft that have always been the best products of any Italian culture.  The people of the River Plate, ultraitalians freed from the last bonds of formality that only remained among the educated classes in Italy, became interested in that curious way of playing 11 on each side, and we accepted the rules that came ready made without thinking much about them, merely as a structure that allowed us to play. But while the English believed when they handed their rules down to us that we would abide by and play according to them, the rioplatenses took a completely different approach. The first thing we achieved was the ability to control the ball and not allow anyone to take it away from us. We called that in Spanish “comernos la pelota” (eating up the ball). Pun intended. This is how the gambeta (Italian gambetta: little leg) rioplatense was created.

And, of course, it was not only gambetas and ball control: it was all the package that comes with a street-wise approach to the game. As Uruguayan former defender Paolo Montero, who played for Juventus for 10 years told The Obsertver: 'When I get on a football pitch my only desire is to win. I'm not thinking about being a role model for my sons or for the fans watching me. I don't think it is true to say that you are disloyal to football if you feign an injury, or tug a shirt or do something else to win the game as winning games is the purpose of football.' 'Cheating the referee is not a sin if it helps your team winning,' he explains. 'I don't criticise those who tend to dive, because football is for smart people. And I am a defender, who comes up against cheating strikers every week.'

As a Uruguayan and having seen a lot of football for decades, I know Montero’s views are only part of the more variegated approach Uruguay has had to football along history. In my opinion, Montero acted in the pitch as a sheer thug most of the time—pretty much like Giorgio Chiellini does now, and in the same team and position. But the latest 15 years of Uruguay teams have seen a clear change in terms of fair play—with several fair play trophys awarded to Uruguay teams. Stylewise, he does not resume Uruguay historical approach to the game either. For one, the Uruguayans winning the Olympics of 1924 and 1928, and the first World Cup of 1930 were seen by independent European journalists more like “artists” who at the same time developed a “scientific” game. And the violence was by then used against them, as a historically famous game against Germany in the 1928 Olympics seem to prove. Montero came along much later and expresses a cynical view that comes from his particular time and situation during the dark (for Uruguayan football) nineties. But it is key to hear what he has to say regarding football players not being role models, because that is really the River Plate approach to it. Football is a game and, as such, it shouldn’t be understood as a didactic tool.


The current attempt to discipline Luis Suárez, a British attempt played out on a global stage, is fascinating because it summarizes the history of modern football in just one man. Providentially a man and a pretext at the same time, Suárez is fated to bring the British and the Uruguayans face to face with what both of them have done to humanity, while contributing as “enemies” to the development of global football. Like twins who cannot stand one another because they are exactly the same, only opposite, English and Uruguayan have been and continue to be each other’s nemesis.  Suárez, the best known Uruguayan of all times, is playing an unforeseen role: he is helping both the British and the Uruguayans to remember what on earth they might have in common. That Suárez is playing in England is destiny in action.

To make a long story short, Luis Suárez made it to South Africa in 2010, and he became a decisive player because of his goals, but he achieved fame for something else. And it is England that is the key factor in him becoming world famous. Indeed, Luis Suárez was pinpointed and attacked with ferocity by England (who, apparently, had nothing to do with it) after he used his hands to stop an African goal in the infamous game against Ghana.  The tabloids sank their teeth into Suárez: “Cheat!”; “Sneak!”. They were expressing, once again, the peculiar British angle on sports: a rule has suffered, so the culprit becomes a despicable human being… They read it to the hilt—and that was only the beginning of it... A derisory transgression of an arbitrary rule is made, by them, into a proof of human flaws in the life outside of the game. This is exactly the point where English and South Americans, sadly, don’t understand each other.

For the British, football seems, at times, to be not so much the joy of the game as it is the severity of a didactic pursuit. Suárez gets entangled in a field exchange with Evra: “Racist!”; Suárez bites Ivanovic: “Cannibal!”; Suárez hits with his fangs, or bites Chiellini a little bit: “Chew, Dirty Rat!”. Really? Seriously? Does England really want to keep practicing moral enforcement, playing its out-of-control metonymy connecting what belongs inside of the game to what belongs in real life outside of it?

At this point, it’s all too sad. As soon as Suárez appeared to be biting Chiellini, the tabloids were already full steam in their daily effort of bringing the worst out in people. Active players, fellow professionals of Luis Suárez, appeared on the spot asking for harsh punishment. And England made it again. England won, and Suárez, the “dirty rat” of The Sun’s June 25th article—has been given a completely out of proportion ban. He has been severed from his profession, removed from stadiums and clubs, like a Hindi pariah. Suárez has been made a member of the lowest caste, an untouchable. But it looks like, this time, this has gone too far. The world is starting to notice. Something does not square up anymore. Suárez, has become the catalytic agent of a deep-seated human discomfort. Already on June 26th practically all big media in Latin America—and everywhere outside the “central countries”, I believe—was exclaiming that Suárez’s punishment was out of proportion. Even Giorgio Chiellini, who had been depicted by some English media as the horrified “victim” of a terrible and traumatic aggression, said he was in disagreement with the sanction, and said explicitly that it was “excessive”. People are noticing: you cannot drag someone’s dignity through the mud just because he violated an irrelevant rule of a game.

Luis Suárez is not a racist; Luis Suárez is not a cannibal; and Luis Suárez is neither violent, nor a sneaky or cheating human being. His friends, his life, and his family, provide abundant testimony of this fact. He is quite the opposite. He “cheats” whenever he feels like it, or whenever he cannot control it, but always within a game. And the game is also cheating and winning, it is joy and sadness, and above all, it doesn’t matter that much. It has no such simplistic or direct relationship with the rest of life outside of the game. Not understanding this may be the English mistake, the English horror par excellence. Playing is first. Rules, second. I have no doubt that England may have a lot to teach Uruguay and the world when it comes to playing according to the rules. But their expensive didactic effort is tarnished by the sheer brutality and excess with which they pretend to impose this particular approach, that has historical roots more than an undisputable logic behind it.

A different connection is required between whole human experience and the convention of rules, one that ignores the idea that the way you understand a game tells anything about your morals. Maybe the British need to be eaten so they can be assimilated by a truly playful—and maybe wilder—kind of civilization, which exists far away from any calculated, rule-oriented moral delirium. But Suárez refuses to eat the British. So far he has tasted a Turk, a Bulgarian, and an Italian.  All of them more palatable people. The British must keep working at it before they can be invited to the table. But there’s still hope for them. As the wise avant-garde poet Oswald de Andrade wrote in his Cannibal Manifesto of 1928, capturing it all, and from the same Brazil of June 26th outrage: “Only cannibalism unites us. Socially. Economically. Philosophically”. We must keep repeating this text to the British until they can finally be invited to the feast.

(Spanish version)






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