When Italy plays Uruguay and needs only a draw, you’d expect an exhibition of soccer’s dark arts. Flops, dives, timewasting and lurid simulations of injury: We saw everything that makes the Italians, the loveliest of people in real life, such a charmless team on the pitch. Italy’s soccer teams have been known, through history, for elevating the end above the means, and today was no different. “Whatever it takes” is their motto.
They played for a draw from the start—and a goalless draw at that. The story of the day, however, is not that they didn’t achieve their objective, losing 1-0 to Uruguay on a frenzied evening in Natal, Brazil. It is not even that neutral observers were, by the end, rooting for the same, cynical Italy. The headline story was an incident that will pass into football infamy: Luis Suarez, Uruguay’s striker, bit an Italian defender. During a goal-front tussle for the ball with Giorgio Chiellini—a man as unappetizing as you could hope to find on a football field—Suarez dipped his face onto his opponent's shoulder and put his prodigious teeth to work.
In scenes that were straight out of a comic opera, Chiellini, incensed, ran about wildly, his shirt pulled off his left shoulder, showing the world his bite-marks, the Suarez imprint on his body. Soon, pictures were being posted on Twitter of Chiellini’s muscular shoulder, mottled pink and purple, revealing indentations that could only have come from another man’s mouth.
The referee, a Mexican martinet who had earlier sent off an Italian player for a studs up challenge on a Uruguayan, did not see the incident, so Suarez escaped without on-field punishment. Expect all hell to break loose now, however, something akin to the wrath of God. This is the third time the Uruguayan has bitten an opponent during a football match, and FIFA, the game’s governors, will have no choice but to ban him from the rest of this tournament. He cannot be allowed to play again in the Cup. Were it not for laws that immunize players from prosecution for their on-field actions, Suarez could well be facing charges for assault.
Suarez is a recidivist, a repeat-biter: His first mordant act was in November 2010, when he bit a Dutchman, Otman Bakkal, from PSV Eidhoven. In April last year, he sank his teeth into a Serbian player, Branislav Ivanovic, in the Premier League. He has faced charges of racially inflammatory speech directed at fellow footballers, and in the last World Cup earned the ire of every fair-minded fan in the world by stopping a sure Ghanaian goal with his hand. He was sent off after the incident, but Ghana went on to lose, in large part due to his gamesmanship.
One has to feel sorry for the Italians. Still reeling from the shock of the bite, their minds in indignant disarray, they conceded a corner just a minute later, off which Diego Godin, the Uruguayan captain, scored with his head. In truth—in very perverse truth—Suarez should be credited with an assist for that goal, even though he didn’t get a touch on the ball.
So Uruguay progresses to the next, knockout round. Suarez will not be with them. But the men from the Southern Hemisphere have the strength to shrug off that loss. They are the scrappiest team in world soccer, known, from the very start of international competition, for their mongrel determination. They are the Sparta of world soccer: A small nation, punching above its weight, taking no prisoners, and never saying sorry. Their essence is “garra charrua,” a phrase—derived from the Charrua Indians who inhabited Uruguay before the white man took it away—that conveys an unstoppable tenacity.
Sometimes this tenacity breaks its bounds, spilling into the primitive. Uruguay won the game today. But they won the game with a barbarian, a savage.