Wednesday 25 June 2014

Suarez and the tooth of God

With heavy heart I must turn to topic of biting. One should not bite anyone, not even a sporting opponent, not even a little, and not even if you find them very irritating. It is not sporting, not refined and, worst of all, grossly impolite. However, it is very human. That is an observation, not an excuse, because cultivated manners should be far better than the wild sort.

Biting is human, and suppressing biting in conflict requires effort. Biting is a weapon humans use, and comes naturally. Bite marks show up after fights, and forensic dentistry has developed techniques to match the marks to putative perpetrators and to determine when they happened. Some of this work is done by getting forensic experts to bite pig’s ears and then study the results, porcine skin being a good match with the human sort. Showing teeth in an angry grimace is a standard and well recognised threat signal. Biting is not only part of uncoordinated fighting, it is also a feature of abuse, showing animal dominance and disregard for the abused person, often a woman or child.

Of course, in football the standard weapon of conflict is the foot, used against the opponent under the pretext of trying to kick the ball. Apart from “late” tackles there is the innocent treading on the opponent’s foot by mistake, the innocent elbow in the face, the unplanned crash of bodies, the inadvertent head butt and, depending on the heat of the moment, the trading of punches in pure provoked self-defence. For once the availability of the instant-replay from several angles allows us to analyse these subterfuges in detail and, sometimes, to punish them.

It would be understandable if many spectators, having witnessed these lapses from proper sporting behaviour, wanted to turn from football to other sports. Yet, somehow, both far more brutal sports like boxing, and far less brutal ones like basketball do not attract such large global audiences. Perhaps the current regulated game has the “right” level of physical conflict for current tastes. Moral considerations aside, in the search for an easily understandable winning goal spectators tolerate and even condone judicious violence exercised in the service of their cause. Maradona famously credited “the hand of God” for his game-winning foul, and Suarez’s tooth, while not directly related to anything, was followed two minutes later by a real goal, to which it might have been a contributor, leaving in its wake an enraged and discomfited defence.

One mildly comforting notion, despite this dispiriting lapse from sportsmanship, is that international football competitions have become a surrogate for war: national anthems, national flags, nationalism unifying disparate factions, but very little in the way of casualties. The better angels of our nature have taken us from the horror of the trenches a mere century ago into a mostly peaceful carnival of football, although it includes the lamentable lapses of some un-sportsmen: biting, diving, Diva-ing, pretending to be at death’s door, protesting fake innocence, and generally being muscular Machiavellis on our national behalf.

It is not all that important, in the context of the march of history, but the one goal of the match was made by Diego Godin. He has good teeth, which he kept in the right place.

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