The Bite: How Luis Suarez and Giorgio Chiellini Have Moved On
There are certain events in sport history that make you recall where you were and what you were doing when they happened. The more shocking, the greater the impression.
In 1997, Mike Tyson met Evander Holyfield in a much-touted brawl, in which Tyson bit off a piece of Holyfield’s ear and I was at a party with friends. The bite is the reason I remember the party at all. Last summer, Luis Suarez sank his chompers into Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder at the World Cup and again, I remember where I was sitting when I watched it, and the shock I felt afterwards.
The fallout from those two bites certainly differ. Tyson was disqualified for his bite from the match, and forfeited the championship, the prize money, and the trophy. He was also permanently suspended from boxing (later overturned), fined $3,000,000, and had to serve community service.
Luis Suarez, in contrast, was banned for four months from all football-related activities, including playing in the rest of the World Cup and the start of his domestic season, and entering any football stadium. He was fined almost €90,000 and banned for nine competitive international matches, beginning with Uruguay’s last-16 game with Colombia and continuing to matches this summer. His ban from “administrative” tasks related to football did not include sales, which occurred between Liverpool and Barcelona.
Both Tyson and Suarez suffered deep dents to their reputations.
But how has Suarez fared, really? How has Giorgio Chiellini, the hapless victim, fared? Both Suarez and Chiellini have had incredible seasons, standing at the top of the footballing world, having won their league titles. On the eve of their meet at the Champions League final, we take a look back at their respective years.
After the World Cup bite, Suarez and his Uruguayan teammates and coaches reacted with unsavory defensiveness, dismissing or flat-out denying the bite, to the disgust of the world who had seen it happen.
In Uruguay, Suarez was staunchly defended and many media outlets speculated the bit was faked or exaggerated. Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez claimed the bite was “nothing more than a conspiracy against Suarez led by the British media.” Uruguay captain Diego Lugano said, "You couldn't have seen it because nothing happened. The worst of everything is the attitude of Chiellini. As a man, he disappointed me totally." (It would be fair to say Lugano disappointed the world totally with that statement.)
In the rest of the world, many called for a permanent ban from football for Suarez. The public saw the World Cup bite as evidence of a talented player who could not be reformed. This was a man, few needed reminding of, who had bitten previously (Branislav Ivanovic, in 2013, for which Suarez received a 10-match ban; and Otman Bakkal in 2010, for which he received a 7-match ban), and who had also received an 8-match ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra in 2011.
In a story for The Guardian on June 25, 2014, Daniel Taylor summed up the problem and the collective disgust with this:
“Toddlers bite. Dogs bite. Normal, fully functioning adults don’t. When it is part of a long, unending pattern, that is when it looks pathological and the perpetrator needs professional help.”
Liverpool certainly wanted nothing to do with him anymore, but Barcelona was willing to look past the conduct issues to the undeniable fact of Suarez’s playing quality, and the not insignificant fact that his style of play would slot in so perfectly as the center forward with Messi and Neymar that it was almost frightening.
So Barcelona purchased him.
Suarez couldn’t train with his new team right away, of course, and then when he was finally able to start, the going was sluggish.
But by the holiday break in December, and notwithstanding the little internal bust-up between a certain star and a certain coach, Suarez had become part of the world’s most lethal front line in football.
This was not a small thing.
Suarez integrated into the attack machine seamlessly; he took nothing away from Messi and Neymar and only emphasized their roles. He steps up to the occasion when needed beautifully; his goal that won Barca the Clasico against Real Madrid in March was a thing of stunning beauty and cemented his place in the squad and went a considerable way toward amending the past.
At Liverpool, his wide attacks and excellent control of the ball under pressure were important, but at Barcelona, they are required. Suarez creates space for Messi and Neymar, which was a problem last season. This was a new Suarez, a happy, reformed forward whose place in the Lethal Trifecta could very well mean the treble for Barcelona this year.
There is no question Suarez has done what he can to put his past behind him. He’s had a spectacular season and if Barcelona wins the Champions League, he can rest easy knowing his part in a treble was significant.
But has the world forgiven him?
It’s hard to say. At the World Cup, Suarez did little to help his brand following the incident. Who can forget the image of him holding his front teeth, as though it was all an innocuous accident that he’d landed with his mouth open on Chiellini’s shoulder?
Suarez wrote in his defense to FIFA, "in no way [did it happen] how you have described, as a bite or intent to bite. After the impact...I lost my balance, making my body unstable and falling on top of my opponent. At that moment I hit my face against the player, leaving a small bruise on my cheek and a strong pain in my teeth."
FIFA rolled their eyes. The seven-person panel ruled that the bite was "deliberate, intentional and without provocation….He bit the player with the intention of wounding him or at least of destabilizing him.”
There seems to have been two types of communication from Suarez over the past year: statements he makes himself, and statements he makes after being coached by a PR professional. One such example is shortly after his move to Camp Nou, while he was still serving out his ban: “I deeply regret what occurred…I vow to the public that there will never again be another incident like this."
Statements he makes without being coached show a different story, however—they show a man who still doesn’t quite understand the concept or value or humility, or the magnitude of what happened. In response to the FIFA bans, he said, “A ban is one thing, but I could not even train. At the start, I was being treated worse than if I were a hooligan.”
When Barcelona beat Manchester City in their first leg of the Champions League round of 16, another bite rumor surfaced after footage appeared to show Suarez biting Martin Demichelis’s hand. Grainy footage showed Demichelis extending his arm and Suarez bending his face towards it. The referee did not see it, and UEFA said it would not take any action since the incident was not mentioned in the referee’s report.
Further footage from a different angle eventually emerged, and it was clear there was no bite.
No one can be blamed for making the initial assumption. The fault for that lies entirely with Suarez.
He told Uruguayan radio station Sport 890 after that match, “He [Demichelis] put his hand on my throat…I do not understand why they [the English media] want to do this. They want to make trouble for me. They must be hurt after what I did to them in the World Cup but they forget that I played in England and they should show me some respect.”
Imagine the difference if Suarez had simply said, “Demichelis put his hand on my throat. I didn’t bite, although I can understand why people thought that. I’ve worked hard to overcome the impulses I’ve previously struggled with. I would never do it again. I’ve learned. I don’t want to hurt anyone, disappoint the fans, or throw away everything I’ve worked for.”
Instead, he added, “The way I was treated when I had to leave the World Cup was the worst thing I’ve ever experienced as a player. I’ll never understand it... they treated me worse than a hooligan.”
Suarez has a beautiful future with Barcelona and he has time to win back the trust of fans and critics. But he’s got to work a bit harder at his humility. After three bites, there isn’t a lot of patience with him. He must be careful what he says, and he must find a way to stop being defensive. And of course, he cannot repeat his prior infractions.
Although the global spotlight has, unfairly or fairly, been focused more on Suarez this season, you could say Giorgio Chiellini has enjoyed the same success in Serie A. Juventus has won their second league title in a row, they have just won the Coppa Italia, and they will meet Barcelona in the Champions League final.
The difference is that the media does not focus on Chiellini. Extensive articles about him and his season are difficult to find in the English press. He is a solid player on a solid team; on the field, Chiellini plays smart football.
Of course, he wasn’t the one who had to prove so much this season.
Chiellini was humble in the aftermath of the bite. At the press conference before the Coppa Italia final, he said, "We beat Real Madrid last week and all that people ask me about is Luis Suarez. There are no problems as far as I'm concerned. I don't bear a grudge."
He recently added, “Of course I will shake hands [with Suarez]. I’ll hug him happily, too, there’s no problem at all. Those who know me even a bit know that’s how I truly feel. I have no problem with him and I think it’s the same for him. I have to think about him as a player, how he moves, his great skill but nothing more.”
Whatever the outcome and however they behave, both Chiellini and Suarez know that the world will scrutinize every movement they make on the field. The pressure is on Suarez; he must continue the personal campaign he began this season to show he is a professional who plays well with others.