“I go to the field with the maximum illusion of a little child who enjoys what he does.”
That’s a quote from Luis Suarez, the Uruguayan striker who plays for Liverpool Football Club. On the pitch, Suarez does act like a little child, but sometimes like a really jerky, shitty little child: He once bit an opposing player; he blocked a shot in the World Cup quarterfinals with his hands; and, last October, Suarez was suspended for both giving the finger to opposing fans and racially abusing an opponent, an incident that’s still lingering five months later and could lead to his club selling him.
The idea of a professional athlete playing like a kid is something that’s sent George Will and his cronies into a moist, panting lather for years. It’s just a game, after all, and the men playing should live the sport and realize how lucky they are and play because they love it and not worry about money or any other adult issues like every other person in the world who’s not a professional athlete—or whatever.
Suarez turns this ideal inside out. Kids are great because they’re dumb and naïve and they enjoy things in ways that naturally cynical adults just can’t anymore. Kids are also terrible because they’re dumb and naïve and they do things that would be fucking insane if an adult ever did them. Things like, say, chomping on someone’s neck in the middle of a soccer game.
That, though, is the paradox of Suarez—and every other sociopath who is also really good at playing a sport. For example: Michael Jordan is an overly competitive, supremely selfish, legendary asshole. That’s also partially why he was the greatest basketball player of all time. The things that make certain people great athletes also make them bizarre—and sometimes horrible—human beings.
Suarez is one of the best soccer players in the world. When you watch Leo Messi—the best soccer player in the world—play, you get a sense, based on the way the defense is laid out and where he is on the field, of what he’s going to do every time he gets the ball. What makes Messi so unbelievable is that his plan is clear from the start, but it doesn’t matter. No one can stop him.
With Suarez, though, it’s impossible to tell what’s coming. Defensive positioning doesn’t mean shit to Suarez. Sometimes, he’ll spin a defender through an inch of space, looking like he’s about to trip over himself, only to slip past three more defenders and toe-poke the ball off his own face and into the goal. Watching Suarez is like watching a super-talented eight-year-old who’s learning the game as he goes and re-inventing it all at once. As eight-year-olds are also wont to do, Suarez will haul off and kick a guy in the chest just because he doesn’t know any better.
And that’s Suarez: never knowing any better. When he cleared a goal-bound shot off the line with his hand during the World Cup, the always-moralistic commentariat bugged the fuck out. It earned him a red card, but ultimately gave Uruguay a chance to win the game, which they did. Suarez blocked the shot because that’s what you’re supposed to do if the ball’s heading for your goal with under a minute left in a tie game. Red card, suspension, outrage, and “fairness” be damned—Suarez kept it simple like a kid would: Keep the ball out of the net.
In December, Suarez, suiting up for Liverpool in this instance, was suspended for eight games after an investigation found that he verbally abused Patrice Evra, a Frenchman of Senegalese descent playing for Manchester United, with a racist insult. The not-anti-Suarez argument was that among Uruguayans, “negro” is a term of endearment, and that again, Suarez didn’t know any better. After hearing both players’ testimonies, the three-man panel ruled, quizzically, that Suarez did indeed racially abuse Evra, but that he wasn’t a racist.
Suarez’s second game back was, fittingly, against Manchester United and Evra. The two didn’t partake in the traditional pre-game handshake, which was a GIGANTIC DEAL. Public sentiment said Suarez was to blame, though Liverpool teammate Glen Johnson said Evra actually avoided the handshake. In any case, it was just another demerit that got put on Suarez’s permanent record.
Racism is fucking awful, and it’s even more awful that it exists in such a widespread way throughout European soccer. At stadiums, banana-throwing and monkey chants are common, which isn’t something anyone should ever be able to say. There surely are some horrible, nutso-supremacist, racist dudes playing high-level soccer, too, but most of them have the adult sense to keep their thoughts to themselves—seen one way, Suarez got punished more for being dumb than being racist.
Still, calling a black man “negro” is not something that a (non-black) human adult should ever do. You’d think that’s simple enough, but cultural lines and the nature of the investigation (which, weighty subject matter or not, was basically Suarez’s word against Evra’s) make this all way more complicated than “Luis Suarez: racist or not?”
There have been calls for further punishment against Suarez, and everyone who isn’t a Liverpool fan is basically expected to despise him. Suarez has done some pretty stupid things over his career, but just like you’d never tell a child that he’s a “piece of shit,” you wouldn’t say it about Suarez with any real certainty. Suarez makes way-too-serious people get really red, and that’s fun to watch from afar—but none of it’s as fun as watching Suarez when he’s on the field. If Liverpool ends up cutting ties with him, it’ll take some of the heat off the club, but it’ll also make it a lot less fun to watch.