Fifa faces a delicate dilemma over the case of Luis Suarez who, according to Italy, bit the left shoulder of defender Giorgio Chiellini in the 1-0 win which took Uruguay — and not the Azzurri — into the second round of the World Cup finals.
Four issues arose immediately. The first concerns collating evidence on which a decisive disciplinary verdict may be ascertained; the second, if the bite is considered proven, concerns the physical nature of the offence; the third concerns the moral status; and the fourth concerns the political context.
Suarez is one of the most wonderfully talented footballers anywhere on the planet right now. He has levels of skill, intuition and physical tuning which lift him close to the stratosphere inhabited only by Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar.
He was leading scorer last season in the English Premier League and voted footballer of the year by both players and journalists. Then he recovered at high speed from knee surgery to score the two magnificent goals which killed off England at this World Cup.
Unfortunately, the competitive spirit which drives Suarez to such feats crosses a behavioural line. Twice he has been suspended from club football, in Holland and England, for biting opponents. Once, in England, he has been suspended for a racist insult.
On Tuesday, in Natal, he jumped for the ball with Chiellini and, as they landed, collided with the defender’s shoulder. Chiellini accused Suarez, immediately, of biting him. Suarez’s Uruguayan supporters said Suarez was off balance and his face merely crashed into Chiellini’s shoulder. Suarez, on falling, felt his mouth for fear that he had suffered a cut.
At the media conference afterwards, it was only British journalists from the international agencies who asked coach Oscar Washington Tabarez about the alleged bite. No Italian journalist raised the issue.
This led sections of the Uruguayan media to talk of an Anglo-European plot, such as the one — still burning! — which hails back to South American teams’ failures at the 1966 World Cup in England.
Then Pele’s Brazil were kicked out of the first round by Portugal and, in the quarter-finals, Argentina lost to England (and had their captain sent off by a German referee) while Uruguay lost to Germany (and had two players sent off by an English referee).
Such old sores run deep in sport. Bodyline is still a painful cricket issue for Australians even though that particular Ashes series was more than 80 years ago.
World federation Fifa opened a disciplinary case against Suarez and set about gathering evidence, including reports from the referee and other match officials. At the time, referee Marco Rodriguez appeared not to see any offence and this gives Fifa wide latitude to take disciplinary action if the video evidence is considered clear.
Such clarity of image is denied by sources close to the Uruguayan delegation. Fifa may find itself asking its own TV operation, which controls the broadcast output, to provide all the angle images from all relevant cameras including those not transmitted at the time.
The disciplinary chief is Claudio Sulser, a former Switzerland striker who knows all about being kicked around by defenders from his own career.
If Sulser and his colleagues decide that Suarez was guilty, he then has a dilemma. World Cup discipline is largely about the immediate consequences of overt physical violence. Hence the suspensions of one game and three games on Portugal’s Pepe and Cameroon’s Alex Song, respectively.
Both players — among others — were sent off the pitch for physical violence and were subject to suspensions in the realm of the context of international football. Hence, if Suarez is deemed guilty of violent conduct — and his action did not threaten to break a leg or ankle — he is liable to receive a suspension only relevant to national team matches of one or more games.
This is the logic.
The first complication is the cultural or moral aspect. In Europe, for example, biting by a player is considered morally repugnant and that has been reflected in northern European media coverage of the incident.
However, this is not necessarily the case in South America. Suarez is a street urchin out of the Diego Maradona mould. Remember how Maradona’s “Hand of God” was hailed with mischievous delight in South America as a popular riposte to Fifa bigwigs, to old colonial adventurers and to European clubs who use their financial power to poach all of South America’s best players.
Suarez falls in this category — and there is nothing in the specific Fifa disciplinary statutes about “moral” fouls though offences deemed to contravene the spirit of “fair play” might reach out here.
Finally, there is a political context.
On a map of the world Uruguay may appear to be an insignificant little dot squashed between Brazil and Argentina but it is a football giant with a tradition and passion and pride in the game surpassing most other nations.
Uruguay hosted the first World Cup; Uruguay beat runaway favourites Brazil in front of their own fans in Maracana in the 1950 final matchÖ and the Uruguayans approached the return to Brazil fearing all manner of dirty tricks.
That suspicion was exacerbated after Uruguay were drawn in the so-called “Group of Death”; it was enhanced before the Opening Match with confusion over whether Alcides Ghiggia — the match-winner in 1950 — had been allocated a ticket (he had, as it turned out).
A Uruguayan TV channel noted pointedly, after the Italy game, that video reruns in the media centres were transmitted from the TV feed directed by Fifa. Suspicions of a conspiracy to derail Uruguay and, beyond that, to denigrate South American football are up and running.
Fifa, already with enough antagonistic issues swirling around the streets of Brazil, can hardly afford to generate ill-feeling over events on the pitch.
Given the nature of the tournament, time is also very tight. Uruguay play again on Saturday, against Colombia in Maracana, in the second round. Sulser & Co, if they find Suarez guilty, may find it politic to issue a “simple” tournament suspension and defer the conduct issue until after the finalsÖ and hope, secretly, perhaps, that Colombia win on Saturday.