07/11/2014 05:49 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2014

Love Bite: Why Uruguayans Revere Luis Suárez

Written by Daniel Renfrew

For many soccer fans around the world, Uruguay superstar Luis Suárez's televised chomp on the shoulder of Italy's Giorgio Chiellini in what has been dubbed "the bite heard 'round the world" has marred an otherwise mesmerizing World Cup in Brazil. People have expressed incredulity: how could Suárez do that, again (the third biting incident in his professional career)? Perhaps more shockingly, how could the Uruguayan national team and its coach, its fans, and even Uruguay's President defend his actions?

The controversy is about Luis Suárez, but its roots go far beyond the player: it is about culture- footballing culture- and also history and politics. In Uruguay, as in many parts of the world, soccer represents much more than sport or entertainment. People channel nationalistic ideologies through soccer. Winning on the world stage is accompanied by folk theories and foundational myths regarding essential cultural and sporting attributes that are thought to distinguish national character. When one is talking about a country nested within the so-called "developing world," soccer may virtually be the only means by which Uruguay sets itself apart on the world stage. So in a way soccer offers a level playing field from which to counter the broader world's experienced and perceived inequities. When Uruguay beat England and Italy in the first round of the Cup, they defeated not only world soccer powers, but world political, economic, and military powers as well. There is a strong David vs. Goliath story at work here, expressed through the geopolitics of the global North and South.

Suárez is seen by most Uruguayans as a national hero, still, even after the biting incident and world soccer governing body FIFA's subsequent four month ban of the player from all soccer related activities. Hundreds of Uruguayans joined President José Mujica at the airport on a cold winter night to offer Suárez a hero's welcome home. Uruguay's continued support of Suárez is due to several factors: he was the key figure in both Uruguay's 2010 World Cup semifinal run and Uruguay's record 15th Copa America (South American championship) title in 2011; he was the leading scorer in the South American qualifying tournament, surpassing even superstars like Argentina's Lionel Messi or Colombia's Radamel Falcao; and he is considered the current squad's most important player, both in footballing and psycho-emotional terms. But perhaps more importantly, Suárez embodies some of the key attributes of Uruguay's foundational character and footballing identity.

Garra Charrúa, viveza criolla, and the pibe

La garra Charrúa (the Charrúa "claw" or grip), is the popular and mythical idea that Uruguay's soccer team channels the fighting spirit, tenacity and never-say-die spirit of the legendary Charrúa Indians that populated the territory that became Uruguay. This spirit is embodied individually and expressed collectively- the individual will do anything to help the cause, and like a warrior, will fight to the "death" to achieve victory.

The "viveza criolla" ethos complements the garra Charrúa mythic ideal. Criollo(a) translates as creole, referring in the historical South American sense to someone who is native-born. Viveza stems from the term "vivo," meaning alive, but also alert, crafty, tenacious, and cunning. To engage in a homegrown and inventive, crafty and cunning behavior on the soccer pitch means you are willing to bend or break the rules when necessary. Being caught in the attempt is frowned upon, and fans will revile opposing players for trying it. But when the referee doesn't see it, when it is your own player doing it, and when the end result is successful, it is usually seen as a virtue. There is a long history of this kind of behavior being celebrated in Uruguay, which includes shirt pulling, the professional foul, diving, a handball on the line to prevent a goal (as in Suárez's action against Ghana in the 2010 World Cup quarterfinal), and maybe, even, a bite to provoke or unsettle an opposing player.

The Suárez bite drew a broad range of reactions in Uruguay. In any other context, Uruguayans view biting as an unacceptable behavior and it is punished among children like anywhere else. Biting, however, probably does not generate the same kind of moral revulsion that fans and observers have expressed in the Anglo-American context. Biting is considered bad, but not necessarily an "evil," cannibalistic, or barbaric act. What really violates the codes of moral conduct on the soccer pitch is intentionally or recklessly hurting other players and threatening their careers: a broken leg or busted knee, an elbow to the face, or a fractured back, as Brazil's superstar Neymar suffered against Colombia in another notorious incident of this World Cup.

Some of Suárez's defense could also be attributed to a model of footballing masculinity similar to what anthropologist Eduardo Archetti has written about in Argentina as the figure of the pibe (the kid). The pibe is a hybrid man/child, the grown man who plays like a kid, free and wild, imaginatively passionate, who can turn a game on its head through his sheer individual artistry and brilliance. The "child" part can also lead him to questionable moral behaviors and choices. Diego Maradona is the quintessential pibe, the "pibe de oro" (golden kid), which is why so many of his unfortunate personal decisions are forgiven by his countrymen. Maradona's performance in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals against England perfectly illustrates the pibe's simultaneous darkness and brilliance: first came the infamous "Hand of God" goal where Maradona clearly cheated, followed by one of the World Cup's best ever goals where he dribbled through half of England's national team to score. Both embody the pibe's essence- the magic and the viveza- and in that sense there is a lot that Maradona and Suárez share. After Suárez scored both goals to sink England, Maradona called to thank him, saying people would remember his actions forever. When Suárez' other, more nefarious actions took center stage, Maradona posted a "selfie" sporting a homemade t-shirt declaring, "Luisito: We are with you."

Soccer geopolitics
Uruguay, once a world soccer superpower, spent decades in relative obscurity until their rebirth in 2010. The country's footballing decline is complex to explain, but has to do in part with a parallel decline in socio-economic conditions, as well as with globalization and the commercialization of world football. Since the 1990s, top European leagues like England's Premier League have become the global powerbrokers of the world's game, drawing from a seemingly endless pipeline of raw talent and aspiring stars from South America and Africa. Uruguay is also a country of barely over 3 million, by far the smallest to have ever won anything on the global stage, a "suburb of New York," as it is sometimes put.

Politically, Uruguayans tend to be leftist in one way or another. Even the "right" has anti-imperialist sensibilities. England is seen as the soccer and economic/political/military empire of the world, or at least part of it, and Uruguay as the perennial underdogs always punching above their weight. From one often aired Uruguayan perspective, England was a brutal colonizer, it introduced slavery to much of the world, and it literally invented soccer hooliganism. The English used soccer as a tool of empire, to "civilize" from their vantage point, but from the opposite perspective to discipline and subjugate the colonized. Soccer in South America, on the other hand, was a key mechanism of forging working class identity and at times a vehicle of nationalist resistance.

The first three questions asked of Tabárez following Uruguay's victory over Italy were from English journalists seeking a reaction to the Suárez biting incident. Perturbed that the focus was on Suárez's alleged bad behavior rather than on Uruguay's tactical mastery over its rival or its tenacity and perseverance, Tábarez answered: "This is a World Cup of football, not one of cheap morality." Uruguayans have a chip on their shoulder after decades of being labeled by the Brits and others as dirty players and cheats, and they do not take kindly to what they view as arrogant and misplaced moralizing. So at the airport when Suárez returned home alone in seeming disgrace, hundreds of supporting fans erupted in song: Y ya lo ves, y ya lo ves, el que no salta es un ingles! (And there you see it, there you see it, the one not jumping is a Brit).

As for FIFA, many Uruguayans, similar to their protesting counterparts in Brazil, view the organization as a corrupt and cynical cabal, perennially on the wrong side of common people's interests. Conspiracy theories abound in Uruguay and are embedded in much of the country's political culture. In this case, the thought was that there was an ongoing international campaign against Suárez (led by the English media) and Uruguay itself, and that even the World Cup group seeding was manipulated, placing the country within the nearly impossible "Group of Champions" alongside Italy, England and Costa Rica, the supposed minnows who won the group and became this World Cup's Cinderella story. Uruguayans think of their selección as an "inconvenient nation": rarely playing attractive soccer, they usually do not have much star power and represent a market of only 3 million people. Uruguay eliminated both England and Italy, two world powerhouses representing a combined market of 80 million people. Some even think that FIFA wanted Uruguay out because of the so-called "ghost of 1950," the legendary and mythical moment when Uruguay upset mighty Brazil in the 1950 World Cup final at Rio's Maracaná stadium.

Most Uruguayans probably thought Suárez made a mistake and they expected a punishment. Some thought he was innocent and the bite was "accidental." Regardless, virtually everyone thought the punishment FIFA meted out was excessive and draconian. Maradona said Suárez was treated like a terrorist and that they might as well send him to Guantánamo Bay. President Mujica referred to FIFA officials as "a bunch of old sons of bitches" and the decision as "fascist" in character.

Contrary to so many of the virulent Internet-based attacks labeling Uruguayans as a barbaric and backward people for defending Suárez, Uruguayans do not in fact think biting is appropriate adult behavior. While people recognize Suárez's own responsibility for his actions, and many have expressed disappointment that he let down La Celeste by being banned from the knockout rounds (where a "toothless" Uruguay, forgive the pun, lost in the second round to Colombia), he is largely forgiven because of his hero status, and because he is seen (rightly or not) as having been subjected to years of witch hunts and conspiracies. In that sense, we might think of the mercurial Suárez as a living metaphor of Uruguay's fate in the world. Defending Suárez turned into a nationalist cause, regardless of what people thought of his actions on the field that day, or on any other day. Biter or not, they said, Suárez has garra, he is vivo, and he is us.

Daniel Renfrew is an associate professor of Anthropology at West Virginia University. His teaching and research interests span the environmental, critical medical, urban, and political anthropology sub-fields, in addition to interdisciplinary approaches to social movements, science and technology studies, political ecology, and Latin American studies.