On November 13, as Uruguay’s national soccer team, La Celeste (The Sky Blue), ran onto the pitch at Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario, the biggest cheer came for the most scandalous of soccer heroes.
Luis Suárez, who has earned the enmity of players, fans, and at least one prime minister for his race-tinged language and taste for opponents’ flesh—gave a wave and a big, toothy grin as tens of thousands of fans applauded his first match at home since being suspended from competitive international soccer for biting an Italian opponent at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
I was in the bleachers for the Nov. 13 match against Costa Rica, which Suárez could join because it was a non-competitive “friendly,” and I was taken aback by the popularity of the No. 9 jersey and the unwavering conviction of Uruguayans to stand by their man—even after his bizarre behavior crippled the national team’s quest for the Cup. Without its star scorer, La Celeste was subsequently knocked out of World Cup play, and now its ability to defend the Copa América championship title next year has also been compromised.
Surely Suárez had bitten off more than he could chew on stage at the world’s largest sporting event, but in Uruguay, Suárez is loved more than ever.
“His popularity increased after the World Cup,” Ignacio Zuasnabar, the Director of Public Opinion at the Montevideo-based consulting firm Equipos Mori, told me in his office not too far from Estadio Centenario itself. “Suárez made goals against England and Italy; it was impressive. When he came back, all the people were waiting for him the airport. He was a national hero.”
Among those waiting at the airport were President José Mujica, who summed up the national feeling when he called soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, “a bunch of old sons of bitches” over their “fascist” punishment of the player. Mujica greeted Suárez and urged the footballer to “continue living, learning and fighting.”
To say Suárez’s popularity has rebounded isn’t accurate, because it never fell. Uruguayans forgave him before the bite marks even wore off. “We know he bit him, and we love him for it,” said Valentina Fernández, a 22-year-old psychology student in Montevideo. She has a Suárez face mask at her apartment, which she said she wears during matches. “In that moment, with all that passion and the situation of the game, it was, like, really awesome.”
The World Cup wasn’t the first time Suárez went cannibalistic. Uruguay has stomached several scandals involving Suárez, which has perhaps adjusted their expectations of the 27-year-old footballer.
His first known bite in 2010 while playing for Ajax in Holland earned him a 7-match suspension and the nickname “Cannibal of Ajax.” Then, in 2013, while playing for Liverpool in England, he took a bite out of a Chelsea player, spurring Prime Minister David Cameron to tell public radio: “As a dad and as a human being, do I think we should have tough penalties when football players behave like this? Yes.” This time, Suárez was suspended for 10 matches.
But the bite seen ‘round the world happened on June 24, in a crucial World Cup match against Italy. Near the 80th minute, Suárez lunged face-first at opponent Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder. As Chiellini cried out and pulled down his shirt to reveal bite marks, Suárez clenched his teeth as if they’d been dealt a blow by Chiellini’s shoulder. No penalty was issued, and Uruguay went on to win. But replays clearly show Suárez as the aggressor. Within days, FIFA issued a nine-match suspension, a four-month ban from all soccer activities, and a fine of 100,000 Swiss francs (about $103,000).
Suárez immediately became the gag of numerous jokes. Ensuing memes included a recreated scene from the film Jaws, with the footballer’s face in place of the man-eating shark. The New York Times headlined its day-after article: “Uruguay’s Suárez, Known for Biting, Leaves Mark on World Cup.” Even the former U.S. boxer Evander Holyfield, whose ears were both bitten by Mike Tyson in their famous 1997 match, weighed in on the Suárez saga with this tweet: “I guess any part of the body is up for eating.”
Yet there’s not even a bit of ambivalence or resentment in Uruguay toward Suárez’s inexplicable and self-destructive actions. Instead, Uruguayans lay fault at the feet of Italy’s “trickster” Chiellini and FIFA’s “fascist” executives.
Zuasnabar conducted a survey in 2011 on Uruguayan public opinion toward Suárez following another nine-match ban for racially abusing a black opponent in England. Even then, Uruguayans rushed to the footballer’s defense, saying that “negro” was not considered a racial slur in Uruguay. The footballer’s popularity rose after that incident, too.
I asked an Italian vacationing in Uruguay what she thought of this nation’s generous defense of a footballer who had bitten her countryman. “When Uruguayans ask me where I’m from, I’m afraid to say,” said Giulia Collura, 32. “I don’t understand why they love him so much, why they don’t see something wrong in what he’s done.”
Collura and I were on a tour of Montevideo’s old city, and we’d stopped in front of a pedestrian street. Certain tiles were inscribed with the names of state heroes, including the footballer Alcides Ghiggia, who scored Uruguay’s game-winning goal in the 1950 World Cup final against Brazil.
Our guide said that British tourists, especially those who are fans of Suárez’s former team F.C. Liverpool, always ask if today’s top Uruguayan soccer star will get his own tile on the national walk of fame. “Liverpool fans love Suárez, because he gave everything to them,” the guide explained. “They understand why we love him, why we stand by him. But he needs to stop biting people.”
Nearby on the walkway, a piece of upturned concrete was stenciled with Suárez’s smiling face. The biter, in many ways, had already made it to the Uruguayan walk of fame.
Want to read more soccer coverage from this author on AQ Online? Follow the links for more about Brazil’s 2014 World Cup preparations in Manaus, U.S. soccer diplomacy, and the aftermath of Brazil’s World Cup defeat.