And Then Suarez Shrugged

Tuesday, July 06, 2010 | View Comments
July 02, 2010 - South Africa - Football - Uruguay v Ghana FIFA World Cup Quarter Final - South Africa 2010 - Soccer City Stadium, Johannesburg, South Africa - 2/7/10..Uruguay's Luis Suarez (C) is shown a red card by referee Olegario Benquerenca after he handled the ball on the goal line in the last minute of extra time.

Luis Suarez, as both hero and villain, has been examined, reexamined, beaten, kneaded, and boiled down since Friday's shocking turn of events. Suarez broke the first commandment of the game, did so for cynical competitive reasons, and failed to live up to the strangest belief fans hold, that players should be gentlemen. The punishment is meant to be the deterrent; how then do we reconcile fair play with the actions of a player for whom the punishment is an acceptable trade for keeping out a goal illegally?

We can take an accidental touch of the ball with the hand, but we gag at the sight of a player intentionally doing so. Even dangerous leg-breaking tackles cause less righteous squawking. Thierry Henry is nodding knowingly.

The moment that Suarez chose to swat at the ball matters; done in the crucial dying moments of extra time, his apparent willingness to take red card medicine kept Uruguay in the game. After Asamoah Gyan slammed the resulting penalty kick off the crossbar, the "heroic" nature of Suarez's act crystallized. When Uruguay followed through in the shootout, the world exploded in alternating waves of shock and awe.

I'm not here to argue whether Suarez was "right" to break the most sacrosanct rule in the game, or to pontificate on possible rule changes. "Hero or cheat?" doesn't need another thousand word answer. What I'm concerned with at this moment is why Suarez shrugged.

Admittedly, I'm looking for something new to this story. The aftermath of Suarez's crime intrigues me.

There's little doubt of Suarez's intent in handling the ball. He meant to do it. It may have been split-second instinct, premeditated only in the blink of an eye, but he undeniably consciously chose to lift his arms and bat the ball away. It was an instinctual act of desperation. The moment his hands made contact, he must have realized the implications of his choice; he'd be sent off, gloriously or ingloriously depending on one's perspective, guaranteed to miss at least one match should his team survive. Like the murderer convicted on a mountain of physical evidence, there was no justifiable way for Suarez to proclaim his innocence. And yet there he was, at the moment the sentence came down, shrugging and pointing to himself as if he had been wronged.

The shrug doesn't appear to be one of resignation. Suarez didn't cheekily smile, as if to say "You got me," or lift his shoulders in an "What could I do?" admission of guilt. His shrug was one of mock shock and feigned surprise. The hubris of it would be astonishing had we not already been conditioned to simply accept it as part of the game.

The degree of his protest barely matters when the certainty of his guilt is considered. The gesture was slight and fleeting and he did not challenge the referee; still, there's that small moment, one of pure gall no matter its brevity, in which he acts the victim.

Perhaps this is a cultural affectation. Not of Latin football, but of all football. Players routinely act in just the way Suarez did, perhaps with more vigor, no matter the veracity of the card they're given. This is the modern dance, its composition assumed and the steps numbingly rote. The referee exhibits the indictment and levels the punishment, the player proclaims his innocence through body language, the spoken word, or both. We hardly notice anymore.

We might have been more shocked had Suarez not shrugged and pointed. It might have been noteworthy if he had given up the dance and left the field without so much as a nod. Had he raised his hand in admission of his transgression, shameless in the cold reality that he simply had to do it, that act might have been more shocking than the handball itself.

Suarez will be judged by history, particularly if Uruguay manage to make an unlikely Final, on the decision he made to willfully break the game's most basic of rule. No one will care that he shrugged. There's even room to imagine that he truly wasn't sure who was being shown the card, or that his gesture was one of contrition. If you imagine him noble Suarez, the man willing to make the ultimate soccer sacrifice to give his nation a chance to continue their World Cup run, then perhaps you see it this way. But even as I see nothing morally wrong with the handball, and an unwilling to skewer the man for his cynical act, I find something distasteful in the way he took his punishment.

He did it. He knew he did it. Why not smile ruefully, or not at all, and leave the field as he knew he would be required to do?

There's cynicism in Suarez's handball, but there may be more in his simple shrug.

Perhaps I expect too much, just like all of those people sanctimoniously declaring Suarez the ultimate cheat and a moral deficient for intentionally handling the ball.
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