Monday, June 30, 2014
The World Cup celebrates some of the loftiest ideals in sport. Countries that have long traditions of distrust meet each other on the field and play with dignity and poise, shaking hands and exchanging jerseys when the battle is over. It helps that many opposing players in the World Cup are teammates on professional teams before and after the event, so strong connections are already established. We expect to see the highest level of decorum, and referees have been directed to issue cards for dissent. When Cristiano Ronaldo was called offside during the U.S. – Portugal game, he shrugged his shoulders and with a wry pinch gesture indicated that it couldn’t have been by much. Even though Portugal needed a win with its back up against the wall, Ronaldo kept his cool. We’ve seen a few meltdowns, but for the most part the matches have only seen cards for rough play, which has always been a part of the game. Even Clint Dempsey, who was kicked in the face during the U.S. – Ghana match, agreed that it happened because of the zeal of a player to control the ball in the frenzy of a game with tremendous importance. The wounded have populated the pitch like an episode of the Walking Dead. Yet players and fans accept these injuries as part of the game. Well, almost every injury.
During the Uruguay – Italy match, Luis Suarez, for no apparent reason and away from the ball, bit the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. No card was issued, and a livid Chiellini pulled down his jersey neckline to reveal clear bite marks on his left shoulder. The event was bizarre to say the least, made even more inexplicable because this is the third biting incident involving Suarez, who has served a seven game ban in 2010 and a 10 game ban in 2013. His vampire antics last week have cost him dearly with a ban from his next nine international matches and a four-month suspension on top of that. My youngest daughter bit her nursery school classmates and nearly got expelled. Luckily, we were able to squash the behavior in the nick of time. When two of my grandsons were just 17 months and 14 months old sharing some happy moments on the living room floor, the tranquility was broken when the older suddenly leaned over and bit his cousin on the back totally unprovoked. I think the collective gasp of “no” scared him straight because it never happened again. We expect our kids to have these incidents as either the instigator or the victim, but we also expect the episodes to end before they learn to read. We don’t imagine we’ll see a major player in the soccer world still learning to control his jaws at age 27.
Social media exploded with parodies, nasty comments, name-calling, and arm-chair analysis. News organizations weren’t sure what tone to take reporting the story. Laughable? Serious? Incredulous? ESPN commentators could barely talk about the game, which Uruguay eventually won, because the behavior of one player overshadowed his team’s success. Ruud Van Nistelroy, the former Dutch national player, stammered his words and shook his head in disbelief while describing his disappointment. Clearly he couldn’t fit his mind around the assault. His anger at Suarez was barely contained in describing how this stain affected a world-wide audience of youth players. He argued that Suarez needed to adhere to a higher standard as a role model in the sport. He wondered how we tell our young people to practice decorum and good sportsmanship when they see boorish and dangerous behavior at matches. Kids do pay attention to and model our actions.
I’ve been at youth games and have seen some disturbing conduct: Players punched in the stomach, tripped during the handshakes, and verbally and racially abused, along with temper tantrums, insubordination to the referees, taunting and attacking parents on the sidelines, and refusing to play. No wonder Ruud was worried. As well he should be because all of these incidents were perpetrated by adults, not youth players. I’ll never forget talking to fellow parents following a U-10 game and having a set of keys whizz past my face and smack into the parent next to me. Our team had won the game, and the opposing coach thought we had cheated, so in a tantrum, impulsively and regrettably attacked us with the only weapon he had. At a tournament, Robbie’s coach, so frustrated with the refereeing, called his team off the field and forfeited the match. This was in Florida, and we had traveled at great expense from Wisconsin to the tourney. Besides the embarrassment of being connected to the team who quit, there were the economic ramifications. I know how powerful the drug of winning can be, morphing a reasonable person into a pouting, shouting monster. But adults are supposed to be emotionally developed enough to avoid such immaturity. Just as my daughter and grandson acquired the self-restraint to stop biting, grown-ups (implying we’ve reached the pinnacle of maturity) should be able to control impetuous bad behaviors.
The administering of past bans on playing and the threat of a worse ban didn’t seem to be sufficient to thwart Suarez’ actions. That’s the most difficult thing to understand. His bite wasn’t done as retaliation, defense or control. It was a visceral, nearly primitive outburst. He targeted and went after the guy. Why he would risk his career and reputation to lash out in this way has to be what truly befuddled Van Nistelroy. I feel the same befuddlement when I witness adults in youth sports behaving badly. For example, a mother marched onto the field in the middle of a U-6 game to poke the 12-year-old referee in the chest while verbally badgering him. His crime? Not calling a foul that affected her child. She wouldn’t relent in her attack, which went on for 15 or 20 minutes. In the end, the police were called and she was charged with assault. Those of us who witnessed the debacle could only shake our heads as she was led away handcuffed. Apparently her sense of fairness had been abused to the point of clouding rational thought. I can’t figure out how any of it was worth it. Her daughter was left sobbing uncontrollably as she watched the police arrest her mother on a lovely spring day that should have been joyful. The lesson is that we need to rise above our own petty insults during any match and control our reactions. It really shouldn’t be that difficult — we tell our kids to count to 10, and we should take our own advice.
I love watching the World Cup because usually I can see exciting soccer played aggressively, yet decently. I groan during mistakes, cheer for exemplary play, and bite my nails as the clock ticks down. Despite a 1-0 loss to Germany, the U.S. managed to make it to the round of 16, thanks to Portugal’s defeat of Ghana. It was the least Portugal could do after scoring a last minute goal against us to tie the game. Instead of clear advancement, we were in the dizzying world of statistical analysis with dozens of scenarios depending on confusing variables controlling our fate. In the end, it all worked out. Uruguay also advanced, but without the assistance of Suarez it fell in the Round of 16. By his immature actions he let his national teammates down in their most important soccer contest. Rather than remembering a hard fought march to the Round of 16, Uruguay will be remembered as the team with the biting guy. None of us demand nobility from soccer adults, but we do expect normal controlled behavior. Whenever we feel the urge to lash out at a match, we should step back, take a deep breath, look at all the young eyes that are watching us and tell ourselves we’re better than that.