To indulge for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot. If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed.
Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp of the Perverse
On Friday June 27 2014, the unthinkable became inevitable. It was inevitable that Óscar Wáshington Tabárez, the 67-year-old coach of the Uruguay national team, would disappoint those of us who have admired him as that football man given, unusually, to thought. Tabárez used the press conference before the round of 16 match between Uruguay and Colombia to announce that we was quitting his Fifa positions, nominal though they were. He went on to denounce the English-speaking media for the unprecedented ban imposed on his star player, Luis Suárez. In Uruguay’s last, and deciding, game in Group D, Suárez had bitten the Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini, an incident the referee did not see; the Mexican referee, Marco Antonio Rodríguez, is known, ironically, or appropriately, depending on your point of view, as Dracula in his homeland. As soon as Suárez bit Chiellini, it was broadcast again and again in several television replays, after which it went viral, compelling Fifa to act. After an investigation, the footballing body did, banning Suárez from all “football-related activities” for four months. Fifa has subsequently seen fit to amend that decision, allowing Suárez to have a medical examination should his current club, England’s Liverpool FC, agree to a transfer with another club, quickly confirmed as FC Barcelona. Suárez in Catalonia, playing for the “Blaugrana” in November when his international suspension expires, is a foregone conclusion. A conditional deal, rumored to be in the region of ₤75.5 million (almost R1.4 billion), is said to have been agreed upon by the two clubs. It remains only for the specifics to be finalised.
Tabárez was faced with a difficult decision. He could accept what Suárez had done, as Suárez himself has subsequently done (after steadfastly denying that he had bitten Chiellini), which would have meant – more or less – condemning a player for whom he has great affection and almost a father-son bond. Not to mention, of course, how central Suárez is to Tabárez’s plans for keeping tiny Uruguay competitive within Latin American and international football. In effect, any critique Tabárez offered would have meant betraying Suárez and undermining the rugged defense mounted by his Uruguayan team. Captain Diego Lugano led the charge, suggesting that Suárez was being made a victim and that Chiellini was “not a man” for responding so demonstratively to Suárez’s bite. When he is bitten, Lugano more or less suggested, a man must simply grin and bear, but never show, it. Chiellini, for his part, demurred, rather loudly.
To have publicly declared Suárez wrong would have constituted an unprecedented act by a football manager. Tabárez, as has been established, chose the managerial path well trodden. His “small country”, Uruguay, which has a population of about 3.5 million, making it the smallest country to have won the World Cup, was being treated unfairly, Tabárez insisted. The ban, he suggested, was excessive – itself, of course, an admission of his striker’s guilt, a fact that seemed to escape the coach – and the result of the British media’s vendetta against Suárez. On this score it is possible to feel a small amount of sympathy for Tabárez. While Suárez is punished (this is, after all, a third offence, the first committed against Otman Bakkal in the Netherlands in 2011 and the second against Branislav Ivanović while playing for Liverpool in 2013), Arjen Robben, who publicly admits cheating (he dived in the Netherland’s round of 16 game against Mexico, an act for which he has expressed no regret) and has a long history of such behavior, escapes without punishment. The white cheat is absolved, free to continue in his dishonest ways, one presumes, while the Latin American who bites is severely punished. Still, this discrepancy elicits only a minimum of sympathy, in part because these are very different orders of transgressions – repeated simulation, however much it contravenes the spirit of the game, is not the same as repeated biting.
If any manager in the contemporary game were capable (or “is”, I must struggle to say, to continue to say) of breaking with managerial tradition (defend your players at all costs; deflect the blame; implicitly impugn others – the referee, opponents, Fifa), I have always imagined it would be Tabárez. The Uruguayan coach is, unlike Poe’s murderous narrator, neither afraid to “prostrate” himself in the direction of the “abyss”, thought, nor is he afraid of being “destroyed” by thought. My impression arises from the sense of universality that Tabárez possesses; he is, after all, a man who is philosophical by nature, a coach who ascribes to a set of transcendent principles, a way of being in the world that is not determined by context. Tabárez has always done as he thinks is right – as if he, this man of thought, had no time for the niceties of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem If. He would keep his head about him, victory or defeat, regardless of the conditions in which he might find himself. Not for nothing have his fellow Uruguayans trusted him twice with the fortunes of the national team, the man they have named “El Maestro” (The Teacher), in honor of his time as a primary school teacher.
After his first stint as manager of the national team from 1988 to 1990 ended in failure, he went about his business with care and humility. Failure in Italy with AC Milan (1996) was the lowest moment, but he returned in 2006 for a second time to manage his country and immediately set about instituting a national programme geared towards preparing Uruguayan youth for senior international football. Tabárez coached Uruguay to fourth place in the 2010 World Cup and Uruguay won the Copa Libertadores in 2011, arguably his greatest coaching accomplishments. His reflection is borne of forbearance; he is never one to indulge himself.
Tabárez has installed in the Uruguayan side a “garra” mentality. “Garra” translates as tough, streetwise and determined. Except that this side is garnished with the extravagant gifts of Suárez (only Lionel Messi, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo rank with him), the savvy of the veteran Diego Forlán (who retains a remarkable eye for goal) and the tenacity and vision of Edinson Cavani. Gone, for the most part, was the cynicism that had, until Tabárez’s second act, characterised Uruguayan football. Brutish tackling was the least of their sins; this was not a pleasant team to watch, physical and disdainful of joga bonito as they were. Suárez’s handball on the goal line to deny Ghana a goal in the quarterfinals in South Africa hinted that the cynicism was not entirely extinguished, but Uruguay was easily a top-four team in 2010. Tabárez was that campaign’s iconoclastic, and endearingly restrained, architect. Tactically astute, captivatingly reticent in his pronouncements, almost taut in his conduct, he has about him a wisdom. His intelligence is worn with comfort but never with ostentation. He knows how to give himself to thought because, unlike Poe’s protagonist, he has nothing to hide, and less to fear. Poe’s narrator struggles against thought because it would remind him of his guilt. In vain, it turns out, because thought – or ‘conscience’ – cannot be escaped and it is finally emerging out of a resounding, haunting silence that indicts him. Or perhaps it is what compels him to indict himself. Tabárez walks the path of thought with an engaging self-assurance.
Examine these and similar actions as we will, we shall find them resulting solely from the spirit of the perverse. We perpetrate them merely because we feel that we should not. Beyond or behind this, there is no intelligible principle.
Poe, The Imp of the Perverse
It was a moment, Suárez’s bite and the reactions that ensued (both before and after Fifa issued its decision), that called for reflection, contemplation and instruction. Lugano, reduced to the role (until late in the match against Italy) of nonplaying captain, threw himself with all his might into the cause of defending Suárez. His pent-up energy had found its outlet. Lugano and his teammates were entitled to their response. Lugano and his colleagues did what teammates do: they come out vigorously in support of their own, they impugn the world, they decry injustice, they proclaim, loudly and frequently, their innocence. The frothing at the mouth of the Uruguayan media (Luis Roux was the single exception), the Uruguay President José Mujica’s colorful denunciations of Fifa (it is quite a spectacle to see a president so comfortable in everyday, masculinist profanity), those rote defenses meant little to me. (Mujica was hysterical – by which I mean both funny and a little loco – in his condemnation of Fifa’s “fascist ban”).
It was to Tabárez that I looked. I could imagine his predicament as a manager, but we all knew that what the moment called for was judgment, a philosophical skill in which Tabárez is well versed. And here I believed I had reason to trust Tabárez because he understands what is at stake, he grasps what is proper to the moment. Kipling, that most intriguing – and complex – of colonialist authors, wrote that we must treat the “impostors” the same regardless of victory or defeat. Not so Tabárez.
Victory he declared to be more or less his enemy, cast in the language of an overly cautious dentist. “Winning is the sweet that rots the tooth,” he offered, when complimented on the accomplishments of 2010. Which would make defeat, what? Regular brushing with a healthy dose of fluoride? Flossing twice a day? Defeat, if we are to follow the analogy to its periodontological end, breeds healthy dental hygiene – at the very least, a sound team structure. Tabárez was, of course, not advocating defeat but he was alert to the increased expectations and how those could adversely affect his team. It turns out he was right. Uruguay struggled to qualify for Brazil 2014. It took a late run to get them into a playoff – against Jordan – to qualify for the competition. And although they beat both England and Italy to qualify second to Costa Rica, who defeated them in the opening group game (when Suárez did not play), this team lacked the verve of their 2010 predecessors. The quarterfinal loss to Colombia, with Suárez already back in Montevideo, was a mere formality. At that press conference before the game, Tabárez conducted himself in a most un-Tabárez fashion. He spoke like a man without conviction. He spoke like a coach who could master victory and defeat, but not, not this, this “spirit of the perverse” for which he could discern “no intelligible principle”. In truth, such unintelligibility is beyond Suárez as well.
The Uruguayan’s defense of Suárez rang hollow from the start. Under no circumstances could Suárez’s bite be rationalised. This, I have little doubt, Tabárez knew in the moment of its having happened. He could inveigh against the treatment handed out to Suárez, but he could not, under any circumstances, defend it. That he left to the Luganos of the world, aided in no small measure by the Uruguayan media. I wonder what Eduardo Galeano, doyen of football writers the world over and the keenest observer of football his native land has ever produced, made of the entire episode. Was he glad to be in retirement for this? Surely he admires Suárez as a player – his impish brilliance is just the thing Galeano so celebrates in Football in Sun and Shadow. But the racism? The repeated biting? Suárez’s behaviour must surely trouble Galeano, who is so proud of Uruguay’s history of producing and exalting its black players, who so abhors the ugly physicality that so often ruins the game. This week, when one of the most beautiful footballers the game has ever known, Alfredo di Stéfano (born in neighbouring Argentina), has passed on, Galeano would interrupt his mourning to call for more beauty, for less racism and, if at all possible, for outlawing all violence.
I know the vacuity of Suárez’s defense with certainty, because I am an admirer of his prodigious gifts as a footballer. Since he scored his first goal for Liverpool, my club, against Stoke City on his Premier League debut (coming on as a substitute), I have pinned my hopes on him and marvelled at this technical ability, at the infectious way in which he plays the game, with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy released early from class. And so, like every Liverpool fan and every Uruguayan partisan, I was filled with dread when I saw the encounter between Suárez and Chiellini. This was a place I’d been before. This was all too familiar. There was nothing to do but succumb to that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. At first I thought that “Lou”, as Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers refers to him, had head-butted Chiellini, but it quickly became apparent that Suárez was back to his trademark behaviour. Chiellini, a self-pronounced hard man who proved himself adept at playing the victim, was eager to show the world his battle wounds (wags in the Uruguayan media intimated that the Italian was trying to show his “bra”); in any case, incisors tend to leave a mark on human flesh.
I felt sick. My mouth was dry. Embarrassed as a Liverpool fan, once again, shocked that Suárez could have done this, again. He was coming off his best season as a player, reaping awards for his spectacular goals – a Premier League-leading 31 – and his brilliant performances, proclaimed by all to be the best player in England.
My immediate response was twofold. I could not defend Suárez; I would not defend him. But neither did denunciation offer itself as the thoughtful response. That is because, much more troublingly and painfully, I suspected that nothing – and no one – could, or can in the future, prevent Suárez from self-destruction – least of all, as Poe recognises, Suárez himself: “Examine these and similar actions as we will, we shall find them resulting solely from the spirit of the perverse. We perpetrate them merely because we feel that we should not. Beyond or behind this, there is no intelligible principle.” That is who “Lou” is: the imp of the perverse. A truly world-class footballer, at the very top of his game, overcome by the “spirit of the perverse:” bent on an inexplicable path to self-destruction. Every time it happens, he is punished; every time it happens, he promises – to his team, teammates, now, in the latest incident, to his children (what sins they are being asked to bear) – that it will not happen again. Suárez knows what he should not do, as does Tabárez, but neither of them are masters of the “inexplicable principle”.
I understand the political danger inherent in what I am raising in this articulation. I do not mean either to excuse or pathologise Suárez; I do not mean to suggest that there is something innately unhealthy or abnormal about his behaviour. I mean only to suggest that he is, for reasons inexplicable (to me, and possibly even to him), given to doing things – things that he “feels he should not” – that will harm him. I am doubtful he can curb his tendencies. It is for this reason I do not anticipate that things will go smoothly when he moves to Barcelona. He might even, as many have before him (such as Ian Rush, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler, Fernando Torres), regret leaving, because at Barcelona they will not build their team around nor be nearly so tolerant of his self-indulgences. And Liverpool will miss him – his mesmerising talent, the joy with which he plays the game.
For a moment, maybe, even an extended moment, Suárez will present his better self. But sooner or later the tendency will emerge again, in one form or another. As is obvious from my prevarications, I am skirting frightfully close to the very danger – pathologisation – I wish to avoid.
This may be why I turn to Poe. His narrator grasps, if only perversely (that is, entirely unlike Tabárez), the unintelligibility of tragedy and the tragedy of tragedy. It is difficult to explain – all the more so when the tragic figure is so revered because of his immense talents. When he bit Chiellini, the full force of the tragedy became evident. Suárez is a footballer who has such greatness in him, who has given us ample evidence of his brilliance, but who is subject to a fatal flaw: his ability to undo himself, to reduce his gifts to mere ashes. This is, as Poe says, the promise of perversity: in the end, it will bring everything crashing down. That is – for Poe’s narrator, the perpetrator who is also, in his own perverse way, his own hero – the effect of perversity: it is destructive. It never spares the self. It spares the self least of all. This, if the poetry is to be believed, and I see no reason not to believe it, is the fate that awaits Suárez.
Tabárez and his protégé
Do as he might, Suárez will undo himself, and we will be left to wonder at this capacity to do these things that seem at once shocking, entirely unexpected, and yet integral to who “Lou” is. These acts that cause such opprobrium to rain down on him, that expose him to vitriolic attacks by those who despise him, render those who admire him helpless. After Uruguay beat Italy and before Fifa handed down its verdict, Suárez trained on his own, away from his Uruguayan colleagues. I watched that footage, and his face was that of a condemned man. Only in part a man condemned by others, in large measure a man who looked as though he could not, ever, help himself in moments of consequence. Suárez’s face bore a look of overwhelming sadness. It pained me, because I knew, with the certainty of a fan and lifelong Liverpool supporter, that our support could not sustain him. Suárez was, in that moment, for me, lost to Uruguay, to Liverpool, and to himself. I sought help by leafing through my catalogue of tragic literary figures.
Not Hamlet, not Othello, not Lear, not Don Quixote (a figure Tabárez would surely have no truck with) could help me – none bore a resemblance to Suárez, although the Moor came closest. However, unlike Suárez, Othello could trust no one, beginning with his own judgment. Suárez has Tabárez and maybe even his soon-to-be former skipper, Steven Gerrard. Suárez stands, literally and for all figurative purposes, alone. His smile, so illuminating when he is on his game, was reduced to a series of muscles clenched for the camera. It is precisely because his better self lay strewn on the turf of Estádio das Dunas in Brazil’s Natal that he could not hide his pain.
I miss Suárez already. I missed him before he was gone. I could see no good coming of his staying at Anfield nor of his leaving Liverpool. It did not matter which course he chose. It would all circle back, in the end. Because I will miss him, I cannot wish him ill – unlike, I suspect, many other Reds fans; he made us proud, he thrilled us, he shamed us, not once, but thrice, as though he were our very own St Peter, wearing not the garb of a simple fisherman but a liver bird on his chest as he denied us our uninterrupted adulation of him. The third bite was the final act. But now, how would we ever say goodbye? How would we hold our memories of this latest in the great line of number 7s – “Lou”, worthy heir to the Liverpool greats, that lineage that stretched from Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish to Peter Beardsley and now the Uruguayan? Are our cherished memories of him tarnished? Wasn’t it always so? Finally, it was all too much. Finally, we are left bereft, saddened, unsure of his place in our affections, caught between the beauty, joy and effervescence of his play and his tragic tendencies.
Of this I am certain: I will always be haunted by Suárez. I will never forget his buck-toothed grin, whether I recall that in pleasure or pain. I can see him now. I will see him many long years from now. I suspect I will not be alone in the ranks of the haunted. I will always, when it comes to him – as is true for me of Keegan, Dalglish, Graeme Souness, John Barnes, both Maccas, Michael Owen – have perfect recall. It is a necessary thing, as a fan, to be haunted, is it not?
I wonder if Tabárez, who knows him better than any of his other coaches, who nurtured him, gave him support when others doubted his talents, will not share my sense of being haunted. What Suárez demons does he wrestle with? Which brand of philosophy, if any, provides him with solace? I would like to ask him. I wonder what his answer might be.
In the end, more than anything, Suárez moves me to reappraise my own putative disappointment in Tabárez. It is not simply that Tabárez was loyal to his charge. It is, rather, that for Tabárez fidelity to the Other demands not the suspension of judgment, but grace: to love in the face of, because of, the Other’s tragic propensities. Unlike Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac in order to obey God, Tabárez would not sacrifice this perverse son of his. He was true to Suárez to the very end. He would not condemn him for the loss to Colombia, and he has not condemned him since. Abraham was not willing to sacrifice Isaac because he did not love him. He was willing to put him to death because he loved God. Tabárez would refuse God were such a request made of him, were such a command issued to him. Tabárez privileges the Son over the Father. God, especially, knows this as love itself, as grace.
In the face of international condemnation, Tabárez offered truculent critiques that was, in truth, dissembling in the cause of loyalty. His fidelity, moreover, should be understood not as the suspension of his judgment but his pained recognition of the futility of judgment in the face of the larger force that is tragedy. Tabárez’s fidelity is mark not of his rationalisation but of his inability to publicly pronounce his helplessness. In the face of tragedy, Tabárez offered Suárez something that might be cast as a coach and mentor’s grace (as only God is capable of grace – love beyond love): love beyond judgment. Here God and Tabárez are on the same side.
Suárez must know himself to be the recipient of Tabárez’s grace. It is etched in the pain he showed, before the world, both at his final training session with his national team, and bearing his son on his arm, his daughter looking on, upon his return to Montevideo. Suárez knows that Tabárez knows his helplessness. That is Tabárez’s wisdom. That is his love. Suárez, made the gift of that love, must now love his children as Tabárez has loved him. That is the one promise he must keep.
So it is, in the best Socratic tradition, that El Maestro is a teacher. Through his actions he poses questions, of himself and of us. In the face of a loved one’s violence, he offers grace. He knows the proper place of judgment because he knows when his judgment would be out of place, when judgment must bow to the force of tragedy. When it is clear, we must remember that the force of tragedy has not yet exhausted itself. It is this recognition that might be Tabárez and Suárez’s greatest fear. That might be what the helplessness in Suárez’s eyes betrays. There is more to come; the worst is yet to come. It is possible, but futile, to apologise to the future and yet that might be the only way to go into the future, to offer injunctions against it, to instil some hope in the self that the move from Liverpool to Barcelona will offer itself as a shield against the self. Still, there is the maxim that haunts: Wherever you go, there you are. How does one guard against inexorability? It is not that Suárez does not want to immunise himself against himself, but that he knows he cannot. The events that constitute his football life – bite, racism, bite, bite – mitigate against him. The true perversity of the situation is that he cannot defend himself against himself.
Nevertheless, Suárez is a man fortunate in his tragedy. He has in his corner a coach whom he can disappoint but who will never be disappointed in him, because Tabárez values defeat. Tabárez has respect for the pedagogical and philosophical insights afforded by moments of difficulty. In his ‘worst’ public displays, Tabárez reveals not his limitations but the full range of his philosophical complexity. In his refusal to condemn, there is not the suspension of judgment nor indulgence or rationalisation. Suárez is not excused. There is, instead, a far more potent, thought-provoking response. Tabárez offers an unqualified, but carefully considered, love for the condemned. He shows us, wittingly or not, the face of grace. That is perfectly intelligible’ that is perfectly visible.
Gracias, El Maestro, gracias.