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The Uncivil Servant: Balls, Bites and Bombs

Mitchell Abidor
June 28, 2014

Uruguay's National Psychosis

by Mitchell Abidor 1-format43The end of the first round of the World Cup — a round of wonderful, exciting play and some wretched officiating — was crowned by l’Affaire Suarez. Luis Suarez, a forward for Liverpool and the Uruguayan national team, with about ten minutes to go in his team’s game against Italy, bit the shoulder of an opponent. Horrific as this might seem, Suarez was, in fact, a double recidivist, having already been suspended twice for the same offense, as well as for making racist remarks to a black opponent. The images make clear that Suarez bit his opponent (a thoroughly vile character who spent that entire game feigning injury and being fouled, but even so…) — but in Suarez’s native country the reaction was little short of insane. Photos showing the bite marks were dismissed as Photoshopped fakes, and the international outrage against the incident was dismissed as strictly the work of the English press and the defeated Italians. When Suarez’s four-month suspension was announced by FIFA, soccer’s governing body, the outrage in Uruguay knew no bounds, and reading the Uruguayan press was an excursion into the realm of the surreal. The lawyer for the Uruguayan Football Association said that even if Suarez was guilty of the bite, his other two biting incidents should have no bearing in deciding on his penalty since they occurred during regular season play, not the World Cup. Hundreds of people greeted his plane when Suarez flew home from Brazil — including the president of Uruguay, the 79-year old former urban guerrilla Jose Mujica, who called Suarez’s suspension “a monstrous aggression not just against a man, but also against a country.” Pro-Suarez demonstrators leaped up and down chanting “Whoever doesn’t jump is English.” Uruguay’s minister of the interior had to send extra forces to guard the Italian and British embassies in Montevideo. That football defines Uruguayan national identity is a truism, and explains the irrational reaction to Suarez’s punishment, which any sensible person would consider to have been too slight. Uruguay felt itself attacked in its very being, and so its reaction was out of all measure to the fate of a single soccer player. The reaction to the Uruguayan reaction has been one of condescension and ridicule, and it’s hard to fault that. Notoriously pro-Uruguayan, as attested by my proposing La Celeste — the Uruguayan national team — as the one Jewish progressives should support in the World Cup, I’ve been hard-pressed to find any defense for the country, its team, and its admirable leader. “We,” I’ve been told, “would never be guilty of such foolishness.” Perhaps. Uruguayans treat soccer as their nation’s raison d’être, so this attack on their greatest star unleashed a mass psychosis. But the result of this psychosis was nothing but making themselves look stupid in the eyes of the world. They did no harm to anyone else. When we in the U.S. enter periods of national psychosis it’s not over soccer, but over attacks on our national sense of exceptionalism and untouchableness, and over phantom enemies — and our psychosis results in the deaths of tens of thousands, the wasting of trillions of dollars in foolish wars, and the erosion of our civil liberties. We’d be better off getting exercised over athletes. Of course, we have our own versions of Luis Suarez — star athletes we adulate, whose numbers people wear on their jerseys, and who are paid in the tens of millions. What’s curious in our case, though, is that much as we love to boost athletes to celebrity status, we also love seeing them fall. We would never try to claim that the proof of one of our star’s failings was part of an international plot or of computer trickery. We simply relish the fall. Lance Armstrong was a demi-god, but once he was revealed to be guilty of doping he had no defenders. Roger Clemens, one of the greatest pitchers of all times, and Mark McGwire, who set the single-season home-run record, were shunned and reviled once their use of steroids were revealed. We like our stars to remember that they are where they are by the grace of the great god Public, and we can give or take that status: it is not theirs by right. Relishing the humiliation of those we elevated seems to be ingrained in our national character, amply attested to by the glee with which slow-motion celebrity flame-outs are reported in the press There are, contra Scott Fitzgerald, second acts in American life, but they only come after repentance and/or our pardon. Muhammad Ali was a draft dodger and traitor until he was a national treasure. So the mockery of Uruguay in this case is absolutely justified. But let no one think they are in any way out of the ordinary. Throughout the world nations become psychotic. How this plays out reveals much about the individual nation. Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’s Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.