IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Biting fool a member of silly tribe of spitters, slappers, kickers and kissers

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 23, 2013

IN MONTE Carlo, Novak Djokovic reinterprets clay-court tennis for Rafael Nadal. In Miami, LeBron James, 113kg, rewrites every athletic theory on flight. Yet here we are chewing over Luis Suarez's dental imprint on Branislav Ivanovic's arm. This is what modern sport has come to: It's not the skill which gets you headlines, but who you can snack on.

Tribal Liverpool fans might tell you "bite" is an overstatement. A bite is Mike Tyson lunching on Evander Holyfield's ear. This was just a nibble, a love peck not even worth a tetanus shot. Of course, a guy like Suarez, who's done it before, should know he needs to leave a better impression.

Are we surprised? Of course not. Suarez has a doctorate in oafishness and he's hardly alone. For every Saint Messi (no, wait, even he has a spitting charge) and Holy Tendulkar, there are a hundred others who gouge, kick, headbutt their way into ESPN'S SportsCentre. Then they wear the contrite look of a caned schoolboy, get fined and return to action. Clubs will forgive every trespass if you can curl a free kick or dunk a basket. Football, let us be clear, is about finishing opponents not finishing schools.

Suarez mocked the rules and worse, he broke an unwritten code. In testosterone-drenched sports there is a need for restraint. Call it professional courtesy. You can swear, but can't be racist; you can nudge a fellow in the ribs, but not punch him (unless it is ice hockey, where it seems to be mandatory); you can mouth off, but you can't bite. It is usually the work only of toddlers, dogs and people in high passion.

Physical contact inevitably leads to idiocy, for it is machismo and ego in a boyishly charged mix. But even in gentler activities, like tennis, where players resemble white-clothed choir boys, there is room for the ugly. Jimmy Connors in full spitting splendour, for instance, is such a potent image you can buy a copy of it on Amazon.

Spitting is less physically hurtful but certainly more contemptuous than biting. Swimmer Amy Van Dyken didn't just spit in her rival's lane, she even had a novel explanation for it. As she once told a US newspaper after registering her salival presence in Dara Torres' lane: "I think she was a little upset the first time... but I told her that means I've got nothing but love for you."

Sometimes spitters will insist they were unlucky because someone came in the way of their furious projectile of phlegm. With Andre Agassi it was a chair umpire. With Fabien Barthez it was a referee. The American, perhaps speaking also for the Frenchman, said: "It wasn't directed at him." Of course not.

Kissing, in contrast, seems a perfectly reasonable activity between triumphant, sweaty men. Wojciech Szczesny even bent down and kissed Robin van Persie's boot at Arsenal. The Dutchman blushed, others erupt. When a rival gave handballer Ivan Stuffer a gentle smooch of scorn on the cheek, he went berserk and proceeded to pull down his shorts in fury. Why he did so cannot be explained in a family newspaper.

Of all insults, giving the finger is the commonest, though rugby player John Hopoate gave it another dimension when he attempted to give rivals a proctological examination during a match. But even this was not as painful as Holyfield's transgressions. In a YouTube clip, using a one-two combination not found in any boxing textbook, he head-butts a rival and then hits him in the unmentionables.

Kicking, of course, is an everyday business and usually the easiest way to lash out. Often it is not as much how you kick - Eric Cantona's ungainly gongfu effort would have given Bruce Lee a coronary - as what or who you kick.

Cuban Angel Matos produced an elegant taekwondo kick at the 2008 Olympics, except it got him banned since it left a referee with stitches. Marinko Matosevic bravely went where no man has gone before recently when he kicked over Rafael Nadal's precisely-placed bottles of water. The Spaniard laughed and straightened him out.

Luis Moreno, related to Suarez through first name and IQ, went the farthest. Last year during a Colombian football league match, an owl, the mascot of the rival team, was hit by a ball on the field. As play stopped, Moreno jogged over and hoofed it over the sideline. The owl later died, the public howled and one of Moreno's reported punishments was a hoot: a lecture on owls at the zoo.

Suarez looks beyond lecturing but he will get them anyway. Football will puff out its chest and drone on about culture and standards. Then the star will be forgiven. The tragedy of sport is that nothing changes. Except for the Wikipedia entry on the word "bite" which yesterday read: "A bite is a wound received from the mouth (and in particular, the teeth) of an animal, including humans and Luis Suarez."

rohitb@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 23, 2013

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/