Friday

Teething Problems

By Ben Lyttleton  |  16 Jan 2015

I am sitting in my friend’s kitchen having a cup of tea. He used to be a footballer, a pretty good one, and is one of the few players with whom I kept in touch after I interviewed him for a magazine. He is now successful in another industry and I have nothing but admiration for his smooth adaptation to the second phase of his career.

We rarely talk about football these days – looking back, apart from that first ever interview, we never did – but when we happened to meet up in the summer, I mentioned the World Cup, England’s failure and Luis Suárez, whose move from Liverpool to Barcelona was expedited by his bite on the shoulder of Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini in Brazil.

My friend was doing some washing-up when he mumbled something that I thought I’d misheard. It sounded like, “I did that once too”, but surely he wasn’t still talking about Suárez; maybe he had picked up a mug that he’d already cleaned.

“What was that?” I said.

“I bit a player once as well. It was a long, long time ago.” And then, he told me the story.

“I was playing in a youth game,” he said. “The guys I was marking were awesome, the best front pair around at the time. I’d heard reports of this over the course of the season and was now experiencing it first hand. They were giving us a very tough time. The gaffer was screaming from the sides, his eyes bulging – I knew what would come of this if we couldn’t get a better foothold of the game. For the next ten minutes, the swirling wind and their continued attacks did not stop. We were getting hammered and I could feel my frustration rising. It was almost where I wanted to kick anyone at any point. I really didn’t want to do a run after the game, which was the punishment we were heading for. I put in a couple of slightly late tackles, a forearm here and there – every time I thought I had one of them, they were gone or just too strong.”

“I remember the ball was pinged into the chest of one of the forwards; again he was in the perfect position. I couldn’t get around him without a foul. The red mist appeared. I had to win a ball, this had to be my ball! I didn’t think about it, I bit him on the shoulder. He flinched and went down, and I had a free header – ahhhh, that feeling! I felt like I had regained some control, and I knew the gaffer would be happy with me at least.

“I’d never done it before, but I felt helpless and, I guess, out of control. I was ashamed that I did it, but one or two of my team-mates saw the incident and from that point, I was aware that my actions had become a catalyst and injected some fight into us and some fear in them. I didn’t apologise to the player. I just couldn’t wait for the game to end. Embarrassed for both the performance of the team and my actions, I attempted to see out the rest of the day as quietly as possible. It was a small bite, more of a nip really, but my teeth definitely made contact and I’m sure my opponent felt something very different at the time.

“After a dressing-down in the changing room, where the drinks were kicked over in a rage, we were spared the blushes of a run in front of the parents after the game. However, when our gaffer returned to our dressing-room, he asked if I had bitten one of the opposing players, to which I could only reply with: “Yes”. It was the first time I’d seen him lost for words. More of my team-mates got wind of it and, embarrassed, I accepted their pats on the back and words of respect. In that moment I moved up the Alpha ranks, but simultaneously went down in my own moral standing; it was a very uncomfortable environment.

“Without realising it, by not apologising, I had become a hard man, someone not to be messed with. It was a weird moral space for me, but there was no way I could allow anyone to see my discomfort with it. I think some of my opponents might have heard about it too, as I seemed to get a little more respect from them – though that might just be my memory playing tricks with me…

“It never came up again in my professional career, and I was never close to doing it again, although there may have been a time or two when the red mist came down. I went on to play international football and played against some very good players in my eight-year career. I had games when I played badly, and games when I lost my temper, but I never ever came close to that reaction again. I’m still surprised that I even did it and doubt my kids would recognise me from that day over 20 years ago…”

His confession surprised me, but his contrition did not. I wondered how much that bite actually helped his career, providing a psychological edge over strikers (if they knew) and offering him an insight into what he had to lose if his bizarre behaviour – and he often shook his head during the story and admitted it was “strange” – was repeated. What we know about Luis Suárez, though, is that he is a serial offender. His bite on Chiellini was preceded by two others in Europe: on PSV Eindhoven’s Ottman Bakkal, while he was at Ajax, and on Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic during his time at Liverpool. He has used his bite twice as an exit strategy to leave clubs.

And now, with Suarez’s ban up, one goal and five assists to his name, my mind drifts back to that conversation last summer. Or maybe it’s all the eating I’ve done over Christmas. Either way, I asked my friend if he had any sympathy, even empathy, for Suárez, given he had done the same thing. “None at all,” he answered quickly. “What I did was a one-off, and I would never do it again. Even if I saw my kids doing it, I would tell them never to do it again. It’s not acceptable behaviour. But that’s the difference with Suárez. He is just a kid. And who even knows if he will do it again.”

Ben Lyttleton is a football journalist and writer, best-known for his book 'Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty'. He is also a consultant for Soccernomics.
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