Sports Nut

Let’s Get Cynical

Uruguay and Italy drag a beautiful World Cup back into the muck.

Giorgio Chiellini and Luis Suárez
The bitten and the biter: Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini and Uruguay’s Luis Suárez.

Photo by DANIEL GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images

NATAL, Brazil—For 80 minutes, the two beefy men in Uruguay jerseys writhed in their seats. Neither had used a razor in days. Their eyes never moved from the field. It had been a tense, miserly match. Then Diego Godín abruptly shouldered a corner kick into the Italian goal, and the stadium erupted. The men next to me lurched to their feet and embraced with a pounding slap. They began screaming curses. One row down, an older man with a face the color of guava flesh fist-jacked the universal “up yours” sign at any Italians he could find. His expression was not one of joy, but of rage.

And that was merely the reaction in the press box at the Estádio das Dunas.

Down in one corner of the stands, hundreds of Uruguayan fans were celebrating with fury. An extra layer of security guards had marched out in front of them during the second half in anticipation of mayhem. So had a group of military police, the first I’d seen on the field at a game here. We knew this might happen at some point. In a jogo bonito World Cup that’s been one of the most free-flowing and exciting in history, the group stage has been, in Klinsmann-speak, all about “optimistic” soccer. And then, on Tuesday afternoon, optimism died.

What happened on the field in Natal was ugly and mean. In soccer terms, it was cynical. But it restored a certain malevolent equilibrium to the tournament. Cynicism has its place in sports. Just ask Wayne Rooney, who said a few days ago that English players aren’t cynical enough to compete at the top level. What Rooney is talking about is gamesmanship. He’s talking about using every method at your disposal—even less-than-upright ones—to win. He’s talking about Luis Suárez, teeth bared, leading his team to the knockout round. You can’t master a game, after all, until you know what you can get away with.

The Italians know. Or thought they did. Needing only a draw on Tuesday to skate through on goal differential, they reverted to what they do best, flopping and pantomiming and stalling in an ultimately fruitless attempt to secure a 0–0 outcome. It was brutal to watch and, for this American fan, summoned old hatreds from the 2006 World Cup, where Italy swindled and elbowed and lucked its way to a draw with the United States before advancing to win the tournament. Almost every country has a similar experience with the Italians.

Not every country has a Suárez, thank goodness. Because the news that overshadowed Uruguay’s win—which advanced La Celeste at the expense of Gli Azzurri—is that Suárez got loose from the booby hatch again. In his third public act of alleged Dahmer-ism, Suárez appeared to chomp on Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini like a Fiorentina bistecca. FIFA has launched an investigation into Suárez, who now faces a ban for the rest of the tournament.

In the context of this World Cup, the Uruguay–Italy game looked like an affront. Mario Balotelli threw a flying knee at Álvaro Pereira, Claudio Marchisio got red-carded for kicking Egidio Arévalo Rios, and the great Andrea Pirlo, maestro of the midfield, shot wide and passed errantly. The Italians rarely attacked. They tried to disrupt and stifle, while Uruguayan fans mocked them with homophobic “Puto!” chants. I lost track of how many Italians fell to the ground in fake pain after the slightest of bumps. Only Gianluigi Buffon, on his fifth World Cup squad, distinguished himself, making the reaction saves of a younger keeper.

After the match, it was clear that the feel-good spirit here had been dinged. I overheard (with a translator’s help) several Brazilian journalists in the media center describing the game as a disgrace. They were glad Italy lost because of the way the Italians played. They also wished Uruguay had lost, because of Luis Suárez’s dirty mouth.

Consider Suárez for a moment. He appears to be pathological on some level, primal in his frustrations. Suárez the Cannibal is a South American Edward Hyde, a dark spirit lying deep within Suárez the Striker, who is not only a sublime player but also a top-notch pessimist. This brings us to Suárez the Handballer, who is responsible for one of the most cynical actions in World Cup history, an intentional palming off the line that prevented a Ghanaian goal in 2010 and allowed Uruguay to stay alive in the tournament. I watched that game in a Cape Town bar with a bunch of black Zimbabweans. They were devastated by Suárez’s action and Ghana’s subsequent penalty kick miss. Ghana represented all of Africa’s hopes, and Suárez had strangled them with his naughty hand.

At the time, I didn’t dare voice what I really thought: that it was an inspired play that required a split-second decision few players would have the spiteful wherewithal to make. While the Cannibal is a separate creature, Suárez the Striker and Suárez the Handballer are one and the same: a player who shrugs at perceived improprieties, and who cares about nothing else but the final score line.

The English don’t do such dishonorable things. Nor do the Americans. We frown at deception and skullduggery. And our team is the poorer for it. But many of the best teams care not for the standard rules of engagement. You can make an argument that the first goal Neymar scored in this World Cup was the most important for Brazil, leveling the score with Croatia and allowing an anxious country to exhale. But do not overlook that second goal, the one that put Brazil ahead. That one came off a cynical dive by Fred, who was doing what strikers are supposed to do: win games, by any means necessary. (Cannibalism, however, gets you nowhere.)

I remember playing an Italian team in my youth and being stunned, even offended, when the guy bodying me up to defend against an incoming free kick, surreptitiously lifted his heel to poke me in the groin. Nobody saw it. I missed the pass. My opponent turned around and smirked at me, as if to say, “You’ve got a lot to learn, Yank.”

Only years later did I come to appreciate getting kicked in the balls. This is why one of the more heartening developments to come out of this World Cup can be found in this tweet:

Children are the future.

Read all of Slate’s World Cup 2014 coverage.