Saturday, June 28, 2014

Uruguay president's comments a slap in the face to the poor

It wouldn't be a soccer World Cup without controversy. This year's tournament in Brazil has been marked by an incident where Uruguayan star Luis Suarez appears to have bitten the Italian Giorgio Chiellini. The international governing body FIFA suspended Suarez for 9 international matches plus 4 months from all soccer activities. It's worth noting that this is the THIRD time Suarez has been charged with biting an opponent since 2010.

Many critics said the punishment was too lenient, for a third time offender. Others in including controversial former Argentine great Diego Maradona, Chiellini himself and, predictably, virtually all Uruguayans felt the sanction was too harsh.

Not surprisingly, Uruguayan president Jose Mujica weighed in. He stated: "We feel that there is an aggression against those who come from poverty. They don't forgive that he didn't go to university. He doesn't have an education."

The leftist Pres. Mujica is internationally known for being the world's poorest president (donating 90% of his salary to charity) and for successfully pushing the legalization of marijuana. I generally have a fairly high regard for him.

But his comments, however understandable in terms of political populism and pandering, are off the mark and his defense of one of the members of The 0.1% does a disservice to those who live in poverty. In most of the world, soccer is the game of the poor and working class. There is no place in the world where biting an opponent isn't considered beyond the pale.

I lived in West Africa and played soccer there as often as I could. I lived in a place where the poverty was far greater than anything you see in Uruguay. In games, I saw people argue, sometimes heatedly. I saw shoving matches and finger pointing and remonstrations. I think I even saw a fist fight. I never saw anything remotely like a person biting another.

In fact, when I lived in West Africa, another famous sports biting incident occurred, that of boxer Evander Holyfield by Mike Tyson. The reaction of poor West African subsistence to this incident was not understanding for Tyson's background or compassion for his poor, misunderstood self but disgust. The universal reaction there was that he was "an animal." And Tyson only did it once.

Pres. Mujica's comments about Suarez, now one of the richest soccer players in the world, are a slap in the face. His contention is that the poor express themselves differently than the rich, that they can't control themselves. His contention is that when poor people get pissed off, it's normal that they express sociopathic behavior like biting. That the poor are teeming rabble who need to be controlled is the message he's sending. Surely without realizing it, he is pandering to, not countering, stereotypes of the poor by the elite. As a real champion of the poor, he can find a better way to defend his country's multimillionaire soccer hero.

Update: Typical of the understated reaction came from Uruguay captain Diego Lugano. He described the suspension of Suarez as "an act of barbarity" and "a breach of human rights."

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