NATAL, Brazil -- Twenty years on, every single moment remains. Yordan Letchkov hurling himself into a header. Roberto Baggio single-handedly dragging Italy to within the slenderest of whiskers of triumph. The genius of Gheorghe Hagi, the Maradona of the Carpathians and the demons of Diego, the Maradona of everywhere. Rashidi Yekini billowing into the net, Romario and Bebeto rocking the baby, South Korea's inventive free-kick routines.
You always remember your first, they say. My first was 1990 -- Gazza and Brehme and Sergio Goycochea and all that -- but it is 1994, played out in those cavernous bowls across the United States, that provides the first images whenever those two magic words, World Cup, are mentioned.
History has it that 1994 was not a vintage tournament. It was certainly capped by a final so impossibly dull that you wonder whether it was part of a conspiracy, concocted in Europe and South America, to ensure that the United States never took any interest in the game whatsoever. The theory runs that it was overly cautious, overly cynical, won by what might rank as the most functional team ever to take to a field wearing Brazilian shirts.
But that is one of the incontrovertible truths of the World Cup: When you first come to it, when you are first captivated by its magic, you are not in possession of a historical perspective. It is your first, or your second, and all of it is so unimaginably glamorous -- all these unknown names, all these exotic teams -- that the quality of the football is almost secondary. You are not in a position to say that the overall quality is lower than in Germany, 1974, or that 1982 was a more heart-pounding event. All you see is the world unfurling to meet you.
LUIS SUAREZ BITE STORM
- FIFA bans Luis Suarez for four months
- PL chief: Suarez an accident waiting to happen
- No 'bite clause' in Suarez's Barca contract
- Toe Poke: Fan gets dodgy Suarez tattoo
- Thompson: Portrait of a serial winner
- Brewin: No sympathy for Luis Suarez
- Thompson: Uruguay comes to Suarez defence
- Marcotti: Suarez in another bite storm
USA '94 was also scarred, of course, by two moments of extreme violence and one of career-ending disgrace: the elbows, malicious and forceful, meted out by Mauro Tassotti and Leonardo to Luis Enrique and Tab Ramos, and the shameful departure of Maradona, his doping no real surprise after his snarl into a camera during Argentina's game with Greece.
Those events were shocking to a wide-eyed ingenue. The blood pouring down Enrique's face, the sheer venom with which Leonardo lashed out at Ramos, the thought that perhaps this spectacle, this carnival, was populated by cheats and swindlers and that none of it was right; it all threatened, somehow, to rob it of its sheen.
Twenty years on, though, every moment remains. There have always been controversies in the World Cup, moments that have prompted outrage and shock and anger. And yet it still holds the planet in its thrall, because with time that feeling fades and it becomes part of the tournament's folklore. It is a competition that represents everything that is wonderful about football, and that is more powerful than the shadows that stalk it.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, on to Luis Suarez. By most estimations, unlike 1994, this has been a vintage tournament -- one of thrilling, adventurous, buccaneering attacking, one of abundant goals and a surprising absence of controversy. It has mostly been played in what is euphemistically termed "the right spirit." Until now, of course; until Natal.
Italy's defeat to Uruguay was not quite the Battle of Santiago, but it is probably as close as the modern game is going to offer now that most forms of tackling are all but illegal. It was a spiteful, nasty little match with no rhythm and no style, full of petulance and pretence. It stood out in this World Cup -- this World Cup of Portugal against the United States, Ghana against Germany, Spain against Holland -- like a bruise.
Claudio Marchisio's challenge, for a while, seemed to have been its low point. It is hard to believe the Juventus midfield player, a thoughtful individual, deliberately set out to plant his studs into Uruguayan shin, but it was a red card nonetheless, the sort of tackle that need only be a little harder or a little higher to inflict very serious injury indeed.
And then -- thankfully for Marchisio, and for Roy Hodgson and England, who can now slink home almost ignored -- Suarez's dark side enveloped him again. What at first appeared to be a sly head-butt to Giorgio Chiellini turned out, on second look, to be a bite. Yet another bite.
It is almost hard to know what to say about this habit -- for that, it seems, is what it is -- of Suarez's, beyond that it is inexplicably odd. Children bite. Badly trained puppies and threatened cats and urban foxes bite. Adults do not bite. There is no point trying to examine why Suarez bites. A guess would be that it is a simple loss of self-control, but to be honest, the cod psychology is probably best left to professionals.
A few things we can be certain of, though, are these.
First, he did not bite because he wanted to leave Liverpool. That would be an extremely counter-productive approach. Barcelona and Real Madrid might not be run along strictly ethical, fair-trade lines, but even Florentino Perez has heard of PR. If his transgression has had any effect at all, it is to make it marginally more likely, now, that he will stay (although he probably won't).
No, Suarez's bite was not part of a sustained campaign. Suarez had 15 minutes left in a crucial World Cup game for the country he swears unstinting loyalty to in which he had been deeply ineffectual. He was not -- amazing as it might be -- even thinking about Liverpool at the time.
Second, that he bit someone, rather than punching someone or setting out to break their leg, does not make it OK. Whether you feel that a bite is more or less serious an offence than -- for example -- Leonardo's assault on Tab Ramos is up to you; that is a matter of personal taste. But the fact that one might be worse does not mean the other is acceptable. It is bad to elbow people in the face. It is also bad to bite them in the shoulder. This is very simple.
Third, it is time to take tribal loyalties out of this issue. Fans around the world are united in their belief that clubs are more than just businesses; they are community entities. That is why owners choose to describe themselves as "custodians"; it makes it all seem somehow less nakedly capitalistic. But this is a two-way street.
If a club is a community entity, it cannot be run according to the amoral code of a corporation. It cannot be the case that an employee gets away with anything because he or she produces. If a club is a community entity, then it must be represented as such. To excuse the transgressive behaviour of an individual is to put that person above the well-being of your club.
And fourth, perspective must be kept. USA '94 was the second time Maradona had been banned for drug use. The first was in 1991, when he tested positive for cocaine. He was banned for 15 months then. In 1994, he was thrown out of the World Cup and did not play again for a year. What Suarez has done -- no matter how many times he has done it -- is not as serious as doping. Calls for a life ban are over the top; so, too, is the idea that he should serve a longer punishment than someone who fails a drugs test.
That is not to say Suarez should not be punished. He should. It is hard to rely on FIFA to do anything at all, but it would be a great shame to see him continue playing in this tournament, and a long ban beyond that would be the order of the day -- possibly just enough to ensure that he does not play international football again for a year or so.
It would also be nice to think that -- and this is where setting aside tribalism becomes so important -- some of those around him, some of those who protect him, might like to suggest: Enough; this time is enough. As long as his teammates insist he has done nothing wrong, he will be able to cultivate his belief that he is being victimised.
As long as his fans continue to defend him and laud him -- whether with Liverpool or with Uruguay -- there remains the heightened risk that he will do it again. Suarez evidently has an issue. It needs to be sorted out. He does not need to be told that he has done nothing wrong. That is what happened with Maradona.
There is, after all this negativity, one positive: Suarez's moment of shame will burn bright. His name will be castigated. It will provoke fury and scorn. But it will be forgotten. Not in the sense of how we remember him -- that ship, Luis, has sailed -- but in the sense, the much more important sense, of how we remember this tournament.
It was not a classic World Cup in 1994. This has the potential to be just that. It is reassuring to know that all of those people watching this, for whom this is their first, will remember not what they saw in Natal, not the darkness, but the light they have seen everywhere else. Leonardo, Maradona, Tassotti: Their names are forever tinged with their transgressions. So, too, will Suarez's. This tournament, though, this wonderful tournament, is far bigger than that.