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Jun 26, 2014

Uruguay comes to defense of Suarez

Luis Suarez has been banned for four months from any kind of football activity and nine Uruguay matches.

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay -- Montevideo was a strange, tense place in the hours before Luis Suarez's World Cup ended in suspension. The city woke up waiting on the news to break, almost frozen in anticipation of it. The front page of one of the daily papers put words to the feelings: "The Italians and English Crucify Suarez." A huge photo showed him on his knees, like a pose from a cheesy war movie, leaned back, arms spread in a Christ pose.

Around 9 in the morning, in a taxi headed toward the old colonial square from the airport, the voice of President Jose Mujica interrupted the music on 104.3 FM. The DJs didn't stop the music, just turned it down while broadcasting Mujica over the song, so his strident words in defense of the nation's most famous citizen had a soundtrack: Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust."

Mujica defended Suarez, saying that if a referee didn't judge the offense on the field, then it shouldn't be judged at all. "Let Suarez be Suarez" seemed to be the point of his address. "We didn't choose him to be a philosopher or a mechanic," he said, "and neither to have good manners. He's an excellent player."

The cab driver, already angry and now wound up by the president, pulled out his phone while driving along the oceanfront road. He found a photograph going viral in Uruguay in the hours before FIFA made its ruling. The photo showed Giorgio Chiellini, the Italian player bitten by Suarez, pulling the hair of Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani, and the cab driver nodded, as if to say: See, they are being unfair to Uruguay once again.

The scene inside Bar Tasende, a favorite local café for journalists and businessmen, as the Suarez ban was announced.
The scene inside Bar Tasende, a favorite local café for journalists and businessmen, as the Suarez ban was announced.

Uruguay is a small country, with just 3.4 million people, and it nurses a powerful inferiority complex, especially in regard to its larger, richer neighbor, Argentina, which is also more successful and lucky in football. Argentina has Messi, the greatest goal scorer in the world, a quiet, shy guy who, save the recent tax business, never gets in trouble. The tax fraud allegations were perfect, because even a Messi scandal is businesslike, a white-collar crime based on numbers and not violent assault. Uruguay, of course, has the second-best goal scorer in the world, Suarez, who is a broken, faultily wired, zombie version of Messi.

I waited near the main square for the news to be announced. Everyone knew it was coming. Enrique Moller, a former Uruguay football official in charge of disciplinary hearings, talked to the two lawyers representing Suarez in the FIFA hearing. Moller told me he thought the suspension would be two games. Everyone remained hopeful. Then an email came through from an ESPN colleague: nine games, four months, a fine of 100,000 Swiss francs. Outside, in the main square, with the enormous, bronze statue of a battle-ready Jose Gervasio Artigas on horseback, people moved back and forth unaware. The news was minutes away from breaking.

A 67-year-old man named Luis Colotuso, wearing a heavy coat against the South American winter chill, walked down the main avenue of the city, holding a transistor radio in his hand, listening. I walked behind him and saw him hear the news, growing more and more angry. He saw my notebook and my photographer's camera, and he wheeled around, his private fury about to have an audience.

"Suarez did it," he conceded, and then went on a rant about the Uruguayan football mafia and how a conspiracy was, as usual, at work, television dollars stacked up against such a small nation. He waved gnarled fingers around when making a point, pinching them together when making a serious point. He was a man who'd broken a few fingers in his life. He didn't really have a point, and finally stormed off. An old woman passed and looked at the crucifixion headline. She held her cigarette in her hand and said in a voice shaped by thousands of those cigarettes, "Football is politics."

About the same time, every television in Uruguay had its programming interrupted. On 18 de Julio Avenue, at the famous hot dog place named La Pasiva, the guys behind the counter watched and listened. They argued among themselves, an argument playing out all over the country, as logic did battle with emotions and suspicion.

"Even if it hurts," Fernando Bertorelli said, "it's the way it is."

A cook looked at him, sizing up his resignation, and saw the whole thing clearly. He smiled.

"If you take off your shirt, it's OK," he said, using the word "camiseta," which in this context means the national team jersey. He handed over a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich to Angel Lair, who disagreed with his cook vehemently.

"Don't say nonsense," Lair spat. "This is about money."

Then, explaining all this to me through the prism of the Uruguayan complex about its size and how that encourages larger and more powerful countries and entities to pick on it, Lair said, almost mournfully, "Three million against an empire."

One of the headlines from a newspaper in Uruguay:
One of the headlines from a newspaper in Uruguay: "Suarez Crucified."

At first, I thought people on the street didn't know. But when asked, everyone said, simply, "nueve partidos" -- nine games. The news had spread, and now the process of dealing with it began. The streets felt somber, quiet and cold, the only noise coming from the groan of diesel bus engines and the squeak of failing brakes. People went to work and wondered what might happen in the game Saturday against Colombia. The advance to the knockout round suddenly felt more like a loss than a long-anticipated victory. Suarez's brother, when reached by phone, sounded shocked.

"I am devastated," he said. "I am very sad. It's incredible. No, I thought it was not going to be so severe. I am very nervous now, but we have to keep on. The team is strong now. They are gonna win."

Inside the Bar Tasende, a local café where journalists and businessmen drank coffee under the gaze of a metal statue of Don Quixote, a fitting symbol for this day, an ancient speaker played a local show. First came the news, in our modern cycle of information and angst, and then came the reactions, these from listeners who'd emailed the show.

A few emails were read on the air.

"If we can't beat them with the teeth," the first listener wrote, "we will do it with the claws."

Claws, in Uruguayan slang, means guts. "A man with claw" is a phrase meaning that a person has courage. This listener believed in the power of a team without its best player.

"Mafia mafia mafia," another said simply.

"Suarez has to resolve his psychological issues," the final message read. "He has the money to do it."

Then the cycle started again.

A television set up in the bar just for the duration of the World Cup played a news conference of a FIFA official talking, with two soda bottles belonging to a sponsor in front of her, because even serious news is an opportunity for FIFA to make money. About eight people sat in the bar, and half of them looked at the screen, and the other half kept their backs to it, eating their pizza before it got cold. For them, the World Cup had ended. They talked quietly to themselves, trying to get on with the day.