Fiery, defiant Tabarez rallies Uruguay
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Oscar Tabarez sat down and immediately made everyone else sit up.
Perhaps the best you could say for his remarkable "news conference" -- even though it allowed for absolutely no questions from reporters and the manager made clear this would simply be making a statement on the punishment meted out to Luis Suarez for his bite on Giorgio Chiellini -- was that it reflected all of his Uruguay team's most competitive traits.
It was defiant, decisive, obdurate, single-minded, tunnel-visioned, abrasive and so utterly assertive. That is perhaps the deeper point of what he is trying to do: set the tone for a team now missing its most magnificent talent ahead of a hugely complicated game against Colombia.
In front of the watching world, however, Tabarez had a few other points he wanted to make over the course of an eyebrow-raising 12 minutes. Even by the standards of this World Cup, this monologue in the Maracana was an event in itself and only added to one of the biggest controversies the tournament has seen in recent years.
Wasting little time, the Uruguay manager willingly stoked the situation with a few key statements.
"Immediately after the match, we had not seen the images," Tabarez said. "We saw them afterwards and saw that there was a certain possibility of punishing the participants in the action, both Chiellini and Suarez. Both would be punished. I don't deny that we were waiting punishment, but we never imagined the severity of the punishment meted out. In a decision which, obviously, is much more focused on the opinions of the media -- the media who immediately drew their conclusions at the game, journalists who concentrated solely on that topic at the post-match news conference. I don't know what their nationality was, but they all spoke English."
The implication was clear. His impressions went on.
"I have been a teacher in my life, and I present the theory of the scapegoat."
"I'm not justifying anything. I don't think there should not be a punishment. We agree with the principle, but there is a danger proceeding this way. We forget the scapegoat is a person who has rights. Things are measured with a different rod. This is a message: The severity was excessive."
In truth, the nature of this eminently curious news conference seemed excessive, perhaps reflecting the amount of extreme debate and controversy this entire incident has caused for Tabarez and his squad. It also indicates much that FIFA's punishment for Suarez -- nine international games and a four-month ban from all football -- provoked a lot more criticism in Uruguay and South America than Suarez's initial bite.
Similarly, Tabarez was widely and loudly applauded by many journalists as he got up and walked out of the Maracana news conference room. This entire episode has opened up something of a debate about differences in perspective about such controversies on either side of the world.
It is fair to say that very few members of the South American media agree with the severity of the punishment. Tabarez also had some eminently reasonable points about the nature and reason for the exact sentence: While a nine-game international suspension seems understandable, there should maybe be more debate about the four-month ban from all football activity.
That would, at the least, be eminently reasonable. It should also be acknowledged that, even beyond the more irrational responses like those of the apparently deluded Diego Lugano, Uruguay are known to be genuinely "fuming." Those close to the camp have been struck by the level of rage and sense of injustice.
At the same time, some of what Tabarez said indicated something else. While the fury all around the manager may be authentic, it's difficult not to think he was also trying to manufacture a different type of reaction -- at least from his team.
First of all, there was the reference to the expectation that Chiellini would be punished as well, as if the entire incident was just some unfortunate "coming together" rather than a player taking the conscious decision to bite an opponent for the third time in his career. Those words still seem ludicrous.
Just as ludicrous, however, was his next assertion. Tabarez didn't outright say it, but he made heavy implications that the entire controversy was a consequence of the British media.
"They all spoke English." That is not quite true and certainly wouldn't have been had he allowed a single question during Friday's time with the media. Suarez has dominated front pages everywhere from Brazil to Barcelona and far beyond.
All of this, then, feels somewhat odd from a manager renowned for his calm intelligence. Tabarez is someone who tried to completely realign Uruguayan notions of "garra charrua" after the disgraceful aggression of 1986. In that tournament, the side took their historic tradition of "toughness" too far and got a lot of criticism; Tabarez tried to realign it into something more productive and cleaner.
He has always been a coach who has known how to excellently exploit situations to his advantage. And despite his authentic anger, Tabarez's comments felt like something similar. It felt like someone fostering a siege mentality.
Given that Uruguay are now missing their key player and have looked so atrociously dull without him, they need something else. This could be it. It will be revealing to see how Uruguay come out against Colombia and how they start. As the likes of Lugano have already revealed, they are a team ready to stand up for their teammate, to really fight. They could well need it.
Right now, well before their game with Colombia (Saturday, ABC, 4 p.m. ET) kicked off, Tabarez felt something else needed to be said. "To Luis Suarez, to Luis Suarez the person who has lived with us and worked with us, someone we know better than anyone else: He will never be alone."
The reference was clear. By the end of all that, though, the exact nature of the debate was not clear. It was easy to forget much of the details. There was only an overwhelming sense of grievance and aggression.
Perhaps that is the real point after all.
Miguel Delaney is a London-based correspondent for ESPN FC and also writes for the Irish Examiner and others. Follow him on Twitter @MiguelDelaney.