Go Easy on Neymar

One year ago today, Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez transformed an otherwise uneventful neymar headbuttround of World Cup play – two relatively boring games, one of which featured the already-eliminated English national team – into a global referendum on biting.

In the second half of Uruguay’s group-stage match against Italy, television cameras caught Suarez nibbling the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini, who later tweeted a picture of the bite marks. “These are just things that happen out on the pitch,” Suarez said after the game. “It was just the two of us inside the area, and he bumped into me with his shoulder.” (He has since grudgingly admitted that his collision with Chiellini led to the “physical result of a bite.”) The international sports media rushed to denounce Suarez. In the Daily Mail, a reliable source of sanctimonious soccer analysis, Ian Ladyman argued that Suarez “has a dangerous mind that can never be rewired.” Deadspin’s Billy Haisley dedicated nearly 2000 words to Suarez’s long history of “acting like a shithead.” FIFA banned Suarez for nine games, ruling him out of the 2015 Copa America, which kicked off earlier this month in Chile.

Memories of #bitegate came flooding back last week, after another high-profile indiscretion triggered yet more media outrage. On Thursday, Brazilian superstar Neymar was sent off for head-butting Colombia’s Jeison Murillo in the aftermath of his country’s 1-0 Copa America loss to Colombia. According to tournament officials, in the tunnel after the game, Neymar confronted the referee who had sent him off, fuming, “You want to make yourself famous at my expense, you son of a bitch?” The Mail mocked Neymar’s “red card shame.” Columnists lined up to denounce his “petulance” and “immaturity.” CONMEBOL, the South American soccer confederation, suspended Neymar for four games, which means he will miss the rest of the Copa America.

The Suarez and Neymar controversies followed similar trajectories. Both players lashed out at an opponent, committing stupid fouls without inflicting genuine harm. Both received draconian suspensions that eliminated them from major international tournaments. And both faced the wrath of soccer’s online punditocracy, a mob of likeminded tweeters who together generate and sustain Internet anger.

The Copa America would be a better tournament with Neymar and Suarez, two of the most exciting players in world soccer, on the field. Although, as Gabrielle Marcotti recently noted in ESPN, the tournament doesn’t lack for storylines, nothing can replace the entertainment value of passes like the one Neymar played to set up Brazil’s winning goal against Peru. 

But the problem Neymar’s red card represents goes far beyond this month’s games. Surfing online soccer coverage would be a far pleasanter experience without the reflexive sanctimony that biting and headbutting (not to mention spitting, diving and imaginary yellow cards) nearly always elicit. Moreover, the media’s crusade against “petulance and immaturity” disproportionately targets creative players: the skillful wingers and attacking midfielders who are forced to endure genuinely violent tactics every time they take the field. Critics forget that before Neymar head-butted Murillo and cursed at the referee, he was manhandled by an aggressive Colombian lineup intent on physically intimidating him. Indeed, Neymar and Suarez have spent much of their careers evading wild rugby tackles and shaking off unscrupulous defenders. It’s no surprise they occasionally lose self-control.

In 2007, after Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo was sent off for (you guessed it) headbutting an opposition defender, United coach Sir Alex Ferguson refused to criticize him. “It’s very difficult to completely punish Ronaldo or be angry with him,” Ferguson said. “Some of the things that are happening to him are not right.” Ferguson does not immediately spring to mind as an exemplar of the sort of thoughtful, nonjudgmental analysis missing from the mainstream sports media. But he was right about Ronaldo. Fans’ obsession with the occasional peccadilloes of superstar attackers has blinded them to the real outrage: The cynical strategies teams employ every week to goad creative opponents, the players who make soccer worth watching, into self-destructive mistakes.

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