Good outweighs the bad for Liverpool's biting Luis Suarez
Seven minutes into the second half of Liverpool's Premier League match against Chelsea on Sunday, Luis Suarez sent a cross into the path of Daniel Sturridge, who cushioned a volley into the bottom corner of the net to equalize. It was a fine finish but a truly stunning pass -- conceived in a fraction of a second and played with an astonishingly precise level of accuracy, in terms of weight, angle and height. It was a moment of extraordinary skill, and yet it will barely be mentioned this week because of what happened 14 minutes later.
The video has already been seen so often as to feel familiar. The jostle with Branislav Ivanovic, the defender's arm going up, Suarez grabing the arm and then ... even after a dozen or more views it still seems bizarre. Suarez's face goes to Ivanovic's arm. His mouth opens, the teeth sink in. Ivanovic, falling backward, flails a left arm to shove Suarez away, and then his downward momentum pulls him away from the forward and he ends up sitting on the ground, arms outstretched, a look of bafflement on his face. There is no protocol for this. Footballers know how they're supposed to behave if they get punched in the face or raked down the shin, but there is no corporal vocabulary for being bitten.
Perhaps learning the lesson from past PR disasters, Suarez apologized a few hours after the game and spoke to Ivanovic, who seems keen to play down the incident, telling police he didn't want to press charges. Swift contrition helps, of course, but the incident still does enormous damage to the reputation of a player who seemingly lives in a swirl of perpetual controversy. This isn't even Suarez's first biting scandal: in 2010 he was banned for seven games for biting PSV Eindhoven midfielder Otman Bakkal, although on that occasion teeth were sunk into neck.
That turned out to be Suarez's last game for Ajax as he joined Liverpool in the January transfer window. The question is being asked whether it might also be his last for Liverpool. "It doesn't matter who," Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers conceded Sunday, "players are always replaceable no matter how good they think they are. The standards at this football club have been met for many years, and that's why it is the worldwide institution that it is. The history of this club is about respect and how people are treated."
Former Liverpool captain and manager Graeme Souness spoke of Suarez being "in last chance saloon" and spoke of the need "to safeguard the good name of the football club." It's hard not to detect a touch of sanctimony given that in 1984 Souness, playing for Liverpool, punched Dinamo Bucharest midfielder Lica Movila so hard in a European Cup semifinal that he broke his jaw in two places, but the broader point is sound: when a player's behavior so consistently distracts from his football, at what point does it become detrimental to the club to keep him? It's not just about image; there's also the practical issue of how suspensions disrupt a team's planning.
Even if you take the most sympathetic interpretation of the incident that led to Suarez being banned for eight games after being found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra, he has a long rap sheet. Although he has improved, there have been countless incidents of diving.
He made offensive gestures at Fulham fans in December 2011. Playing for Uruguay, he handled a goal-bound shot on the line in their World Cup quarterfinal against Ghana and is currently under investigation by FIFA for allegedly punching Gonzalo Jarra in a World Cup qualifier against Chile in March. The diving and handball can perhaps be explained as being rooted in a pragmatic desire to win, but the other incidents -- and a flare-up in 2007 when Ajax suspended him after a halftime altercation with teammate Albert Luque -- suggest somebody who struggles to control his temper.
Suarez admits he sees it as part of his job to wind up opponents: "picardia" -- a term that doesn't translate directly but means a combination of streetwiseness, cunning, smartness and feistiness -- is central to the Uruguayan notion of football, while those who know him speak of a very different character off the pitch to that seen on it. In interviews -- and he has done several recently as he looks to rebuild his reputation -- Suarez always seems relaxed, self-aware, keen to joke.
He has even suggested he is trying to calm down, something he attributes to the influence of his wife, Sofia.
"She's my biggest critic, she always comes to watch me," he said in yesterday's Sunday Times. "She asks what I'm doing, why am I arguing with the referee. 'All you've done today is turn up to shout at people, why don't you concentrate on playing football?' If I don't, they [Sofia and his daughter, Delfina] won't come and watch me anymore. These are things my wife has picked up on and so has everyone else, so it has made me think."
Perhaps not enough. Realistically, there is little chance of Liverpool selling Suarez because of this. He remains essential to the way they play and is the Premier League's top scorer this season. Football clubs are essentially pragmatic institutions in which on-pitch performance outweighs almost everything else: Jermain Defoe bit Javier Mascherano in 2005, while Eric Cantona was rehabilitated after kicking a fan. Paradoxically, if the bite puts off potential buyers it may have made Suarez, who has a contract till 2017 and has insisted he is happy to stay, more likely to remain at the club.
But that still leaves the conundrum of the player himself. As well as the cross and the bite, he also conceded a penalty with a needless handball and then headed the injury-time equalizer. He is a brilliant footballer who can be a liability. The good outweighs the bad, but the question really is why the bad so regularly intrudes. It seems, unfortunately, just to be part of Suarez's character, perhaps even a strand in the intensity that makes him great.