Luis Suarez is one of the most prodigiously talented players to grace the Premier League. But events on Sunday afternoon once again confirmed many people’s view that the Uruguayan’s behaviour has no place on a football field. If you didn’t see/hear about it, Suarez sunk his teeth into the forearm of his marker, Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic during an attack for his team, Liverpool. This was an action that would look out of place in an under-10’s match, let alone an important Premier League clash broadcast around the globe. What sort of message does this send to aspiring young footballers, followers of Liverpool football club and the rest of the world? An extremely negative one at best. This beggars the question does Suarez have a future at Liverpool?
Sunday’s incident is not Suarez’s first transgression in English football. In December 2011 he was found guilty of racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra and received an 8-match ban. Whilst playing for Ajax he was suspended for biting another opponent, Otman Bakkal. His controversial deliberate handball in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final stopped a certain goal for Ghana which would have won them the game and a place in the semi-final. Suarez has also clashed with a few managers on the subject of diving, most notably Tony Pulis and David Moyes. He’s had his fair share of controversy.
Before we publicly crucify Luis Suarez we should also remember that there have been a few other footballing bad-boys that have committed crimes and served their time. Eric Cantona was not exactly the embodiment of a saint but is feted as one of the finest foreigners to play in England. Cantona physically assaulted a member of the crowd, via a kung-fu kick in 1995. Is that really worse than a bite on the arm of an opponent? True, Cantona received a lengthy ban (9 months), but the footballing fraternity forgave him. New Sunderland Paolo Di Canio infamously pushed referee Paul Alcock in 1998 and also received a lengthy ban, but is remembered fondly by the majority of football fans too. Will we look back in 10 years’ time and recall Suarez with such misty-eyed emotion as a loveable rogue? I severely doubt it.
The conundrum with Suarez is that he comes from a culture where ‘cheating’ and conning the referee are seen as admirable traits. If you watch Suarez closely in games he is forever trying to gain an advantage over an opponent by maybe a tug of the shirt here, an elbow in the ribs there or little push. This is all part and parcel of being a successful Premier League striker (Alan Shearer carved a career out of it). It is Suarez’s job to score goals for his team and he is as determined as anyone I have ever seen to put the ball in the net. He will try anything and in his view, it is up to the referee to spot his little indiscretions. If he commits a little foul but the referee doesn’t spot it, then all the better. This is an attitude entirely alien to the British psyche, where honesty, integrity and fair play are valued higher than a ruthless will to win (almost certainly a reason why England has failed so frequently on the international stage). This is why Suarez’s actions, whilst indefensible in this case, generally sit so uneasily with English football fans.
His club have reacted in an appropriate manner – fining him and publicly denouncing his behaviour. Suarez has himself apologised to Ivanovic and admitted an FA charge – but in his view a three-match ban should be sufficient. The FA have other ideas and have slapped him with a 10-match suspension which, if upheld, will see Suarez out of action until late September. Many former players have called for Suarez to be sold as his actions are not befitting of a Liverpool professional. This reeks of double standards. Is assaulting someone in a bar behaviour befitting of a Liverpool captain (Steven Gerrard 2008)? Although he was officially acquitted, I’ve seen the CCTV, and he was guilty as sin. Is dancing naked with a stripper at the club’s Christmas party (Jamie Carragher) befitting of a Liverpool professional? Absolutely not. I’m not trying to defend Suarez’s actions, no-one can, but I’m putting it into some sort of context. In England, it is more socially acceptable to be drunk in public than to go down in the area under pressure. In Uruguay, the opposite is true. Almost all top English professional footballers have transgressed in one way or another but we, the public, forgive them (witness the public perception of David Beckham in contrast to 1998). We should do the same to Suarez. He has apologised. End of story. Suarez deserves his ban lengthy ban – 10 matches is a bit steep in my opinion, but the FA is clamping down on serious foul play and this is to be commended; plus, Suarez is a serial offender. He should accept the ban – vow to improve his behaviour and move on from this episode and continue to showcase his undoubted talents.
There has been recent debate on whether Suarez has damaged the club’s image irreparably and that Liverpool should cut their losses and sell him. I agree with Graeme Souness that the Uruguayan is entering ‘the last chance saloon’ with Liverpool. There is no doubt that his behaviour must improve – if he is suspended for 6-8 games per season Liverpool are missing out on his talents for almost a fifth of the campaign and that is not good enough. But can Liverpool afford to lose him? I dread to think where Liverpool would be without Suarez. His form this season has been nothing short of superb; he has been, over the course of the campaign, the most consistently excellent player in the Premier League and fully deserving of his PFA Player of the Year nomination. His 30 goals this season are 20 more than the next Liverpool player, and if he is sold, you imagine that the club would struggle to attract a player of equal calibre, especially if, as looks likely, they fail to qualify for Europe. They might get £40 million for Suarez but what use is £40 million if you can’t replace him with someone of equal ability? Players of Suarez’s ability aren’t exactly two-a-penny. The manager Brendan Rogers is trying to build a lasting legacy at Liverpool and the Uruguayan is at the centre of that plan. To remove such an integral piece of the jigsaw would deal Liverpool a huge blow and set them back to the dark days of Hodgson. Andy Carroll might even have to come back. It’s simply not worth contemplating.