Luis Suarez: the great polemicist
Luis Suárez is the bête noire of the Premier League, although, given that he once said of himself, “There are two of me; two different people”, maybe we should really call him the bêtes noires. A complicated character deserves a complicated sobriquet, even if it ignores half of the story and puts too much emphasis on the other half. In these transitional times at Liverpool, where expectations are diminishing by the day, and where evolution rather than revolution is the stratagem of choice, Suárez has managed to dichotomize his existence into extreme opposites.
Figure of hate. Figure of brilliance.
The most unpopular player in the Premier League has become, over the past few months, arguably the most vibrant and valuable. He leads the scoring charts with ten goals, in what is definitely the weakest Liverpool team since 1991-92 (and possibly even the weakest since 1960-61), and he is now in grave danger of arousing grudging respect and of losing some of the abuse on which, perversely, he might depend.
Respect for Suárez? Welcome to the Twilight Zone! But here he is, suddenly, supposedly, the subject of a possible £40million bid from Manchester City and the subject of continued interest from Juventus and others. Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, will not sell, and the player seems happy at Anfield, but the transfer speculation has added a new element to the Suárez saga. Amid the hate, there is love. It was always there, but now it is just that little bit easier to locate.
True, Suárez handled the ball on his way to scoring the winner for Liverpool against Mansfield Town in the FA Cup this month. His celebration was unedifying but every Mansfield player who spoke about the incident said that they would have done the same. Paul Cox, the Mansfield manager, said: "No I don't feel cheated. For me to come out and say something like that I think would be quite cheap. If it had gone in the other end and one of our players had done it I think we'd have accepted it."
Suárez will suffer more abuse - but he will also earn his share of compliments. Such is the world he now inhabits.
His vivacity inside the penalty area – his twists, turns, control, low sense of gravity – is starting to make the spectators who jeer Suárez look so passé. He long ago realised that absorbing the vitriol and converting it to energy was the best way to deal with his many nemeses. One forms the impression that, like Eric Cantona in 1996, Suárez would be less effective if opposing fans stopped booing him. Just as the socialists who burlesqued Margaret Thatcher in the Eighties realised too late that she actually enjoyed the abuse, so it might be with the Suárez barrackers.
Even men of substance have sucked themselves in. By making Suárez the focal point of the previews before the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park last month, David Moyes, the Everton manager, made himself a hostage to fortune. Suárez scored twice, taunted Moyes with an exaggerated goal celebration, and looked every inch one of the top ten players in the Premier League. Afterwards, Moyes, usually so astute, usually so wise with his words, looked more ghostly than normal. He went for the easy target. He missed. He had the befuddled expression to prove it.
Most fans jeer Suárez, but not all for the same reason. Some have never forgiven him for denying Ghana a certain goal illegally in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final, even though Asamoah Gyan, the forward who missed the resulting penalty, said, “If it was me, I would have done the same thing”. Some regard Suárez as a serial diver but forget, conveniently, that the Premier League has more than its fair share of serial divers.
And, of course, there was the Patrice Evra incident, which put racism at the forefront of football discourse, but also created a false moral authority among many football regulars. By supporting Suárez so emphatically, with such misguided passion, Liverpool might actually have done their player more harm than good. He took the fall, mainly because of his own folly – Latinoaméricana vernacular is no legal defence on an English football pitch – but also because of how Liverpool botched their response to the original allegations.
Nevertheless, I have no doubt that the majority of those people who jeer Suárez would cheer him happily if he played for their club. This has less to do with Ghana’s World Cup woes, less to do with diving, and less to do with racism than it does with the propensity in football for people to display their blind tribalism. The tribalists are invariably good family people, keen to bring up their children with love and affection, and not averse to making the odd donation to charity. But then they enter the football stadium and they metamorphose into everything they are not in the real world. They become filled with rage and enmity, foaming at the mouth, and treating Suárez like he has done something life-threatening - like dropped a bomb on, say, Papua New Guinea or put ice cubes in his wine.
The loathing for Suárez descended to such unhealthy levels last August that Olympic spectators even jeered the Uruguay national anthem. The supposedly anti-racist masses had used a form of racism to demonstrate their distaste for a person they believed to be a racist. Oh, the irony. Oh, the hypocrisy.
The Suárez dichotomy is a reflection of the crude, binary mentality that disfigures the game. He is the bogeyman – until he plays for us. Then, and only then, do we judge him on his athletic brilliance rather than the flaws in his character. The problem is not Suárez, it is us; it is our predilection, à la George W Bush, for dividing the world dumbly into those who are with us and those who are against us.
Figure of hate. Figure of brilliance. And nothing in between.