Sport: The Tactical Foul – In Defence of Luis Suarez
It was a weather-miserable, but attitude-upbeat evening down at Field Mill. January 6th was the date; fashionable little Mansfield Town FC of non-league fame were hosting notorious Liverpool FC of the Evil Barclays Evil Premier League of Evil in the FA Cup 3rd Round (of Evil). Despite enjoying 2 percent possession of the ball for every sole percent afforded by their hosts, the in-form top division team were leading by a single goal at the start of the 59th minute. That was when it happened.
Uruguayan. Trickster. Genius. Cheat. The four words that perhaps most commonly describe the Reds’ goalscoring wizard. The fourth one was most vociferously contributed by ESPN’s Jon Champion moments after Luis Suarez had put Liverpool 2-0 up with an Henry-esque handling of the ball. The crowd roared its angry objection, but the referees were unmoved. Town’s keeper gesticulated wildly toward the linesman, smacking his arm as though playing a game of charades with someone short-sighted who couldn’t quite see how many syllables he was indicating. Suarez went into autopilot for his trademark celebration– a kiss of his right hand – which only served to provoke the already disgruntled crowd further, who felt he was rubbing it in.
You could almost smell Champion’s thoughts through the television. How dare he? How dare he handle the ball against poor Little Mansfield Town and then pay tribute to his own ill-gotten gains! ‘These are what can only be described as the actions of a cheat!’, Champion spat. A simultaneous intake of breath up and down England– did he really say that? He can’t call him that, can he? A thousand and one lawyers dashed to their dusty college books to check out the potential libel attributed to TV commentators (spoiler – don’t worry! Jonny-boy is safe from legal action for now, folks!)
He was right though, Luis Suarez had cheated, but, as is so often the case with the 25-year-old, he was portrayed as if he was the creator of original sin. What he did and what he does may be distasteful, but why does Suarez get so much more stick than other footballers? He’s hardly the first person to handle the ball, nor the most notorious. That dishonour belongs to Diego Maradona against England in the World Cup semi-final of 1986, whereupon he introduced us to the world-infamous Hand of God. Argentina went on to win the World Cup and he never paid for it. Suarez, you may or may not recall, was sent off in the World Cup quarter-final in 2010, for handling the ball on the goal-line in the last minute of a match against Ghana, stopping the South Americans from suffering an irretrievable deficit. Asamoah Gyan missed the ensuing penalty and Uruguay progressed to the semi-final against the Netherlands. But Suarez did not play due to the suspension from his act, and his team were knocked out. He paid. And who does history hate more?
There was much chagrin over him celebrating with his teammates at the final whistle of the game against Ghana, as if he was expected to go to the naughty corner for the rest of the tournament to think about what he did, smiling forbidden. Remember when Henry handled the ball twice in the lead-up to France’s winning goal against Ireland in the lead-up to the same competition? After the match, Henry sat down beside Richard Dunne et al, moping with them, as if to say ‘Isn’t it terrible, lads? If only the referee had spotted me cheating, you wouldn’t be in this mess. I feel bad for you son, I got 99 problems, but World Cup qualification ain’t one!’ I may be paraphrasing slightly, but this false sentiment is worse than irresistible joy. Yet two years on, which of these two events is more reviled? Even if we say, in football cheating terms, that handballs are to gaining extra 2 metres on a throw-in what murder is to jaywalking, there is still an unreserved amount of bile spewed in Suarez’ general direction. What gives?
There’s the elephant in the room – the racial abuse against Patrice Evra – which should have been avoided, but was still there, and compounded by a combination of mismanagement and further media vilifying due to Suarez’s previous – namely the Ghana handball, the histrionics when tackled and that time he once bit a rival team’s player – a moment so ludicrous, the sufferer of said bite didn’t even know how to react. Now we’re getting somewhere! Racist language, handballs, Tyson-assault; the case against Suarez looks pretty solid right now. Surely the worst human being to have ever played the game? Well yes, that is until you compare it to the rap sheets of
John Terry: ‘ironic’ racism, adultery, spitting, parking his Bentley in disabled parking bays.
Zinedine Zidane: a man who suffered career-long addictions to head-butting and getting sent off in World Cup finals matches.
Roman Shirokov: the talented Zenit St. Petersburg midfielder who bleats openly racist and homophobic sentiment and refers to opposition fans as pigs).
Kevin Muscat: he who must have most impressive collection of on-field assaults this writer has seen!
El-Hadji Diouf: has been sent off for racially abusing white children and has, on more than one occasion spat on away fans – imagine paying £62 for that privilege!
Pepe: who brings ‘going down easy’ to a new trough, as well as being the first person involved in any fracas on the pitch. Once received a 10-game ban for trying to attack the entire Getafe team at once.
Robbie Fowler: made homophobic comments about other teams’ players, then took money off of billionaire Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov to play a game against the president’s team where the former rebel’s side surprisingly won, with the United Russia leader taking away the man of the match award.
Fernando Ricksen: a concise version of this man’s injustices would itself be an injustice.
Then there’s Cantona and Maradona and their hi-jinks…
In comparison to that lot, Suarez’s record looks reasonably timid, but the sheer volume of ire he attracts is still unprecedented, even taking into account the above names. Is he so much worse than them? The problem isn’t even that he’s one of the most talented and most watchable players in the world, therefore easier to detest. No, the difference is a combination of that, and the fact that out of the rest of that list still playing, Suarez is eminently a better player than all of them. Of those who aren’t, they weren’t living in an age where information travels faster, further, and easier than ever before. The Liverpool number 7’s handball against Mansfield drew high-horse remarks from as far afield as Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia to Santiago in Chile. But no one thought more of it when Adam Le Fondre used both hand to put the ball in the back of the Newcastle United net for Reading this last weekend. His manager Brian McDermott simply dismissed the goalscoring method with a stock ‘he’s not that kind of player’ remark.
Suarez’s controversies so regularly dwarf that which makes him such an essential part of modern football. He has control skills that simply eclipse every other player in England– his goals are so clever and unique, they frequently look like clipping errors. He has the Duracell bunny aspect Dirk Kuyt and Roy Keane had, better known as the ‘Engine’ attribute in the FIFA games, that endears him to so many and he never stops running. He brings a childhood joy to the game that most won’t have seen since they were old enough to buy their own ice cream. He is a one-of-a-kind player and, for all his nasty sensibilities, the pros more than outweigh the cons.
Not history’s worst villain then, just someone we can all love watching, and love to hate. And whichever it is you feel for him, hate or love, we should embrace him while he’s here.