THE first thing to say about Luis Suarez and Liverpool is that, given they already knew they were buying a man who would bite an opponent mid-match while playing for Ajax, there must have been a minor inkling that owning this footballing big cat might bring them claw marks and scars, too.
There’s a brilliant Al Wilson hit song from 1974 called The Snake (Take Me In Tender Woman) in which a snake’s clever and repeated pleading convinces the feckless but big-hearted subject of his charms to take him home and feed him.
Of course, he bites her and the final verse before the ”dying” chorus reminds her that ”you knew darn well I was a snake before you took me in …”
Now stop, hold it right there, Liverpool militants – I’m not calling Suarez a snake; I’m simply pointing out that while the great minds at Anfield perhaps could not have specified that he’d be accused of being a cheat and a racist, they did know that with Suarez, all that glitters isn’t necessarily gold.
I’ve spent most of the past 10 years listening to top-class professionals, players and coaches, struggle to find words to describe their jaw-dropping disbelief when they watch Leo Messi play.
Their eyes goggle, they smile in a kinda dopey, ”words-fail-me” manner because they’ve never seen anyone so, so far ahead of them in ability and technique.
But over the past few months I’ve begun to hear a similar awe and admiration in the voice of the UK’s best former players and managers when they try to appreciate and analyse the Uruguayan’s sublime technical skills, his invention, his anarchic, nerve-free ideas about how to slalom past four defenders and then sell the keeper a dummy so enormous that you could even stick it in Jose Mourinho’s mouth and keep him quiet for a day or two.
So in this scenario I’m not Mark Antony and Suarez is not Brutus – I neither come to fully bury nor fully praise this ”differently wired” South American striker.
To me it’s a delicious irony that Suarez and his attitude to winning at literally all cost appears to fit perfectly with the infamous Bill Shankly quote about football being far more important than life or death.
When he dives (and he does), when he punches the ball into the net or off his own goal-line, it’s because winning (or not losing) matters more than the laws of the game, the respect of the UK footballing public – more than fair play or respect, that’s for sure.
The irony? Well, my strong belief is that Shankly meant football in its integral state – hard work, local pride, professional standards, communal singing, giving the workers relief from their often hellish six-day working week, not simply winning at any cost.
Winning, yes. Playing hard ball, yes.
Provoking others with Shanks’ own words and deeds, yes.
But cheating, no.
In fact, I think that Shankly would never, ever have signed a Suarez.
But if by some misfortune he’d stopped paying attention over the summer and the Liverpool owners added the striker behind the back of the fiery Scot, then Suarez would have been out the door within a week or two.
Yet there is no escaping that not only is the striker an absolute gem, he’s at Anfield in an era when the top world talents tend to already be multimillionaires with a preference for living in large, cosmopolitan, jet-set cities – London, Milan, Madrid, Paris, Barcelona and Munich rather than Liverpool, Glasgow or Manchester.
I know that this phenomenon drives managers, directors of football and chairmen of some clubs to absolute distraction.
It’s a trend epitomised by Ronaldinho in 2003 choosing Barcelona over Manchester United, partly because it rained too much in Lancashire and partly because Cristiano Ronaldo still often phoned old friends at United’s Carrington training ground to admit that he pines for the club and would return promptly if not for the grey skies, the constant rain and the droopy temperatures.
The value of Suarez to Liverpool’s season, its pursuit of a trophy, its worldwide image when, as against Newcastle in November, he draws the ball out of the sky onto his chest with hypnotic brilliance, wriggles around the advancing goalkeeper and billows the goal net
is almost incalculable. But the very fact that he is at Anfield at all is of huge strategic importance.
For as long as the Fenway Sports Group (Liverpool’s owners) and the manager, Brendan Rodgers, can cope with the opprobrium of the nation when Suarez punches the ball towards the net against plucky Mansfield in the FA Cup and gets away with it, then the player can be used as a magnet for other great talents.
Imagine you are Anfield managing director Ian Ayre.
You are sitting across the dinner table in Bilbao trying to convince World Cup winner Fernando Llorente and his agent, brother Chus, that Liverpool is the place to be and you are able to state: ”Suarez loves the club, loves the fans, loves the city and he’s going to be with us as your striking partners for the next three years.”
Is your pitch easier, or harder?
Coincidentally it happens to be something Ayre can state with confidence.
A few months ago, during an interview in Spain, Suarez confessed: ”I love Liverpool – life in the city and at the club. In fact, I’d give the club, the fans and the city 10 out of 10.
”Off the pitch, my wife and I are very happy because we now have a daughter who has been born since moving to England. This is a new, contented stage of our lives.
”The support I get from my teammates, those who run the club and the fans is impressive, and I’ll be thankful all my life to Kenny Dalglish for having given me the chance to play in the Premier League for Liverpool and for supporting me through the whole of last season.”
Unfortunately, Suarez believes that everyone in England is out of step apart from him.
He is willing to admit that he dives, something for which Rodgers now says he’ll be disciplined privately by the club.
”’Football is like that. Sometimes you do things on the pitch that, later, you think, ‘Why the hell did I do that?’ ” Suarez told Fox Sports in Argentina. ”I was accused of going down in the box and it’s true, I did it that time because we were drawing against Stoke at home and we needed anything to win it.”
He blithely expects at least some of his audience to simply accept his point of view.
But then he claims that such actions are only highlighted in the UK because they ”sell newspapers”. Patent nonsense.
He also argues about the Mansfield incident that: ”The ball hit my hand without any intention at all from me and everybody criticised because I kissed my wrist after the goal. ‘Suarez sells’.”
Again, not the point. The central debate was about whether he intended to use his arm, whether fair play suggested he should have owned up and whether the refereeing team’s ineptitude was the bigger issue.
For as long as he refuses to even address the core of the argument about the extremes he’s willing to go in order to gain an advantage, poor old Suarez, for all his ability to ferret his way past three tackles and score from no angle at all, will be doomed to condemnation in England.
”I’m the type of person who is very self-critical and am constantly working to improve,” he says.
”My wife knows immediately if I’m annoyed with my own performance. I can’t sit down when I get home and will be pacing round the house muttering to myself, ‘Why didn’t I do such and such . . ‘
”I can be a bit difficult at times, I know, but at least I’m prepared to front up when I make a mistake. If I mess up I admit it.
”Luis Suarez the footballer is very different from Luis Suarez the person. On the pitch I tend to shout a lot – complain about the decisions. At home, nothing could be further from the truth. I never get cross and I’m very chilled out.”
For Liverpool, things must feel a little chilling.
This week Suarez admitted that he doesn’t like the sensation of the club’s over-dependency on him and pointed out: ”The right mentality is that young players win matches but experienced players win championships.”
Not only is there a wee market for talented, disaffected strikers of absurd talent, it’s also the case that Suarez is represented by Pere Guardiola, the brother of the incoming Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola.
Shankly, I think, would have dumped him, but the modern Liverpool can’t, at the moment, do anything other than attempt to guide him differently as far as his on-pitch morals are concerned – then pay him a king’s (and queen’s) ransom to stay, score goals and help them attract top-level stars while the Kop dreams of a return to glory days.
Not an easy dilemma at all.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.