Incisors and incisiveness, welcome to the world of Luis Suarez
Liverpool knew what they were getting when they signed the Urugayan striker
Harry Kewell is not many people’s idea of a philosopher, but early in his career the Australian realised something important about football.
Kewell’s insight was shared by his former agent Bernie Mandic in an interview with the Melbourne Age in 2010. Mandic explained that he reprimanded the then 19-year-old Kewell for being rude to a sponsor at a function.
“He said to me, ‘Bernie, let me tell you something about football. Mate, you can go beat your wife, beat your kids, root prostitutes, rob a bank or even commit murder – but if you score the winning goal on the weekend, it doesn’t f***in’ matter.’ When he said that, I thought, ‘F . . . me, how cynical can a bloke of 19 be? But the scary thing was he was right.”
Luis Suarez seems to be engaged in an experiment to see just how far the Kewell rule can be pushed. Even Kewell restricted his examples of what a great footballer can get away with to bad behaviour off the field. Suarez commits all his outrages on the field, sharing them in real time with a mesmerised global audience.
There are a handful of better footballers in the world, but no other footballer is as compulsively watchable. We have not seen genius and instability combined to this extraordinary degree since the heyday of Diego Maradona. Watching Suarez, the only thing you know about what is going to happen is that literally anything can happen. In a few short years he has built a unique public image that runs the gamut from godlike genius to recidivist cannibal.
Yesterday at Anfield we saw all the different Suarezes. He made Liverpool’s first goal when a superb angled flick from Stewart Downing enabled him to set up Daniel Sturridge. He made Chelsea’s second goal with a crazy handball in his own penalty area. He scored Liverpool’s second to equalise in the 96th minute. And between the second and third of these contributions, he buried his teeth in the arm of Branislav Ivanovic – and, on the field at least, he got away with it.
As the players and crowd at Anfield focused on the final minutes of the game, the rest of the world was digesting the implications of the attack on Ivanovic, which became more astonishing on each subsequent viewing. Suarez had lowered his head and closed on his victim with clear yet apparently motiveless malice, grabbing the shirt of Ivanovic the better to fix him in place for the jaws.
On Twitter the millions for whom Suarez is already irredeemably despicable howled their vindication. Some Liverpool fans resorted to whataboutery (Defoe! Cantona!), others to prayer. In the Sky studio, Graeme Souness and Jamie Redknapp spoke darkly of disgrace.
In the post-match interviews, both managers skirted around the issue for their own political purposes.
Rafael Benitez’s interview was quietly extraordinary. The Chelsea manager should have been angry that his team had been denied two points by a player who should have been sent off. Instead, he denied he had seen the incident with the calm of a man for whom the protection of his own future employment prospects seemed to have taken priority over his present employers’ struggle for Champions League qualification.
For his part, Brendan Rodgers refused to criticise Suarez directly, offering instead a commitment to review the incident and comment at a later date. Later, he told the press that “all players are replaceable”.
Rodgers knows that Suarez is both his most important player and the favourite of the crowd. He will also remember what happened to Kenny Dalglish, who became a laughing stock in the game for his defence of Suarez throughout last season’s racism scandal.
The prompt apologies issued last night by Suarez and by Liverpool’s MD Ian Ayre suggest the club learned something about PR from last season’s scandal, but Dalglish’s experience should give Rodgers in particular plenty to think about.
With that intransigent defence of Suarez, Dalglish sacrificed his reputation outside the Liverpudlian enclaves where his hero status was already unimpeachable. In the process, he kept Suarez at the club.
Rodgers, whose team would be nothing without Suarez, therefore owes his predecessor a debt of gratitude. It remains to be seen whether he has the same appetite for defending his club’s interests in the face of mass condemnation.
There will now be a debate whether or not Liverpool can afford to hold on to such a morally compromised player. Well, why shouldn’t they? Liverpool bought Suarez from Ajax after he was banned for biting an opponent. Clearly, they have no problem with biting opponents per se.
Of course, the difficulty arises not from their principled objection to biting, but from the cumulative embarrassment of having to stand over the player’s repeated wrongdoing. Is he, despite his 30 goals this season, becoming more trouble than he is worth?
There may be some in the Liverpool hierarchy tempted to strike a pose of what Conrad Black would call “bourgeois priggishness” and purge Suarez for the sake of good PR. But as Harry Kewell understood, football is a dictatorship of talent. Suarez is the best attacking player Liverpool have signed since John Barnes. Lately he has been the only reason to watch them play. They might not find another forward of his calibre for many years.
If Rodgers decides the Uruguayan is replaceable, he might find supporters reminding him that all managers are too.