If Luis Suarez, the Liverpool striker who bit a Chelsea FC defender on Sunday, were to appear at the team’s store in the centre of Liverpool offering to bite any fan’s upper arm in lieu of an autograph, there would be a line around the block of people hoping to get their own Suarez teethmarks.
I might join them.
There’s a lot of self-righteous fulminating against Suarez on the web right now. The Guardian just referred to him as “the perfect storm of evil,” for example.
In the space of 24 hours, Suarez has gone from being a favourite contender for the Football Association’s player of the year award to the poster boy for everything that’s bad about the game.
Here’s why they’re wrong.
It’s not that Suarez is any worse behaved than any other player in soccer. Rather, it’s that he’s better than most of his opponents and thus draws more of their hatred.
First, the background.
This isn’t just about yesterday’s incident, in which Suarez deliberately chomped the right triceps of Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic as the pair tussled for position in front of an incoming cross from Liverpool captain Steve Gerrard.
Suarez has an unfortunate history:
- He was banned for several games for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra last season, and labelled a racist.
- In 2010, while playing for Amsterdam’s Ajax, he bit PSV’s Otman Bakkal on the shoulder during a 0–0 draw, and was suspended for seven games.
- Also that year, plating for Uruguay in the World Cup, he saved a certain goal by Ghana with his hand, and was sent off. Ghana failed to convert the penalty, and Uruguay won.
- In Sunday’s game, he handled the ball (again) defending the Liverpool goal and triggered a penalty, which Chelsea scored, making the game 2-1.
In the 74th minute, yesterday with Liverpool piling on the pressure, Suarez then inexplicably bit Ivanovic. The referee didn’t notice it, even though it was a clear red-card act that should have gotten him sent off — thus ensuring Liverpool’s loss.
And then, in the dying seconds of the game, Suarez nodded home an almost impossible header to tie the game 2-2. It was the last meaningful touch of the match, and the Suarez saved the result for Liverpool even though he should not had been on the pitch.
On paper, this all sounds as if one of the sport’s great villains has been unjustly rewarded by football’s quaint, video-free refereeing system.
In fact, the opposite is the case.
It’s not that Suarez is worse behaved than anyone else.
Before you express sympathy for Ivanovic, the “victim,” you should note that when Ivanovic showed the ref his arm there wasn’t a mark on it. And here’s a video of Ivanovic punching Wigan’s Shaun Maloney, an unprovoked attack that earned him a three game ban last year.
What’s really going on with Suarez is mind games.
He’s (probably) not a psychotic man-child racist. Rather, he clearly believes in deploying all the tricks in the book against his opponents, on the ball and off, psychological and not, in order to get into their heads.
Think about it: If you want to hobble an opponent, then briefly biting his arm isn’t the way to do it. It’s more likely that Suarez knows that when you bite a player, that player shakes you off with a swat of the arm that’s likely to look like a punch to the face — and thus draw an undeserved free kick. In fact, Suarez did fall to the ground after Ivanovic reacted, right on cue.
The Evra incident could also be construed as a psychological tactic taken too far. We obviously condemn the racist things he said, but it was probably a case of a hyper-competitive Suarez getting swept up in the moment, not some deep-seated racism.
It’s the same with Suarez’s World Cup hand ball. Don’t touch the ball and you’re certain to concede. Touch it, and there’s a chance it will stay out — as it did against Ghana.
Suarez is about winning, at all costs.
He’s scored 23 goals this season, and has scored 51 goals from 96 appearances for the club.
That victory-or-death attitude has been sorely missing at Liverpool for several years. Managers and owners have made a series of short-sighted decisions that have left a club that once dominated European football where it is now: A mid-table club that’s often difficult to beat but rarely in danger of having to rearrange its trophy cabinet. Its players often look miserable and defeated on the pitch before the ref’s whistle has even been blown.
Suarez, however, plays like he’s having the time of his life. No other player seems to simply enjoy playing football the way he does.
That’s why, almost immediately after the match, one fan’s gut reaction to the biting incident was to tweet:
It’s the Chelsea aspect, also, that cements this for Liverpool fans like myself. There’s a long and special hatred between Liverpool and Chelsea. The blues are above Liverpool in the table, of course, and there’s little we can do about it — except take points off them.
Suarez is close to eclipsing the 65 goals/102 games record of Fernando Torres, his predecessor as a striker who went to Chelsea, and was on the pitch again Suarez on Sunday.
And, lastly, even if you concede that Suarez’s act was unforgivable, you can’t overlook that it created yet another “ghost goal” between the two clubs. Back in 2005, in the semi-final of the Champions League, Liverpool’s Garcia was awarded a goal against Chelsea that ultimately delivered the trophy to Liverpool in the final.
On Sunday, Liverpool scored another goal-that-shouldn’t-have-been against Chelsea, taking two points off their premier League total. Chelsea are hanging on to their Champions League 4th place qualifying spot by just one point right now.
If it were to be the case that Chelsea were to finish 5th by two points or fewer, then every Liverpool fan will quietly chuckle, bite on, Luis Suarez, bite on, with hope in your heart — you’ll never bite alone!
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