WHEN LUIS Suarez sank his not insignificant nashers into Branislav Ivanovic’s arm, the football world predictably exploded with media-fuelled outrage.
Some called for him to be sacked, banned or sold, others branded it funny or compared it to the late tackles, the butts, pulling, pinching or punching that has littered the game down the years. My view is he let the mental demons that plague his thinking on the pitch get the better of him. Again. And in doing so he let Liverpool down and he let the fans who idolise him on Merseyside down. Again.
Suarez has long tread the tightrope between devilment and despicable – it’s part of what makes him the player he is. And Liverpool – club, fans and players – have defended him to the hilt. He might be a bastard, but he’s our bastard, is the view that pervades on the red-half of Merseyside. But sinking his teeth into the flesh of a fellow professional? Again? There’s no defending that. It’s a tactic that would be frowned upon in a street fight, never mind in a top-level football match watched by millions on TV.
It’s easy to be flippant about it, to wave it away – particularly if it’s your player and your club at the centre of the controversy. But how far away was it from being much worse? A deeper bite, a chunk of flesh spat out? In momentary lapses of reason, it can happen – ask Mike Tyson. He, for the record, was fined $3million and had his boxing licence revoked after biting a chunk out of Evander Holyfield’s ear in 1997.
Liverpool – after the PR disaster that was Evra-gate – proved lessons had been learned. Apologies were issued by club and player, Suarez was fined and the behaviour was condemned. Anyone expecting anything more really should lay off the crack pipe. Sacking Suarez was crazy talk.
Clubs rarely, if ever, put moral currency ahead of football competitiveness and cold hard cash. That’s why players have kicked fans, pushed referees, booted ball boys, launched pre-meditated attacks on fellow players and even gone to prison before returning to continue where they left off. Suarez is Liverpool’s best player, and tainted image or not, he’s probably worth in the region of £50million. He’s not the first player to disgrace himself on a football pitch, and he won’t be the last. The club was never going to strike a match to that kind of money.
And had Liverpool suddenly lunged for the moral high ground on the basis that Suarez’s chomp was a leap over the line too far, would that have been the end of the Urguayan striker’s football career? Would every club have consulted the moral compass and decided the 30-goal forward, shortlisted for the PFA Player of the Year Award, was now damaged goods that could not be touched? Of course not. And if logic allows those clubs to sign him, why should it mean Liverpool should sack him?
As it is, Liverpool have vowed to stand by their man. Manager Brendan Rodgers will work with him on his “character” according to club MD Ian Ayre. It might take a bit more than a football manager to change that and, according to reports, the PFA have offered Suarez anger management counselling. If Liverpool were determined to resist all bids for Suarez this summer, they may now pause for reflection when a club dangling the Champions League carrot comes calling as they inevitably will.
That Suarez did not learn his lesson from biting Otman Bakkal on the shoulder while playing for Ajax in 2010 would ring alarm bells for any professional organisation and it just may be that now ‘not for sale at any price’ has become ‘keep going higher and we’ll consider it’. An FA ban is looming for Suarez, and whatever that is, it will be fully deserved. All the pointing to a similar incident when Jermain Defoe chewed on Javier Mascherano’s arm does is highlight the FA’s incompetence.
Then, they were hamstrung by their own ridiculous rules that determine they cannot issue punishment for an incident witnessed by the referee. This time opportunity knocks.
Suarez now has a worryingly lengthy crime sheet that screams liability. So is there a way back for the talented timebomb or is his departure now inevitable? If he leaves, Liverpool’s team and the Premier League will be worse off for it – his talent is undoubted. But can Suarez learn a lesson and curb the cannibal streak, or will his words again prove empty?
Only he truly knows the answer, and while all eyes have been on Liverpool and the FA, it is high time the player himself admitted he has a deep-rooted problem. For inspiration – stay with it – he should look no further than Eric Cantona. The Frenchman was proof that you can be loved by your own fans, hated by everyone else and carry on regardless.
Cantona, like Suarez, had previous before his time at Old Trafford. And, like Suarez, he continued to press the self-destruct button in the Premier League. He spat at a fan in his first season with Manchester United, was banned for five matches in his second for being sent off in successive games and in his third kung-fu kicked a Crystal Palace fan.
Cantona was banned for nine months, fined £20,000, stripped of the French national team captaincy and ordered to complete 120 hours of community service. But he returned triumphantly, as we know all too well, lifting the FA Cup after scoring the winner to add to a Premier League winners’ medal. He was later voted United’s Player of the Century. It might feel like it now, but the road to redemption for Suarez isn’t impossible. Liverpool are backing him (again) – the rest is up to him.