AS you can imagine, I’ve been thinking about Luis Suarez quite a lot recently. Different emotions have flooded the mind on different days, ranging from frustration, to anger, to sadness, to relief, back to frustration… More than anything, however, I’ve been thinking about what Suarez’s time at Liverpool and the manner in which he is about to extract himself from the club says about supporters and their relationship with players, a process that has included returning to that clunky and rather comical apology Suarez issued after biting Giorgio Chiellini during Uruguay’s World Cup victory over Italy last month.
In the apology – which was essentially directed from Camp Nou and delivered by a man desperate to play there next season – Suarez offered his sorrow to the “entire football family”. “Family”; it was that particular word which stuck out, an established phrase in football’s lexicon with various offshoot terms also part of the sport’s vocabulary – some managers, for instance, are described as “father figures”, while young players have been heard describing a grizzled team-mate as being like an “older brother”. Even the phrase “childhood dream” (as in – it has always been Robbie Keane’s “childhood dream” to play for Leeds/Tottenham/Liverpool/Celtic/LA Galaxy…) has a homely, family-orientated quality to it.
This use of language, consciously or subconsciously, appears an obvious attempt by those who love football to elevate it beyond simply being about 22 men running around on a large patch of grass and suggest instead that it is a sport of great depth and meaning, one with a unifying and collective force so strong that it is comparable to the bond which exists between mother and child, father and brother, sister and cousin. It is part of the same process which sees some people describe football as a religion, which in increasingly non-believing nations like England is a somewhat contradictory thing to do.
The irony of Suarez using the phrase “family” is that he has shown just how meaningless it is in a football context, and in particular in the context of the relationship between player and club. Because if there is one club Suarez should have viewed as his family, a source of love and loyalty from which he could not contemplate departing from, it is Liverpool. Yet here we are, watching him pack his bags and preparing to move in with The Catalans from No1899.
But who is really in the wrong here; Suarez for leaving a club that has stood firmly behind him during some dark and disturbing moments, or Liverpool for thinking displaying unstinting loyalty was the correct thing to do? When the player was banned for racial abuse and then again for biting an opponent, when he handled the ball and then accused the manager of being a liar and demanded a move to Arsenal, we closed ranks, gave Suarez our full support and spoke about “protecting our own”. We acted, in other words, like he was part of the family. But a family is a group of people brought together by truly deep means and the point is that however much you dislike, even hate, the members of your clan you can never really dump them and they can never really dump you – the ties are for life.
From the moment he arrived from Ajax in January 2011 to this point now, when he is about to leave, Suarez was never part of the family. Like all players he is (for the time being) an employee of the club, nothing more, nothing less. The emotions attached to football make it a particularly unique working environment, a place where the hired help are cheered and serenaded and if they stay long enough and do well enough (and in the case of Kenny Dalglish, give their lives to soothing the pain of others) end up being loved by “the customers” long after they leave. But essentially the rules are the same – the workforce clock in, clock out and could decide to leave at any given point.
And it is a two-way thing because make no mistake, if Suarez was an unproven youngster or an average first-team squad player there is no way the club – officials, staff and fans alike – would have stuck by him in the way they have. In cold, calculated terms, Liverpool backed Suarez because he is absolutely brilliant at football. He has been as much part of the family as the plasma TV in the corner of the front room.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying a club should never support a player through tough times, and in Suarez’s case it can be argued that he needed greater support then Liverpool have shown – clinical psychological treatment, for instance, may have been the best course of action after he sunk his teeth into Branislav Ivanovic’s arm – but during the three-and-a-half years he has been at Anfield it has got too emotional, too fraught, too divisive. Yes, the Patrice Evra affair may have been more complex and less clear-cut than the Football Association’s verdict and subsequent ban claimed it was, but to see the players wear those T-shirts at Wigan and rational grown men talking seriously about a Manchester United-led conspiracy was to observe tribal loyalties spiralling out of control.
The reaction to the Ivanovic bite and Suarez’s shameless attempts to leave the club last summer were then pinned by many on an agenda by the English media, yet in each case a word would not have been printed or broadcast if the man in question kept his teeth hidden and his accusations of broken promises and threats of a transfer request to himself. It should also be remembered that this is the same English media who two months ago named Suarez their footballer of the year. Now that really is a strange way to persecute a player.
Ultimately what we can say now, and should say now, is that Luis Suarez is a fantastic footballer who did great things for Liverpool but alongside the sublime talent he is a troubled and troubling individual, a brilliant bastard who passed through Anfield and is now about to be Barcelona’s mix of joy and controversy. Good luck to all involved, they’re going to need it.
Remember the good times – and boy there were plenty – but use Suarez’s time at Liverpool to affirm a fundamental truth; that the only real “family” in football exists between supporters, and between them and the club they follow from cradle to grave. Players, in contrast, come and go. Enjoy them while you can and don’t be afraid to criticise those who step out of line, those who absorb your adoration like a sponge before turning their back and walking away with barely a glance over their shoulder.
Images: David Rawcliffe / Propaganda