It is tempting, and a much better tale, to suspect Liverpool are falling foul of an elaborate plot designed to prise Luis Suárez from their grasp and into the forgiving embrace of Barcelona. The fiendish plan is enacted with the bite mark on Giorgio Chiellini’s left shoulder in the conspiracy world when, in reality, Suárez’s latest shameful act has little influence on where he performs next season. Cash, not canines, will determine that.
The process that brought Liverpool and Barcelona to a meeting table in London on Wednesday commenced not with “Bite 3 – it will never happen again” in Natal last Tuesday but Suárez’s thwarted attempt to leave Anfield 12 months ago. Suárez was serving a ban at the time, for biting, but had to get out of England because of unfair vilification by the English media. All very familiar, although the argument was somewhat undermined by a public appeal to be allowed to join Arsenal. It was one example of Suárez taking people for a ride. The World Cup, following a stunning season of redemption and apparent maturity for Liverpool, delivered another.
Last summer proved a mess for Suárez, his agent Pere Guardiola and ultimately Liverpool. The player’s camp believed they had a watertight agreement to leave for a set price and, in the absence of Champions League football, the Liverpool hierarchy stood firm, principal owner John W Henry laughed off Arsenal’s £40,000,001 bid and Suárez had to train away from the first team having accused manager Brendan Rodgers of breaking promises. No one cared for a repeat and an agreement was reached quickly on a lucrative new contract.
The headlines centred on Suárez’s £200,000-a-week salary and commitment to Liverpool until 2018 when his past indiscretions and longing for the exit were forgotten as he put pen to paper in December. Both parties, however, now had clarity regarding a future possible transfer thanks to a release clause. Suárez’s suitor has to meet Liverpool’s valuation to land the striker, and Real Madrid’s willingness to pay £85m for Gareth Bale last summer was instructive to owners Fenway Sports Group during the contract negotiations.
Liverpool have not suddenly decided to wash their hands of Suárez following the Chiellini incident and the subsequent four-month ban from all football-related activities. It would be surprising, worrying even, if key figures at Anfield have not grown tired of the appalling behaviour of the club’s prized asset but Barcelona’s request for a meeting was not accepted at gunpoint. It is simply business. Not a reaction to a bite.
Suárez’s ban presented Barcelona with opportunity to secure a player who has long dreamed of a move to Spain and spends time in Catalonia with his wife’s family. The opportunity may have arrived earlier than expected but was expected all the same. They have moved swiftly, encouraging the apology and U-turn that Suárez issued for biting Chiellini then commending his strength of character for doing so 24 hours later. And with a straight face. But they will not walk away with their prize unless the offer from Raul Sanllehi, Barcelona’s director of football management and the man leading transfer negotiations, is deemed acceptable to FSG. Their opening offer of around £70m in London on Wednesday was a clear demonstration of intent.
The Uruguay coach Óscar Tabárez got it badly wrong in the aftermath of the Italy game when he said Suárez’s actions were not a question of morality.
In terms of the business of football, however, he was right. Barcelona’s opening gambit confirmed the damaged-goods argument does not work. The theory that a club cannot keep a disillusioned player does not hold with Suárez either. His reaction to being denied a transfer last summer – 31 Premier League goals and a clean sweep of Player of the Year awards – showed there was no point in posturing when Sanllehi met Anfield’s chief executive, Ian Ayre.
Liverpool accepted Barcelona’s request for talks not only to hear their offer for Suárez but to register interest in Alexis Sánchez. Barcelona are willing to offer the winger as a makeweight in the deal but whether the Chile international can be manoeuvred into a corner remains to be seen. He will not be short of options, including standing his ground and staying at the Camp Nou, following an outstanding World Cup campaign: £50m and Sánchez? That would soften the blow at Anfield should Suárez become Barcelona’s brilliant problem. After day one of talks the clubs are not far apart.
In the meantime, Steven Gerrard’s advice to Suárez when he was flirting with Arsenal last August is beginning to sound prophetic. “Move on if you want, further down the line, but a player of his calibre should wait for the big one to come to him,” was Gerrard’s message. “He deserves to play for one of the best teams in the world, a Barcelona or a Real Madrid. They will come calling for him again.”