An Anfield career that was bookended by two suspensions for biting has drawn to a close leaving glorious, if gory memories
He arrived fresh from a ban for biting and leaves while serving a ban for biting. Yes, there is more to Luis Suárez’s rare talent than repeated animalistic behaviour – he would not be leaving Liverpool for a £50m profit and as an infinitely better footballer otherwise – but the assessment of an extraordinary Anfield career is shaped by its bookends. He could have been a contender but he acted like a complete fool.
Could have been? That is not being dismissive of one of the finest players in the world, a worthy complement to a Barcelona forward line of Lionel Messi and Neymar and a striker who last season orchestrated Liverpool’s strongest title challenge in over two decades. Every tribute paid to Suárez between his bites on Branislav Ivanovic and Giorgio Chiellini was well-earned.
The individual honours flowed in May from peers, supporters and journalists alike. The highest compliment, that in terms of talent he was a fitting successor to Kenny Dalglish in the No7 shirt of Liverpool, gained credence. Watching Suárez perform, and it always was a performance, expecting him to deliver yet still being astonished by the delivery, kept Anfield enthralled during Liverpool’s absence from the Champions League. He provided hope during the recovery from the near-ruinous, near-administration days of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the previous Liverpool owners who were ousted less than four years ago but seemingly in another lifetime.
A player with this status does not leave a club who have always shown fierce loyalty – sometimes at cost to its own reputation – plus a Premier League title-challenging void behind him and receive a collective shrug of the shoulders from deflated supporters who idolised him. Not usually, anyhow.
Many Liverpool fans are incandescent at the striker’s sale, some may buy the conspiracy theory that Suárez has been victimised from day one and coerced to Spain, but most have been resigned to his departure and waiting for their club to strike a good deal since the 27-year-old bit a fellow professional for the third time inside four years. Or since his attempt to join Arsenal was thwarted last summer and a new contract that brought clarification over any future transfer was signed in December.
A contender for greatness does not provoke such a reaction. The sadness is that Suárez has greatness within his grasp but has veered towards unnecessary conflict too often instead.
He arrived at Anfield three months after Hicks and Gillett were replaced by Fenway Sports Group as owner, for £22.8m from Ajax in January 2011, with controversy already attached following a seven-match ban for biting Otman Bakkal and the handball that denied Ghana a place in the 2010 World Cup semi-finals. Suárez had not played for two months as a consequence of the Bakkal ban or trained with his new Liverpool team-mates when he scored 16 minutes into his debut against Stoke City.
Damien Comolli, the club’s director of football at the time, ran along the directors’ box issuing high-fives after Suárez’s debut goal. The process of consigning Fernando Torres to Anfield history was under way but the Uruguay international never did extinguish his flaws.
There was an eight-match suspension for using racially abusive language towards Patrice Evra in his first full season at Liverpool, the verdict igniting vitriolic protest, and the 10-match ban for the Ivanovic bite that overlapped his second and third full campaigns at Anfield. His World Cup disgrace would have made it four lengthy suspensions in four seasons for Liverpool had Suárez not chosen to become Barcelona’s brilliant problem. Since November 2010 the striker has been suspended for a total of 48 matches (factoring in the current Fifa ban from nine international games plus a time-frame covering 13 games for Liverpool) without receiving one red card.
The bite on Chiellini at the World Cup prompted fresh calls for Suárez to receive professional help and counselling for uncontrollable urges. All good and worthy, but undermined by the fact Liverpool provided their prized asset with psychological assistance before every game he played for the club following the bite on Ivanovic – an act that Suárez told the Football Association’s disciplinary committee merited no more than a standard three-match ban for violent conduct.
Suárez, who is 27 lest we forget, was fortunate to be employed by a club where the renowned sports psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters is on the payroll, one of the many reasons the striker should be grateful to Brendan Rodgers. The level of professionalism that the Liverpool manager demands and has facilitated at the club cannot be overstated. Peters is not there to take notes from players resting on a sofa, he is part of Rodgers’ “match-day management” programme, a gradual process of preparing the squad mentally and physically for every game, and takes the squad through an “impulse-management” session before kick-off, home or away. Liverpool topped the fair play league last season with Suárez praised for showing overdue maturity before trampling over those plaudits in Natal.
It would be appropriate of Suárez to acknowledge Rodgers’ role in making him the prolific goalscoring force he is today when unveiled in Barcelona. Laughable though it seems after scoring a record-equalling 31 Premier League goals last season, 30 in total the year before, but there were reservations over the Uruguayan’s finishing before Rodgers took charge. Boldly jettisoning from the outset the club’s £35m record signing, Andy Carroll, the new Liverpool manager constructed his team around Suárez and bought players to prosper around the striker’s unselfish instincts on the pitch. Filling that hole will be an ominous task, though Rodgers was repaid in kind by Suárez during their two demanding seasons together.
Standing by Suárez can be a forlorn task for a Liverpool manager, as Dalglish discovered with the criticism that followed his ill-advised defiance over the Evra affair. Rodgers accused English football of vilifying Suárez following condemnation of the striker’s theatrics only for the player himself to admit subsequently to diving in a vain attempt to win a penalty against Stoke City.
Last summer, he stood accused by Suárez of breaking a promise that the striker could join a Champions League club should Liverpool fail to qualify for the competition. Rodgers responded by ordering Suárez to train away from the first team and, accepting the football writers’ player of the year award on the forward’s behalf in London during May, thanked the Uruguayan for the varied tests that have made him a better manager.
The controversies and complexities of Suárez are at odds with his persona off the pitch and standing among team-mates for club and country. There is no fodder for the tabloids (away from football at least) from a genuine family man devoted to his wife, two children, and his football. On the rare occasions he sat down with the English media he came across as intelligent, unassuming and shy. But, as Uruguay’s strident defence after the Chiellini incident underlined, he is often closeted from the reality of his actions and responsibility to the game.
Despite all the allegations, Suárez spoke after the Evra ban. He refused all interview requests last season, however, due to a grievance over how he was portrayed when pushing for the move to Arsenal while banned for the Ivanovic bite. And he had used the English media, namely the Guardian, to outline his reasons for wanting to leave Anfield and in an attempt to pressure Liverpool into a deal.
A year on, and despite claims of longing to hear Champions League music while wearing the red of Liverpool, a bigger, better deal is done. Suárez leaves glorious, gory memories and with a reputation as one of Anfield’s finest talents minus the character to match. And as something of a mystery. We never did discover his issue with Norwich City.