Depending on your position, Liverpool striker Luis Suarez is either a phenomenally fantastic footballer or a cheaty, weaselling little man with a face like a gerbil in need of its teeth clipping.* Some of his actions paint him as an intelligent, highly effective footballer, a nightmare to play against, a popular team mate (How many others' peers have worn t-shirts for him. How popular is that?!). And there’s no getting away from the fact that his goal against Newcastle United back in November, where he exquisitely caressed a long pass with his shoulder and had the chutzpah to then round Tim Krul, was a thing of rare beauty. More still, however, paint him as a man so devoid of sportsmanship he could blow a light bulb in his own house, go down like he’d been shot and demand the offending bulb be banned, before sitting in his house in the dark for six weeks looking incredibly smug.
Romantics or neutrals - call them what you will - regularly indulge in a bit of hand-wringing over Suarez’s indiscretions. In truth, they’re probably in the wrong game as for all the bitter tears wept, one would largely expect them to agree with Mansfield manager Paul Cox’s assessment that “If it had gone in the other end and one of our players had done it, I think we'd have accepted it.” History has long shown that only the results in such games really matter, not the number of fouls incorrectly given because a striker threw himself over someone’s leg or deliberately (or accidentally) handled the ball in the build-up.**
Suarez puts us in mind of another player no less derided in recent history for being particularly conniving. Remember the time when everyone really hated Didier Drogba? They did you know. For like Suarez after him, the Ivorian had that quality to receive the ball and, presumably in disbelief at not being allowed a free run to goal, end up in a wide-eyed, incredulous heap should anyone have the temerity to tackle him en route. Which was even harder to stomach for a diving-hating audience considering Drogba was 6ft 3in and built like a brick proverbial.
It’s hard to fathom anyone hating Drogba with quite the same fervour anymore - despite the classic English ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude that means nowadays he is rarely mentioned in passing - even though there were numerous references to how much of a cheat he was (diving; peeking, protesting, complaining, appealing, bullying) while he was still playing in England. Until, that was, Chelsea became unlikely heroes last May, Drogba looked set to leave and he could suddenly be incorporated into the soap opera after all, dragging a plucky, defensive team of underdogs by the scruff of its neck, never giving up and generally being far more effective than the ghost of Will o’the Wisp, Fernando Torres.
So it was that Drogba ensured an unlikely legacy. How did he do it? By winning (and in fairness earning) the hugest of huge pots with Chelsea, despite his apparently deplorable actions having given rise to an hysterically-titled Facebook group called ‘Didier Drogba is the biggest diving cheat ever’. Not just that but winning like a true Englishman; back against the wall, teeth gritted and sinews stiffened.
Might Suarez manage the same for Liverpool - or for anyone? Many of the dark arts appear forgiven if you are capable of the miraculous. Or if you defend heroically for 90 minutes.
Without leaving behind some kind of history or legacy other than the ‘cheat’ tag, unfairly attributed or otherwise, Suarez might always be viewed as such, as quite literally appealing for anything. Give an onion a European Cup and it quite quickly turns into an apple. Didier Drogba, as we’ve seen - apple. Cristiano Ronaldo - apple. Gareth Bale - so far, very fast but suspected of being a bit of a cheat. Gravity’s Ashley Young - ditto. Diego Maradona - apple. Lance Armstrong - a**ehole.
Such is the vitriol that follows Suarez around these days that we’re tempted to wonder if he could ever - even if scoring 40 goals in a season, or leading Liverpool single-handedly to the FA Cup or UEFA Cup for example - win a player of the year award anywhere outside Merseyside. He’s got little chance, one imagines, as despite being one Scouse talisman away from being Liverpool’s most important player, his peers and those supposedly ‘in the know’ are all too willing to jump to narrow-minded conclusions about his motives and his methods. Whereas Robin van Persie, another footballer paid a lot of money to play football, seems universally liked by everyone except Arsenal fans for nothing more than being very good at football - as is Suarez.
The biggest irony around Suarez is that while regularly painted as a stone in the shoe of the Premier League, he is actually one of the jewels in its gaudy, all-conquering, saturated, self-made crown. He’s a ready-made story, a villain-on-call at all times and you get the feeling if there was an award for needless column inches, he’d rank somewhere near the top. End of season awards would be very different if the powers that be had to vote for the players guaranteed to keep Premier League viewing figures high year on year.
That’s not to say that Suarez is at that point yet like, say, Frank Skinner, where he’s thinking about his legacy. He is, after all, just 26. But maybe, like Cristiano Ronaldo before him, it will take a move away from England for people to get off his back. Maybe it’s just because Ronaldo’s in Spain now and we don’t read stories about his every move, every day; something about absence making the heart grow fonder and all that.
Suarez is a brilliant footballer. That we all know, even if, for some, admitting the fact is very much despite themselves. It shouldn’t matter that he likes to dive. It shouldn’t matter that he celebrated when Asamoah Gyan missed that penalty at the 2010 World Cup. It shouldn’t matter that he said something that earned him an eight-match ban. It shouldn’t matter that some people think he looks like a rodent. But, quite simply, it does. And it will continue to until he gets sick of all the stick he receives, leaves England and we all inevitably think after a while: “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I miss Luis Suarez.”
* This is actually a thing. Gerbils’ teeth continue to grow throughout their lives and when they get too long, they need to be taken to the vet to have them trimmed from time to time. It’s much like you cutting your nails, were you to have the slightest inkling about personal hygiene.
** It should be pointed out here that ‘incorrectly given’ plays a large role in this sentence. The match officials, as discussed at length everywhere, are variables in the game that really doesn’t need any more but has to persevere with them regardless. The decisions, though, are theirs and not yours, and if you have to be in charge of all the parameters of an activity to enjoy yourself, perhaps football isn’t for you and you should stick to computer games in which you can always change the difficulty to ‘beginner’ and press reset when you’re losing. Which would make you a cheat. BOOOOOOOOOO