x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Newsmaker: Luis Suarez

The controversial footballer hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons again this week when he allegedly bit an opposing player in Uruguay’s World Cup match against Italy. It’s far from his first on-the-field transgression, writes Kevin Hackett.

Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

For even the most fervent non-football fans (yes, such people do exist), there are certain names involved with the sport that cannot help but burn their way onto the psyche. Pele, Maradona, Dalglish, Beckham, Giggs, Best, Rooney – the list is potentially enormous, made up of men who have made names for themselves because of talent on the pitch and sometimes outrageous behaviour off it. Not too many players have become household names because of outrageous behaviour on the pitch, however, but it’s highly likely that, even if you don’t know what the offside rule is all about, you’ll have heard of Luis Suárez.

The 27-year old Uruguayan footballer has, this week, become the talk of the World Cup and has, at the very least, given England supporters something to debate, other than yet another ignominious and crushing tournament exit. Suárez has had his mug digitally manipulated with Hannibal Lecter-style muzzles and Jaws movie-poster artwork that was then shared on social media channels countless times over the past three days – which is quite funny. He has also become the subject of official disciplinary proceedings within the sport’s world governing body, Fifa, which on Thursday banned him for nine international matches and for four months from all football worldwide, and the source of diplomatic strain between his home country and England – not so funny. ­Because, and let’s be frank here, he’s a biter.

We’ve become used to seeing professional footballers writhing around the pitch in supposed sheer agony, before being stretchered off to the emergency room for ­urgent treatment of grazed knees and the occasional ankle sprain. But on Tuesday this week, during the match between Uruguay and Italy, which resulted in the South American team knocking the 2006 champions out of the tournament with a 1-0 victory, both Suárez and the Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini were seen sat on the grass after a short and violent tussle. Suárez was holding his mouth as his face contorted with apparent pain, while Chiellini was busy peeling his shirt from his left shoulder to show the referee and the rest of the world what looked very much like teeth marks.

The result meant that Uruguay progressed to the knockout stages, but that’s been entirely overshadowed by the ensuing fallout over what pretty much everyone (apart from Uruguayans) are saying is a step beyond. While the referee, Mexico’s Marco Rodríguez, took no action, the world went ballistic and Fifa stepped in. The name-calling and the nationalistic taking of sides went into hyperdrive.

Uruguay’s captain, Diego ­Lugano, criticised Chiellini rather than his compatriot. “I’ve just watched the TV images,” he told reporters, “and I didn’t see anything. What I saw was a struggle and a photo of Chiellini which showed an old scar. You have to be stupid to imagine that scar is recent, very stupid. If Chiellini spoke about that after the match then he broke every dressing-room code and I never thought an Italian would be such a snitch off the pitch. It would have been more manly to accept defeat and correct mistakes made.”

Oh dear.

Uruguay’s staunchly patriotic ­media went into full PR-spin mode, claiming televised images and photographs were “inconclusive”. The newspaper El Observador appeared to be clutching at straws by saying: “It could be a mole on his shoulder. That’s the lines along which Uruguay will be mounting their defence. There’s no proof Luis definitely bit him.”

The player at the centre of this storm didn’t have too much to say, however. “These are things that happen on the pitch and we don’t have to give them so much importance,” he told reporters. “We were both in the area; he thrust his shoulder into me.” As well as Fifa’s ban, he could also be in extremely hot water with his club, Liverpool, and incur the wrath of his sponsors, who are keen to distance themselves from the unhinged behaviour of a man with irrefutable talent and a simmering rage that requires expert attention. Because, as the entire world is now aware, he has previous form.

The armchair psychoanalysts are now looking into Suárez’s past, his childhood, for clues to the origin of this seeming personality disorder. Yet they need only look to his own words in the book Vamos Que Vamos, by the Uruguayan-Italian journalist and author Ana Laura Lissardy, which profiles the players in the Uruguay team that reached the World Cup semi-finals in South Africa four years ago.

In it, Suárez opens up about his youth, explaining that he was born Luis Alberto Suárez Díaz on January 24, 1987, in Salto, Uruguay’s second-largest city after the capital Montevideo, which lies 500 kilometres to the south-east. Life was hard for the Diaz family – his father worked in a biscuit factory in Montevideo, while his mother toiled, hours away, trying to bring up a large family of boys (he’s one of seven brothers). His mother eventually secured herself a cleaning job in Tres Cruces, Montevideo’s central bus terminal, and the whole family had to move.

“Luis did not want to hear about it, but in the end he accepted it,” remarked Lissardy. “He spent the whole year in Montevideo, and as soon as school was out, he went to spend the summer in Salto again because he missed it so much.”

She says that he missed the quietness, the security, being able to leave the front door open while they were sleeping and, above all, spending the day playing barefoot on the grass. “We came to a city where it was practically impossible to play barefoot on the grass. Of course I was going to miss it. But we had to get used to all of that as best we could.”

He had demonstrated a brilliant ability to play football from an early age and knew, he says, that it was his calling. But he was angry about having to relocate; angry about his parents splitting up just two years after leaving behind his home city for Montevideo; angry about such a tremendous upheaval at such a tender age. He saw no option other than to rebel against authority, no matter what, and football was his ticket out of a life that he came to despise. He saw it as a way to lift him and his family out of the gutter, and the skills that he honed so finely on the backstreets of Montevideo paid off. Big time.

When he was 14 years old, he was picked up by Nacional, one of the most successful clubs ever in the Uruguayan Primera Division, as a youth player, but he took some persuading. “I’m 14 years old,” he recalls thinking, “and I can’t know now if I’m going to be a professional footballer. But I have to try to go as far as possible. I have to try. I have to think about my family, my brothers, and that if I go far, I’ll be able to help them. I have to get on with it.”

A year later, he met Sofía Balbi, who would go on to become his girlfriend and, later, his wife. He admits that she changed him forever. She was 12 and he was 15 when they met. “It was a big change in every sense,” he says. “I was very lazy about studying and she helped me to realise that it wasn’t because I was a dunce that things weren’t going well, but because I wasn’t ­interested.”

He says that he stopped going out so much and started turning up regularly for school and leading a more orderly life. His footballing mentor at the Nacional team, Wilson Pirez, had given him the possibility of choosing his future, given him freedom. And Balbi, says Lissardy, gave him the necessary confidence in himself to attain what he had decided upon. She had given him security. “I began to score goals,” he says in the book. “And I got to the point where I almost broke the Nacional youth record. The record was 64 goals in a full year (I think it belonged to Rubén Sosa) and I scored 63. Things like that gave you ­confidence.”

You can’t keep raw talent such as his hidden away for long, and when Balbi dropped the bombshell that she was to relocate to Spain, Suárez decided to follow her – but not before he’d proved his worth as a player in his home country. By the time that he was 18, he was playing professionally, and, a year later, he was signed up by the Groningen team, in the north of the Netherlands. A move to Europe meant that he and Balbi could at least be together – and off he went.

Success with his new team meant that he started being recognised on the street and the confidence boost that this gave him spurred Suárez on to ever-greater things. In 2007, he joined Ajax, the iconic Amsterdam football club, and, four years later, he was signed by the English Premier League giants Liverpool. He had arrived – life would never be the same again, for him or his ­family.

But that aforementioned anger has never really left him. He’s admitted to the dirty practice of diving on the pitch; he has now bitten a total of three players during matches; and, in the year that he joined Liverpool, he infamously was found guilty by the English Football Association of racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra during a match in October 2011. He was fined £40,000 (Dh249,498) and given an eight-match ban.

By all accounts, however, he’s not a monster. According to almost anyone at Anfield, he’s a humble, intelligent and popular family man. When, earlier this year, he became the first non-European to win the coveted Player of the Year award, he went around the dressing room thanking his teammates and commentators and saying that he doesn’t know what he is doing when he bites somebody – that it’s an urge that erupts from deep within.

Henry Winter, writing for The ­Daily Telegraph this week, feels there is no real excuse for his behaviour, though. “It is a sadness,” he said, “that a player with such a professional approach to his craft, with such sustained brilliance in creating chances for himself and others, is such a toxic liability at times. Suárez could be one of the greats; instead he will be forever associated with infamy unless he confronts and controls his violent side. It is not the media. It is not the opponents. It is him. It is his problem. He has to understand that.”


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