The striker's previous two World Cups have both ended in disgrace
Uruguay are dark horses at the World Cup, but can Suarez contain his darker side?
So many Uruguayans have been saying how much Luis Suarez has matured over the past four years that you almost imagine that he might, taking the field against Egypt, have thinning grey hair and a long white beard. It is natural enough that whether or not Suarez behaves like a grown-up is the subject of scrutiny. His World Cup story is all hot flashes and scandal.
Everyone knows the charge-sheet: the bite on Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder in Natal, Brazil that led to the assailant’s expulsion from the 2014 World Cup, and from all football for months afterwards; the handball on the goal-line against Ghana in Soweto, South Africa that extended Uruguay’s stay in the 2010 tournament but abruptly curtailed Suarez’s participation, sent off for illegally stopping a goal-bound shot - to some applause within Uruguay but disgust at his blatant cheating from most of the rest of the planet.
If Suarez had not collected two previous bans for biting in his career, or developed such a reputation for pushing the boundaries with his diving, his gamesmanship, his sledging, he might be diagnosed as just World-Cup allergic, given to rushes of blood in the high-pressure theatre of the sport’s most watched event. But Suarez has a recidivist past; by the summer of 2014 he seemed simply incorrigible.
When his long-time Uruguay colleague and national team captain, Diego Godin, told Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport last week that “Luis has gained a lot of maturity,” he also acknowledged that the furore created by Suarez at the last World Cup had been unsettling. “For me the game against Italy had been special. I scored the goal that put us in the last 16. But then everybody was talking about the Luis issue, and that made all the noise. Nobody talked about football until we played [and lost to] Colombia in the next round. The country took a blow.”
Suarez recognises that he damaged that campaign. He has said, ahead of this one in Russia, he owes his nation, his teammates, for letting them down in Brazil. “I have a debt to pay. It was my mistake,” he told Uruguayans in a press conference last month.
Suarez was banned from all football until the middle of the following October as a result of the Chiellini assault. In that time, he joined Barcelona from Liverpool. He can now point to almost four years with the Catalan club with only a single red card - from two bookings, that cost him a place in a winning Copa del Rey final - and indeed a long period in which not aggression but conviviality has been his watchword. Suarez, Neymar and Messi: that trio at Barca had three extraordinary prolific seasons together, not only for the volume of goalscoring but the studied shows of selflessness, mutual empathy and joy that came with it.
Neymar left Barca, but the Suarez-Messi duo continued, prolific, in tune with one another. No striker in Messi’s long period as commander-in-chief of Camp Nou has been such a productive, happy partner for him. There’s the irony. It is Suarez, edgy, prickly and combative, who has turned out to be far more accommodating about playing Lionel’s leg-man than the likes of Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Neymar - to name but three - turned out to be.
The Uruguayan contributed 25 goals and 12 assists to Barcelona’s gallop to what was Suarez’s third Liga title in the season just completed. He has won a Uefa Champions League in Barca colours, and passed 150 goals for the club. Yet, at 31, will have detected that that his employers are restless to renew Barcelona’s forward line. The expectation is that Antoine Griezmann joins the Messi support-act soon after the World Cup, to inject pace into the attack. Ousmane Dembele, Griezmann’s fellow French flyer, can also anticipate more outings next season at the Barcelona who signed both him and Philippe Coutinho with their income from Neymar’s sale to Paris Saint-Germain.
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All that poses a question: Where to fit Suarez into a forward line with Dembele, Messi, plus Coutinho behind them, and another superstar? “Good players are always welcome at Barcelona,” Suarez said about the Griezmann speculation.
The story of Griezmann and Barcelona’s transfer strategy will rumble through the World Cup. Suarez says he will set it aside. His main hope is that, with VAR in use in Russia, he will not provide the sort of shock-horror headlines he has brought to previous tournaments and that he can function as fluently in tandem with Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani, another of club football’s elite goalscorers, as he does weekend after weekend with Messi.
Uruguay look like contenders for a place in last four of the competition, if their young creative midfielders thrive, if Godin spreads his authority effectively across the back four and most of all if the formidable front two of Suarez and Cavani replicate their club form. They are dark horses, for sure, darker still if Suarez avoids the red mist.