x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Who's sorry now? Not Suarez

Luis Suarez, infamous for his World Cup exploits for Uruguay and a Premier League transfer target, speaks to Duncan Castles.

Luis Suarez in action at the World Cup, where his goal-line handball deprived Ghana of a place in the semi-finals.
Luis Suarez in action at the World Cup, where his goal-line handball deprived Ghana of a place in the semi-finals.

Uruguay's most famous hand is wrapped around an early-morning mug of mate, a traditional Chilean beverage, when Andre Ooijer bowls into the Amsterdam Arena and catches its owner in mid-interview.

"You're speaking to The Sun, Luis?" says Ooijer, mishearing the introductions and thinking he was speaking to a reporter for the English tabloid. "Good luck!"

Luis Suarez grins at the veteran defender, takes another sip at his bitter brew, and returns to our conversation. This is not a man to easily ruffle. Public excoriations do not come much worse than the global firestorm that followed Uruguay's World Cup quarter-final elimination of Ghana.

The last African nation at the tournament were the neutral's choice; their exit compounding the misfortune of missing a penalty kick with Suarez's emotional celebration of his goal-line handball that prevented a final-minute winner.

Hoisted on the shoulders of teammates after Uruguay bested Ghana in the ensuing penalty shoot-out the striker's sense of humour further irked football's moralists.

"I made the best save of the tournament," said Suarez, tongue firmly in cheek before claiming that his was the most famous handball now, referring to Diego Maradona's goal scored with his hand for Argentina against England at the 1986 World Cup.

A disgrace, came the complaints. Some argued that Uruguay should be thrown out of the tournament, others that the game be replayed. There were petitions for Fifa to change the rules so such a handball brought not just a red card but 'a penalty goal'. No true sportsman, claimed Suarez's opponents, would behave as he did.

Sipping on his specially imported South American brew a half year after the furore, the 23-year-old smiles when asked about the incident.

"I think it was intuition," says Suarez. "If you were in that situation you would do the same. I did not do it with purpose, I did it unconsciously. I wasn't even aware it was a penalty. I did it because it was the only option I had."

Then comes the reasoning of a forward who scores so prodigiously his every game is marked by rat-a-tat blows to ankle and shin. The argument that a lover of the most thrilling part of football would place above railing against handballs.

"I think it is far worse to kick a player when he's going through on the goalkeeper," he says. "To make a foul and hurt our opponent, is worse than my situation.

"The criticism wasn't a surprise. What was a little bad was after the game the only thing people were writing about me was only about the handball. It was not about my attacking, my skill or my goals. It got out of hand. But it wasn't a surprise, because the world is always looking for something to criticise.

"I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't saved that ball. I haven't thought about it. But I thought, and I will think for the rest of my life, that Uruguay were better than Ghana in that game."

Football forgives faster than its observers. Within the technical departments of Europe's top clubs, the focus was not on the end of Suarez's arms but on his feet and brains. He netted three times in six World Cup starts - a strike rate still some margin below the 49 finishes taken from 48 games as Ajax's captain the preceding season.

Able to play left, right or centre; finishing with either foot, with forehead; from close-range or distance; there have been 139 goals in 222 club games for Nacional, Groningen and Ajax. Suarez creates as well as completes. He plays with a pleasing dynamism, revelling in taking opponents on one-to-one, and he's on the watch list of every club with the budget to buy an elite forward.

Earlier this year, then-Ajax coach Martin Jol fielded a call from Daniel Levy offering cash and reserve defender Dorian Dervite for Suarez.

Teasing his former boss, Jol told Tottenham Hotspur's chairman he couldn't afford him and waited for a grander bid. Jol has since been replaced at Ajax but the club's stance on Suarez remains unchanged. For sale. If the price is right.

Tottenham are currently wandering around Europe with a €25 million (Dh122.5m) budget for a striker. Though they offered €22m of it to Villarreal for Guiseppe Rossi last week, Suarez remains an option.

Liverpool are pushing even harder, having gone public with their interest and started talking numbers.

Suarez is ready to move to England. "It is a league that attracts me, a country where the football is really good." Suarez says. "Alongside the Spanish league it is the best in the world. Jol describes Suarez as a footballer "who likes to gamble". Ask Suarez about his style and he tells you that it comes from the improvised pitches of his Uruguayan childhood. "When you are small, and you play on the streets, you learn a lot," he says. "You get kicked, you play bare feet and you have to develop your game to avoid the kicks. You have to be clever."

In this season's Champions League he made Alessandro Nesta a victim of that nous, nutmegging AC Milan's storeyed defender to set up Ajax's opener. "I wasn't aiming for 'a tunnel'. But then Nesta came and the temptation was too great," says Suarez.

Tempted themselves, Liverpool may soon draw similar reward.

 

sports@thenational.ae