Luis Suárez has made his move from Liverpool to Barcelona official today, but in the past few weeks the world has seen his nasty side again on the biggest stage possible. The Man Cave considers what exactly it is that drives Suárez, and what makes his next step so difficult to predict.
One of the great works of gaucho poetry was written by Domingo Sarmiento and is entitled Facundo: Or, Civilisation and Barbarism. Ostensibly a tale of the life of one Juan Facundo Quiroga, a powerful military caudillo in Argentina, it is a critique of the military dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rosas, and it portrays Quiroga and Rosas as one in the same: both men who rule and dominate through fear, whose first instinct is for violence, both barbarians. On the opposite side of that scale sits Europe; heralded as the home of culture, of education and erudition, its natural extension in the Americas is the cosmopolitan metropolis that was Buenos Aires of the late 19th century.
Although his message was modernisation and progress, the novel also served to highlight the figure of the gaucho, the nomadic horse riders of Latin America who, like their North American counterparts the cowboy, became part of the folklore of the country. For many in Argentina and Uruguay, the gaucho is often a symbol for the country, a figure who channels national pride, values and traditions. For Uruguayans, Luis Suarez is their modern gaucho, and when he was threatened and the world turned against him a few weeks ago, they rushed to his defence despite all the evidence. Yes he had done something wrong, but in their eyes it wasn't that bad. To the 'civilised' Europeans however, he is a barbarian, for them he is raw, unpredictable and volatile.
As the final whistle blew in Natal on Tuesday the 24th of June, he sat disconsolate and alone in the centre circle, despite his team's progression to the next round of what had been an extraordinary World Cup. For him, the tournament was over, and he could blame no one but himself. His team needed him in the next game, they look to him and draw strength from the passion of his play and the power of his character, and the enormity of what he had done in that one heated moment finally dawned on him: this was one too many, this was a bridge too far, and he would be punished heavily for it.
Suárez's actions cannot be excused, but they should be explained. He may be the only man capable of doing that down the line, but with both his original excuse and his later full apology, we got an example of how not to do public relations and then a man desperately trying to cover his own ass. However, Suarez plays as though he is a barbarian, he takes to the field as though each match were his last, and that he is involved in a gaucho-style duel to the death.
But he's not a barbarian, that's just an easy classification that fits within a dichotomy that has been part of how we in the West have thought about Latin America for hundreds of years. With his transfer to Barcelona now confirmed, the questions then will be asked about what exactly Barcelona have gotten: a world class striker? A man that cracks under pressure? A flawed footballing genius? Perhaps, though, it makes more sense to ask who have they gotten?
In his statement, Luis Suárez said that the chance to play in Spain, where his wife's family lives, was a major reason for his leaving, and that has been true for over a decade now. As outlined in a frankly stunning piece of writing by Wright Thompson for ESPN, Luis Suárez fell for the love of his life, Sofia Balbi, aged just 15-years-old, and as the old story goes, he's only had eyes for her ever since. She brought the best out of him, she demanded that he work harder in school, in his job, on the football pitch, and in 2003, she moved away and left him behind. She moved with her family to Spain.
A young Luis realised that, stuck in Montevideo and cleaning streets for a living, he was never going to get anywhere, and certainly not going to get himself over to Europe and to Sofia. So he tried, and this time really tried, to get into football. Having been a slacker before, he now had something spurring him on. What drove Suárez back then was not money or the fame or the acclaim; all that seemed improbable and so far away that he may never get there. He was a young man with one, slightly simpler, dream: to be signed by a European club, any team at all, and he would start to climb the ladder.
However, again beautifully outlined by Thompson, in the biggest game of his life in Uruguay, in the youth set-up of Nacional in 2003 (one month after Sofia left) and with the title on the line, he made a tackle that the ref judged to be a yellow-card offence. As Suárez screamed his disagreement at Luis Larranaga, the referee, he reached for the red card. And that's when the first of what would become a pattern of incidents occurred that showed him in his worst light. He pushed and then headbutted the referee, leaving him bleeding "like a cow".
What happened after that is outlined in Thompson’s piece and sounds like something from a gangster movie, but it doesn't belong here and deserves to be read in that piece in full. What we know happened after that is that people put their reputations on the line because they saw greatness in Suárez, and he has managed to repay them. He eventually moved to the senior side of Nacional, and then to Groningen in the Netherlands, where he struggled to adapt, played in the reserves, and still had disciplinary issues. But he succeeded, and eventually got a move to Ajax where, again, in a now famous incident, he lashed out and bit Otman Bakkal.
But still, his talent outweighed his issues, and there were apologies made, suspensions served, and a move of club to Liverpool. And then there was Ivanovic, and then there was Chiellini, and now there's Barcelona. More excuses, more suspensions, and another move.
What Liverpool have lost however, is a beautiful player, and while many fans will be saying "good riddance" and that he does the club's reputation no good, few can argue that when he played, he was one of the most outrageously skillful footballers they’d ever had the privilege to witness on the field. He could do things that were not only unexpected, but that were borderline incomprehensible, but he had the ability to pull them off. And they often worked, but that feeling of being unpredictable carried through to his incidents of aggressive behaviour.
There are a few facts that must be considered in the wake of his departure. Firstly, yes, he has a tendency towards periodic violent outbursts, whether it be biting or other incidents that we've seen with hair pulling, derogatory name-calling or deliberate fouling. Yes, he often goes to ground too easily and dives, hoping the referee will give him a free or a penalty, hoping to make something happen. Yes, in high pressure games he has proven that he reacts poorly, either by not always contributing his best performance or by lashing out at the opposition. Those are his weaknesses, and he is aware of them, as are Barcelona and Liverpool. He is great, but he is flawed, like all the greats.
People often say that they believe that it’s more than a game; Liverpool’s own legendary manager Bill Shankly said that it’s not a matter of life and death, it’s much more important than that. For many players, these are great quotes and lofty but impractical ideas. For one man they are more. Luis Suarez embodies these sentiments, and he plays on the field as he believes they are true. For him, he has seen what the other option is, he has come from abject poverty and nothing, fully realising his potential to be one of the greatest players in the game. But he still plays as though he were that child at Nacional, that player who knew that his talent wasn’t enough to carry him through alone, he needed to give everything he had, his entire heart and being to the sport, if he was to succeed.
Pic via Old School Panini
Fans claim that’s the dedication they want from their players, but only to a certain point. For the great players, they will make an excuse and claim that the the Suárez we see when he’s under pressure and when he feels that a match is getting away from him without him making an impact is not really him. The barbarian man on the pitch and the civilised man at home with his family are poles apart, and they more than likely wouldn't be friends if they somehow could meet one another. However, the truth is that they are impossible to separate; time and vicissitudes led one to know the other, and make them into a single person. There are not two Luis Suárezes, rather they are two sides to the same coin.