We've enjoyed our (ongoing!) NBA Why We Watch series so much that we're expanding it into other sports. Here's the first of those.
November 11, 2012 was a gray, sodden, ugly day in London, and so perfect for the gray, sodden, and ugly football match was being played that day at Stamford Bridge between Chelsea and Liverpool. Between the coal-dust skies and slogging play, the game might easily have been mistaken for a match played in 1972. But there were modern television graphics on the screen, and a marked lack of '70s-style muddy quagmires on the pitch and cringe-worthy mullets in the seats—this was a present-day game imbued with that French Connection gloom. With the score 1-0 Chelsea—thanks to a header from John Terry that was mainly distinguished by horrific Liverpool marking in the box—Liverpool won a corner kick, which Suso placed just at the corner of the five yard box. There, long-time Red and current last-legs veteran Jamie Carragher flicked it into the mixing bowl. And from that flick-on, a staple of every football training ground forever, Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez—as equally unmarked as Terry had been for his goal—planted a ferocious header into the top of the net; an “even if I miss, I can’t miss” moment if ever there was one. Tie game, Suárez’s eighth goal of the season, and probably the easiest he’d score all year. That’s not the important part.
The more telling moment came right after the goal, as Suárez charged towards the corner flag in celebration, cupping an ear to the away supporters, kissing his finger and wrist in that odd way of his (his finger for his wife, and his wrist for his daughter, apparently), mugged for the camera, and then turned around in expectation of the usual mobbing of teammates that comes with just about every goal ever scored in a football match. Only this time, he was greeted with the sight of his teammates all the way on the other side of the pitch, and the realization that he was all alone at the flag.
After the match, the explanation will be that they were celebrating with Carragher, making a return to the first team after an injury spell, but that hardly explains why not one single, solitary man in red at least gave Suárez a token celebration, a slap on the ass or high five or fist bump or anything acknowledging that Suárez actually put the damn ball in the damn goal, and so leveled a match Liverpool honestly had no right to have leveled. The camera catches Suárez, in that one moment, realizing that he is all alone, and his face ever-so-briefly sags, crumpling and confused, before he recovers and throws a hearty fist pump en route to rejoining his teammates. I have now watched this amazing moment at least twenty times, and every single time—and fully despite myself—I feel oddly sorry for him.
I suppose I shouldn’t, of course; only the aforementioned Terry, of sleeping with a teammate’s wife and ugly racial slur/unbelievable clearing of name for said slur fame, enjoys a worse reputation in English football than Suárez does. And, I should hasten to add, that reputation appears fully deserved—as most football-watchers know, Suárez had his own racial incident last October, using the Spanish word “negro” any number of times in a heated moment with Manchester United’s French defender Patrice Evra. Evra, at the time, thought Suárez was calling him “nigger”; that he later understood that Suárez was just calling him “black”—as in: “Why did you kick me?” “Because you are black.”—somehow makes things depressingly worse, as though Suárez just had to inform him that it was Evra’s skin color and not, say, his man-marking skills that was really sticking in his craw.
This led to an eight-game suspension, a 40,000 pound fine, an unfortunate Uruguayan radio interview in which Suárez unveiled a noxious “what happens in Vegas” defense and called Evra a snitch—whether worthy of stitches or not, Suárez didn’t say. It led, too, to an even more unfortunate moment in February, as Suárez made his first post-suspension start against (of all teams) Manchester United and declined to shake Evra’s hand in the traditional pregame handshake between teams, forcing Evra to grab his forearm in a moment as awkward as anything David Brent or Michael Scott ever authored. I am leaving out Suárez biting an opposing player while a member of Ajax, his infamous intentional handball for Uruguay to deny Ghana a goal in the 2010 World Cup and subsequent jubilant/entirely untoward celebration upon Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan missing the ensuing penalty that would’ve won the game (Ghana ended up losing on penalty kicks). Let's leave out, too, Suárez's recent and already-infamous celebration after scoring against Liverpool’s blood rivals Everton, diving in front of Everton manager David Moyes in mockery of Moyes’ pregame comments about Suárez’s own diving proclivities.
The upshot of all this is that Suárez, on the field at least, about as pure an embodiment of all the tendencies and qualities we loathe in athletes as sports currently offers. He will stop at nothing to win, and will cheat; he acts like a gigantic asshole, win or lose; he’ll cheerfully let a black player know how much he doesn’t care for black players when the opportunity to do so presents itself, and even when it doesn't. He's difficult to cheer for at best and frankly odious at worst, in short. The complicating factor would the feats of magic that he has performed this season for a Liverpool team that would be fighting relegation without him.
Because there’s that as well—Luis Suárez is a wonderful football player, capable of tearing apart world-class defenses with a few dexterous moves, showing off jaw-dropping ball control en route to a magical goal, pulling a Beckham and scoring from the halfway line with one magisterial sweep of his right foot, and breaking the heart of a Korean who only truly feels Korean during World Cups via a sweet curled finish that no goalkeeper on Earth could have stopped. In the 2011 Copa America, which Uruguay won, Suárez scored four goals in six matches, including two in the semifinal against Peru, converted his penalty in the quarterfinal shootout against a heavily favored Argentina, and was named player of the tournament after scoring in the final against Paraguay. It’s entirely fair to say that Uruguay would not have sniffed the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup, let alone made them, without Suárez’s contributions all throughout the tournament, including the one everyone hates him for. He’s tallied 34 goals and 17 assists in 71 appearances for Liverpool since joining in January 2011; 10 of those goals have come this season in just 14 games, which is three more than the entire rest of his team combined. If there’s a player more vital to his club than Suárez, it's difficult to think of who it might be, or how he might manage that achievement.
Football is not built for individual standouts, which makes the way that Suárez has flipped the narrative of Liverpool games—from How Will The Reds Do to Let's See How Suárez Rescues Everyone This Week—that much more amazing. The reasons for the team's growing pains are multiple: manager Brendan Rodgers is still working out the kinks of his pass-happy style that worked so well for Swansea City last season; previous manager Kenny Dalgish’s disastrous 2011 season, which filled the team with mediocre midfielders, mediocre defenders, and a mediocre bench; Rodgers’ inept decision to loan out £35 million striker/totem pole/lager enthusiast Andy Carroll—Liverpool’s only other legitimate striker—to West Ham United without finding a proper replacement; the fact that Steven Gerrard, famed for his thunderbolt goals and definitely not for his passing ability, has no real part in Rodgers’ tactics, yet keeps getting trotted out in starting XIs because of a bunch of stuff he did nearly a decade ago. And yet Liverpool has become rather difficult to defeat: they're unbeaten in their last eight league games—five of those were draws, but progress is progress—after losing three of their first five. Suárez has scored eight goals during this rejuvenated stretch. This does not seem like a coincidence.
Suárez also complains constantly to referees and anyone else within yelping distance, racks up an astounding amount of yellow cards for an attacking player, and his reputations for blowing easy scoring chances and taking the occasional dive—while probably overstated—are not totally undeserved. And there's that asshole thing, from earlier. But it's tempting, in watching him play, to wonder if he could be this brilliant if he were any other way—if he would so furiously work himself into areas where teammates might get him the ball, or hustle so hard for corner kicks if he was not so broadly pathological. Look at him in the most generous possible light, and he's just an athlete giving his whole self to Vince Lombardi's winning-is-the-only-thing instrumentalism, and substituting a silky right foot and ghostly elusiveness for Lombardi's red-meat gruntiness in the bargain. The question, with Suárez, is what deeper personal gracelessness all that unconscious in-play grace can excuse, and whether we can accept his play—and his repentance—as an apology.
This is not that complicated a question, although there are levels of sanctimony and bias and abstraction that make it more so. Suárez, complicated guy that he is, has not made it any simpler. Yes, he didn’t shake Evra’s hand and he gave that stupid radio interview, and yes, he continues to feel like he got a raw deal for all that. But he has also apologized to Evra for the handshake row and has tried very hard to move on from what has been the darkest mark on his CV. Both Uruguay and Liverpool coaches gave their support to Suárez after the incident; both his teammates and manager drew criticism for wearing t-shirts with his name and image on them to show their support.
An interview he gave to the Guardian in August paints the picture of a deeply passionate player who speaks of “two of me, two different people;” everyone at Liverpool has nothing but good things to say about him, and it seems clear that it’s the spirit of competition that drives Suárez to do some of the crazy, awful shit he’s done; if you want him to be, Suárez can be a Manchurian Candidate, with the official's whistle as the signal that sets him off. There are so many athletes like this that it's tempting to think that all of them must be at least a little bit this way; the expression "to leave it all out on the field" has some dark depths, if you look at it from a certain angle.
A week after the Chelsea game, Liverpool paid host to Wigan, a decidedly inferior opponent to Chelsea; the 3-0 thrashing Liverpool handed out showed that quite nicely. Suárez had one of his best games of the young season, knocking in two goals and assisting on the third, every one of his sublime talents on display throughout the match. His teammates celebrated with him on both goals.
Image via Wikimedia Commons/Paulblank.