“He cheats, he dives, he hates the Jackson 5. Suárez! Suárez!” This is the hateful – and, won’t lie, catchy – chant of opposing fans used towards Uruguay and Liverpool striker Luis Suárez. And that doesn’t even address his multiple human-gnawing incidents, with his most recent serving being Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanović’s arm.
While his appetite and racial outlook are most concerning – the only objection to him that I contest is that he’s a cheater; there is a specific rule addressing handballs, he was penalized accordingly, let’s move on – they are parts of why he is the most fascinating player in the sport today.
As if his first oral offense during his stint at Ajax wasn’t obscure enough, he went (oops) and did it again to Ivanović, causing Suárez to be suspended for the first ten games of the 2013-14 Premier League season. Furthermore, before the start of Liverpool’s campaign, manager Brendan Rogers ordered Suárez to practice away from the club. For most players, such a break from playing in games and training with the regular squad would cause them to be out of sync with the rest of the team and perhaps become a burden for the rest of the players.
In his first Premier League game since the suspension, Suárez scored twice. In his first four league games back in the squad, he tallied six goals.
And despite missing that huge chunk of games at the start of the season, he went on to win the league’s Golden Boot with 31 goals – ten more than the next highest player on the list of scorers.
“Suárez, for me, is up there with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as one of the best players in the world,” Wayne Rooney once said in an interview. And there’s no reason Suárez shouldn’t be that high up on the list of best players in the world; he scores in a plethora of different ways, from taunting defenders and goalies with his dribbling skills and gliding past them to looping bombs from 40 yards over the heads of awestruck keepers, all of which he celebrates by proceeding to kiss his fist and then his wrist, apparently as a tribute to his family.
The sign of a good striker is his ability to time and direct runs for midfielders to find him, and then to be able to finish in the circumstances given to him; but Suárez does so much more than that. He bullies defenders, giving them little time on the ball, and once he gets possession he leaves defenders on their heels with his constant motion towards the goal. He is one of the best at latching onto crosses with his head (especially for his size) and he has an underrated ability to shoot from long distances, making him a threat at both ends of free kicks. And while his attitude prompts him to commit errors, most notably diving into challenges on defenders he has no chance of winning, it is that same aggression that relentlessly – no matter where he is on the pitch – focuses his attention toward the goal, forcing goalkeepers to be on their toes at every second.
Suárez is as talented and clever as nearly any central forward in the world; only Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimović come to mind as arguably better players at that position.
At Brazil, Uruguay will have an experienced group with established talent, many of the players on which played in the semifinals against the Netherlands in 2010. In just a couple weeks, though, the team will need a healthy Suàrez, who had knee surgery at the end of the Premier League season and is still recovering; as good as this team is, it will still have to endure England and Italy to claim one of the top two spots in Group D.
But all the recent indications are that Suárez will be fit for the tournament, and since Ibrahimović’s Sweden failed to qualify, the Liverpool striker may be the most exciting goal-scorer of the competition. That will largely depend on the quality of his teammates and whether or not they can play as cohesively as they did in 2010.
Suárez will never not be a bizarre human being to me; if he had instead pulled down Ivanović’s pants, tied his shoes together, watched him fall and started skipping in circles around him I would’ve been less confused than after what actually transpired. For what he did, players around him will always misunderstand – if not scurry away from – Suárez. But I think that’s why I like him so much: he’s the type of athlete that you watch and think, “I have no idea what is going on his head or what he is about to do at any second during any game, but it’s that mystifying element to him that I find so appealing.” He reminds us that, as fans on the outside, we are not necessarily supposed to find professional athletes relatable; they’re different from us in so many ways: they have different backgrounds, receive different treatment (socially, physically, mentally) and are required to carry out different lifestyles so that they can achieve physical feats in real life that we would only otherwise see when we spent hours doodling them in action with crayons in the second grade (that last part might have just been me). So naturally, many athletes’ personalities are probably different from what we’re used to.
In the case of Suárez then, do you really care if he’s a bit insane?
Actually, I do. I like him more because of it. While other football players are wasting their time not biting opponents, Suárez is taking full advantage of his public stage, becoming an unpredictable icon for Uruguay who also happens to be an incredibly gifted striker, and there’s no player I’m looking forward to watching more in the World Cup.