Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

James Lawton: Strange as it seems, Luis Suarez has become a modern hero

Luis Suarez was in sublime form for Liverpool against QPR

He may have triggered one of the more dispiriting controversies in the history of English football. As a 15-year-old he certainly earned a red card for the grave sin of headbutting a referee, which was around about the time his club coach caught him drinking and partying and warned him about seriously career-threatening behaviour.





There was also, a few years later, the disturbing incident when he bit a chunk out of the neck of an opponent, an infraction which earned him a seven-game ban and the title of the Cannibal of Ajax in one Dutch sporting print. Throw in serial diving and the formidable achievement of inflaming at least half of Africa during the 2010 World Cup, and we hardly have the picture of a perfectly assembled superstar.



However, this is no time to bury Luis Suarez, the lifeblood of Liverpool Football Club who later this month will celebrate his 26th birthday. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. Suarez, having served considerable time for his accumulation of offences, could not have ushered us into a new football year any more gloriously.



This was so despite the fact that his latest victims were the team who have been quite relentlessly depicted, not least by their own manager, as a shuffling parody of what might reasonably be expected of hugely rewarded professional athletes. On this occasion, Suarez's extraordinary commitment inflicted a morality tale on the dismal Queen's Park Rangers, but if his every move illustrated an utterly exceptional drive to succeed, it was by no means diminished by the poor quality of the opposition.



Suarez is, in the peculiar context of this aspect of his professional nature, quite simply the model modern footballer. He always plays as if the fate of the world depends on his next move. Even more than the relentless Steven Gerrard, he has become the heart and the dynamo of his team.



How many times has he been encouraged to shrug his shoulders as if to say his task is hopeless? But how many times has he played on to the limit of his sometimes astonishing ability? On every occasion he has been asked.



This meant, surely, that Liverpool's American ownership would have been in desperate dereliction of their duty had they not moved to provide him and his manager, Brendan Rodgers, with the means to prosecute the huge task before them. Daniel Sturridge may not be a sure-fire filler of the vacancy, but if Suarez cannot inspire him to new levels of consistent performance, it is impossible to imagine who might.



It may be strange to cast Suarez, given all his periodic betrayals of a superbly competitive nature, in the role of hero, but if his career is studded with some shocking falls from grace, there is, we have to concede, another enduring theme.



This mocks so many of the attitudes of some equally well-rewarded rivals. While Fernando Torres, a few years ago arguably the finest striker in the world, has given us an open-ended saga of mislaid horizons, Suarez has produced a stunning body of consistently effective work in the most difficult area of the field.



As a teenager in Uruguay he delivered a series of dramatic performances, producing 10 goals in 27 games and a league title for his club, Nacional. It won him a transfer to the Netherlands which led, seamlessly, to the captaincy of Ajax, the country's Player of the Year title, and membership of one of the game's most distinguished clubs, the 100-goal record of such Amsterdam icons as Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp.



While he was coach of Ajax, Van Basten lived in a torment marked by admiration for Suarez's extraordinary talent and a disturbing tendency to self-destruction. "He is a big talent, and a big worry," said the great man.



No doubt the unqualified support offered the player by former Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish, another supreme finisher, during last season's racism controversy, was at least partly conditioned by the understanding that here was not just a major asset but someone around whom a team could be built.



In this at least Dalglish's judgement was unerring. He refused to see anything but the good side of Luis Suarez and the longer the Uruguayan performs for Liverpool the easier it is to understand the degree of the fallen manager's desire to protect him at almost any cost.



The Suarez we saw at Loftus Road on Sunday not only turned QPR into matchstick men. He was also a rebuke to the attitudes which provoked the scorn of the home followers, that rage which comes to those who sense that they are not only seeing rank performance but also a breakdown in professional conscience. Harry Redknapp has been railing against this almost from the moment he took his embattled office but nothing he has said or implied has come close to the eloquence of Suarez.



He did not so much beat QPR as hold up a giant mirror to their imperfections, not just of performance but spirit.



This may not make him any easier to love the next time he dives with almost comic effect. It may not wipe from the record some grievous offences against the good order of football. But it does remind us that in one very important respect Luis Suarez is an example to all of his fellow travellers down football's easy street and maybe not least in an age when Demba Ba's brief reign at Newcastle seems to be on the point of rewarding him with a loyalty bonus of £2.5m.



Suarez is not only magnificently gifted. He is unstinting in his efforts to produce a body of work which frequently lights up the sky. It means, however ironically, that there could well be a day when the bad and the ugly are pushed aside by an insistent force for good.

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