Written by Tim Burford
Easily the most controversial player (and one of the most gifted) to come out of South America since Diego Maradona is Uruguay’s Luis Suárez. Born in Salto in 1987, he showed early promise as a striker but was sent off at the age of 15 for headbutting a referee, no less. He made his name with Nacional in Montevideo (scoring ten goals in 27 games to take them to the league title), and was sent off in his first international in 2007. Later that year he moved to Ajax in Amsterdam for €7.5m and before the year was out had been banned for seven matches for biting another player. By 2010 he seemed to have settled down, becoming captain of Ajax and Dutch Player of the Year, scoring 33 goals in 35 matches.
In the 2010 World Cup, his goal against Mexico allowed Uruguay to claim top spot in their group, then a spectacular strike against South Korea took Uruguay through to a quarter-final against Ghana. In the last minute of extra time Suárez handled the ball on the goal line to stop a certain winner – he was sent off (and thus banned for the semi-final) and a penalty was awarded to Ghana. Amazingly, Asamoah Gyan missed and the game ended with a penalty shoot-out, which Uruguay won, triggering worldwide shock. When things had calmed down, most people agreed that Suárez did what most professional players would have done, but his refusal to apologise, his shameless celebrations when Ghana failed to score from the penalty, and his boasting of ‘the hand of God’ (Maradona’s old excuse) alienated many. Uruguay were knocked out in the semi-final, but the runners-up play-off against Germany, which Uruguay lost 3–2, was a far better game than the final.
In 2011 Suárez moved to Liverpool for £22.8 million (nearly double their original bid of £12.7 million), and scored on his debut. In July Suárez’s two goals against Peru took Uruguay to the final of the Copa América; it was Diego Forlán’s goals that won them their record 15th South American championship, but no-one matched Suárez’s international performances overall in 2011. In October 2011 Manchester United’s Patrice Evra accused Suárez of using racist language against him, and he was also accused of diving against West Bromwich Albion and of giving a one-fingered salute when a goal against Fulham was disallowed as offside. Fellow Uruguayan Gus Poyet (then manager of Brighton) insisted he wasn’t racist, explaining cultural differences that make it just as acceptable to call someone ‘Blacky’ as ‘Shorty’, and Viv Anderson, the first black player to represent England, thought the FA should make allowances – but they imposed an eight-match ban and a £40,000 fine, causing outrage on the Kop and in Uruguay. Inevitably, Suárez’s comeback was against Manchester United; having promised to shake Evra’s hand before the game he then failed to do so, but did at least apologise fully afterwards.
Captain of the Uruguayan team for the 2012 Olympics, he was upset to be booed when his face appeared on screens during the Uruguayan anthem; he failed to score, and Uruguay were knocked out by Team GB. He has continued to perform brilliantly for Liverpool, where he is a firm favourite, and hates to be rested. Although there have been multiple instances of shocking behaviour, it’s clear that they come from his almost excessively competitive nature, and in some ways he is the model modern professional, and far more committed than some of his equally well-paid colleagues. When in January 2013 he scored with a handball against Mansfield, it was ruled not deliberate and soon forgotten about. In April 2013 he punched Chile’s Gonzálo Jara and then bit Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic resulting in a fine, a ten-match ban and an offer of anger management therapy.