Luis Suarez is an athlete we’ve never seen before. He is a dangerous strain that is world-class quality. His intensity leads to his genius and his madness. He is perfectly perplexing, and so unreal that he’s more Achilles fighting in The Trojan War, than any man or woman who’s ever played professional sports.
He’s Maradona, but not as good a player. He’s worse of an offender. Maradona snorted cocaine, didn’t pay his Italian taxes, knocked a ball in with his hand, and pissed off Pele. Suarez is biting people.
He’s Alex Rodriguez, but A-Rod never physically or racially assaulted anybody during a game.
Suarez and Messi, when it comes to demeanor, are on opposite sides of the spectrum. Messi is silk. Suarez is more nuclear fission.
The closest comparison is Mike Tyson. They’re two bulls. They punish and are aggressive. They are faster than you expected, hit harder. As a purveyor of the sport, you’ve never seen anything quite like either man. But Tyson was never accused of racial abuse, and he seems more genuine with his apologies. He has shown an ability to reform. He participates in a violent sport, so his violent behavior doesn’t feel like such a big departure. When it comes to behavior, Suarez is more of an outlier in his sport than Tyson.
When Suarez is in-tune, he zips from one corner of the field to the other. His movement off the ball is opportune and productive. He’s running towards his own goal to link up with midfielders coming forward. He’s making runs to the corner flag, sudden runs, and he’s fast, so he can get by defenders and if the guy on the ball is paying attention, and the quality is there, Suarez will run into the space behind you, receive a pass, then sprint in for your goal.
And he finishes the ball. He led the Premier League in the ’13/’14 season with 31 goals in 33 games. That was 10 more than anybody else. As Squawka figured, his per game scoring was .94 goals. That’s almost a goal a game. His closest peer was Sergio Aguero of Manchester City, who was at .74.
During his last season at Liverpool, he was a part of a deadly triplet up front. Him, Daniel Sturridge, and Raheem Sterling led their club to scoring 101 goals in the league. One behind league champions, Manchester City.
So along with the biting, the racist taunts, the diving, Suarez is an unbelievable soccer player.
Start with his ability to play different positions: for Brandon Rodgers’ Liverpool, he seamlessly switched through a series of spots and roles. He played the high man — the player on the shoulder of the last defender, looking to run in behind defenders. He played the withdrawn striker — the player who has dropped to the top of the midfield, a playmaker. Then he was the attacking winger, which put Suarez lurking out by the touchline, where there was almost always open space. In the modern game, a lot of wingbacks sprint up and down the vertical corridors along the edge of the field, and if Liverpool were defending, and the wingback on whichever side had gone forward, Suarez would go stand in the open space he’d left behind and wait there *.
When Liverpool would win the ball back, Suarez would receive a pass at his feet, and, given his position in the wingback’s vacated space, he’d find himself with the ball and with plenty of time. More space equals more time. He could lift his head up. He could read what the situation was ahead of him. His two best choices were usually to race down the line or to cut in on a diagonal through the center.
With the ball at his feet, Suarez has good vision and plays intelligent passes. When he dribbles, he’s a cutter. He takes two touches one way, then cuts and it’s a burst into the next direction. Another cut, and he’s turned his defender again. He gets going so quickly, with such fervor, that sometimes he’ll run too fast and stumble over. He may be his best defender.
Off the ball, he finds space and gets open for teammates. He’ll defend when the team needs it, or when he gets riled up.
He never stops, and that helps him do great things on the field.
Be a great player.
But where does he get the energy from?
What’s in that stuff fueling him?
What temperature does he burn at?
He’ll slide through an opponent, hit a guy in the face, go down in a heap, grab his head, roll around, cry, get up. There’s the ball, bang, he puts it in the back of the net.
He becomes childish when you try to stop him, or when you try to match his tenacity. He doesn’t misbehave in games where he’s getting his way. But if you try to stop him, he’s gonna scream. He’s gonna dive. And he’s gonna bite.
The dark side to Suarez is eerie. As Wright Thompson’s piece documented**, his proven and alleged offenses go back to his days on youth teams in Uruguay, where he screamed at referees, where he head-butted, where he got away with it and not a trace of his indiscretions stayed on record.
On the field, Suarez’s most irritating offense — though obviously not his most egregious — is his diving. He tips and twirls at the slightest contact. Referees rarely book him. Typically, the scenario in which he’ll go down is one where he doesn’t see another way to help his team. It’s when the moment is gone, the attack snuffed, and he becomes the sacrificial soldier. For the good of the team, he’ll initiate contact, then go down as hard as he has to. He is bending the rules in order to earn the team a free-kick. If he's your teammate, that makes him loveable.
While faking pain to manipulate the referee is callus and cynical, biting people is just not a part of the game. If you do that, you’re taking things too seriously. You’re not playing anymore.
No other world-class player has been so willing to play bush-league ball. No other world-class player seems to so frequently sacrifice morals in pursuit of the win. But what coach would tell him to stop? To take it easy. Professional sports aren’t that sophisticated. They aren’t in the business of fixing a guy’s psychology. And if you deprive him of whatever it is that fuels him, if you don’t let him reach that temperature, will his play suffer?
A key chapter in the story of Luis Suarez is the 2010 World Cup Quarterfinals. Uruguay versus Ghana. They were two countries that had never faced each other, not at the top level. Both teams, in the modern era, had always been 2nd class. Brazil, Argentina, they kept their feet on the Uruguayans. Ghana played in their first ever World Cup just the tournament before, in 2006. They made it all the way to the Round of 16. 2010’s quarterfinal was the farthest either nation had been in 40 years.
Ghana, The Black Stars, was only the 3rd African team to ever reach the quarterfinals of a World Cup. No Africans had ever made the semifinal, and they were the only African nation left in the tournament. That made them the hometown team.
On the other side was Uruguay, the smallest nation to have ever won the World Cup, but a team that had done very little recently***. They didn’t qualify in 2006. In 2002, they didn’t make it out of the group stages, and in ’98 and ’94, they, again, did not qualify for the tournament.
They had players who’d been at the top clubs in Europe though. Diego Forlan. Fernando Muslera. Suarez. Ghana fielded guys still playing in the Ghanian Premier League.
The teams met at night in Johannesburg, South Africa. Amongst the patchy sections of Uruguay blue, the Ghanian witchdoctors danced and kissed the sky. Over the stadium was the constant buzz of the vuvuzela horns — a noise as piercing as it is maddening. It bores into you. It drowns out your thoughts, and either lulls you into playing totally instinctually, fluid and in-tune, or drives you insane****.
Leading up to the tournament, Suarez had been playing at Ajax, a top Dutch club. Twice he’d been named the team’s Player of the Year. He was a goalscorer and could make one for a teammate too. He had 16 assists to go with 29 goals in his second year at the club. The next season, which led up to the 2010 World Cup, he scored 49 goals in 48 games.
The knock on him already was his temper. Too many suspensions due to yellow cards, too many fights with teammates. His behavior was making him a handful. His numbers made Europe’s top clubs call.
By the time of the 2010 World Cup, he’d yet to log his first documented bite, the one that earned him the name, “The Cannibal of Ajax”. He was still a type of athlete we’d seen before. Enormous talent, enormous will, just plagued by a lack of discipline. Tempestuous.
In the 2010 World Cup Quarterfinal, he’d take one more step towards becoming the man we know today.
The 40th minute, 0-0: Uruguayan goalkeeper, Fernando Muslera, sends a goal kick up into the air, up into the lights and the glow. Suarez positions himself under the falling ball. A Ghanaian defender, Isaac Vorsah, joins him. Both jump and try to put their head to the ball first. Suarez wins. He flicks the ball behind him, but he goes to the ground holding the back of his head. He lays there as if he’s been brutally struck. Vorsah didn’t touch him.
The referee blows his whistle. Free-kick Uruguay. Vorsah puts his hands up. He shrugs. He didn’t touch him. Nothing touched him. The ball did.
The referee just points forward. Uruguayan free-kick.
If the assault was truly as bad as Suarez is playing it out to be, the Ghanian player should be dealt with. A forearm to the back of the head? Vorsah would be lucky to get only a yellow card.
But the referee doesn’t card the Black Star defender. He doesn’t speak to him. Suarez stands up — fine now — and puts three fingers up, alleging this is the third time he has been hit.
The referee doesn’t budge. He gives no more than a foul.
For this call to come without a card or a verbal warning, must mean the referee is fully aware that Suarez is faking. That he is simulating the pain. The referee must think there was a foul, but he must not buy the forearm shiver tale Suarez is trying to tell. If the referee were to be led by Suarez’s actions, and think Vorsah had made that type of contact, he would surely deal more harshly with the Ghanian defender.
So he knows Suarez is faking. And he’s doing nothing to stop it. He therefore is not upholding the rules. FIFA clearly calls for a yellow card to be given to players who attempt “to deceive the referee by feigning injury or pretending to have been fouled (simulation)”.
This referee just points forward. Free-kick Uruguay.
And to see how widespread simulation is look no further than Suarez’s attempted victim, Vorsah. Between the free-kick Suarez won and the subsequent goal kick, Vorsah dives too.
While walking back to the halfway line, Suarez and Vorsah start jawing at each other. Vorsah looks to have started it. He points at his head and is probably telling Suarez that he knows that Suarez knows there was no contact there. That he wasn’t touched.
Suarez gives a wry laugh. He doesn’t care. He gives Vorsah a little kick to the ankle. It’s nothing. It’s odd. It’s not sportsman-like, but it’s not significant. Vorsah goes down. He tumbles in a slow, indecisive fall.
What do these players hope to gain from faking contact and feigning injury? They are not after sympathy. They want red cards for their opponents, but that is not an end goal. It's a means to a goal. What is their end goal? They are after wins. They are professionals. Their job is to win. When the opposing team suffers a red card, your team is more likely to win.
The statistics on red cards, according to The Numbers Game, state that red cards cost a team anywhere from a third to a half of their expected points per game*****. That is statistical evidence that red cards highly influence outcomes. It’s no wonder then that Suarez and his like try to make opponents accumulate them and yellow cards. The more cards his opponents have, the more likely Suarez and his team will win.
The 45th minute, 0-0: Ghana scores. It is a Sulley Muntari strike from distance.
The 55th minute, 1-0: Ten minutes into the 2nd half, Diego Forlan gets a goal for Uruguay. It’s a free-kick that curls in from the left corner of the penalty box. The goalie could have done better.
It’s then a race to the all-important second goal.
Again, to The Numbers Game. The book tells us that the most important goal any team can score is their 2nd. That after the 1st goal your odds to win the game are just under .3, but after the 2nd they’re up to over .6. The rate of increase in odds drops at that point. Your 3rd goal, your 4th, they don’t increase your odds to win at the same rate your 2nd goal does. In a game where the goal is becoming evermore rare, the 2nd goal is the most coveted. It’s most often the amount of goals needed to win the game.
Forlan got the first for the Uruguayans, and now Suarez will hunt for the win.
The 63rd minute, 1-1: Uruguay’s midfielder, Diego Perez, plays a diagonal ball through the upper portion of Ghana’s penalty box for Forlan. A Ghanian defender redirects the pass, popping it up into the air, sending it out wide. Forlan has to turn and reroute. He does it well. He gains control of the ball while on the run. He’s nearing the end-line, he whips in a hooking cross that travels over the goalkeeper’s head and drops perfectly onto the right foot of the rushing-in Suarez. It’s an open goal. The goalkeeper was pulled away by the cross. This is Suarez time. This is an easy kill. Point-blank.
The vuvuzelas stop.
He bangs the ball against the outside of the net.
The vuvuzela players pick their horns up again.
The buzz of delirium builds.
As the goalkeeper prepares to kick the ball into play, Suarez walks away. He keeps looking back at the spot where he missed, his hands cover his mouth. His eyes are watery. They kind of glow. What words he whispers, what he thinks to himself, we can’t know. But what he wants is obvious.
The 70th minute, 1-1: Uruguay wins a throw-in on the left side, about 35 yards from Ghana’s goal. Quickly, Jorge Fucile throws the ball to Suarez, in one touch he passes it back. Nicolas Lodeiro then shuffles into the picture, and at this point, a triangle is formed at the penalty box’s corner between Fucile, Suarez, and Lodeiro. Lodeiro is the triangle’s apex, he’s closest to the goal, while Fucile and Suarez make the bases.
A triangle is the most efficient shape for an attacking team to make. There’s always support. There’s always a pass forward. The shape is fluid and unpredictable.
Fucile plays the ball to Lodeiro, then Suarez makes a direct run straight for the goal, inverting the triangle, becoming its new apex, the new man closest to the goal. Lodeiro plays Suarez through. The defense is beat. The Little Bulldog, Luis Suarez, is wet and in your house.
Now he’s got an acute angle to shoot at. He’s full-sprint, on course for the near post. The goalkeeper is shuffling over to face him, defenders are closing in. And this is when the goalscorer comes out in him. While other players would look to pass, to find a teammate with a better angle, Suarez is shoot first, pass second. The pure goalscoring strikers are all like that. It’s just go. You score, you win. And they’re right. You score, you win.
Already knowing what he’ll do allows him to act quickly. He doesn’t take a dribble. He shoots.
He’s a boxer who punches at your jaw even though he sees you’re covering it. He’s gonna make you block him.
And he hits the ball perfectly. The shot is aimed for the top roof of the net. It’s almost like the trajectory of a goal kick. If the ball isn’t going to hit the goal, it’s going to end up in the 15th row. The steep angle, the power, make the shot a hassle to stop. The Ghanian goalkeeper, Wigan Athletic’s Richard Kingson, has to make a save.
The ball is surging up and is on path to travel right through Kingson’s head. He gets his hands out, his foamy gloves, the ball pings off him, and loops up and out for a corner. It’s one of the braver plays that happen on a soccer field — the goalkeeper putting himself that close to a well-struck ball.
For Suarez, it’s another opportunity lost. And no player gets many.
End of Full-time, 1-1: Ghana’s coach is a Serbian named Milovan Rajevac, and now that the game is moving into extra time, Milovan is chewing his lips. Arms crossed, hair a mess, he never yells, he just stands there with this look on his face the whole game, like he just ate something that he’s finding out was rotten.
He has the team playing well though. They knock the ball around. They attack in numbers. The players are athletic and skilled. There are some holes in the back, but the ship flies, and really they’ve been outplaying the Uruguayans, who were the 1/2 goal favorites coming in.
As the teams come off for a short break, Uruguay’s captain, Diego Forlan, is giving Suarez an earful. It’s hard to know his exact complaint. During added time, there seemed to be an instance where Forlan thought Suarez should have passed him the ball. The two had words after.
As they walk to the bench, Forlan is yapping. He’s pointing to areas on the field, shrugging his shoulders, clearly raising his voice. His eyes bulge. Suarez isn’t backing down. The men are standing face-to-face. Both look emotional, both look ready to boil. For 90 minutes, Suarez has been fighting the Ghanians with his feet and his mouth. He’ll fight anybody who he thinks is doing things that aren’t going to win his team the game.
It takes a teammate getting between the two to stop the argument. While teammates do fight from time-to-time, and that’s across sports, Forlan is angrier than usual. This was a serious fight. Forlan leaves the argument still convinced that he’s right, still brooding, still talking about it.
Suarez, as usual, is 100% keyed-up. He looks ready to lose control. The cameras stop following him, but you can picture him pacing up and down the touchline, waiting for the break to be over, waiting to get back out there, chewing his fingers, squirting water in his mouth.
This is a mood a person can get into that can be good or can turn bad. Whatever chemicals the brain is pushing then are the pure ones. This is when you’re real close to doing something bad, but if you just channel it right, get that juice to help you, not kill you, you’re gonna do good.
The 91st minute, 1-1: Suarez goes up for a header. He is hit by an opposing player. He acts like he was fouled, acts like his back was attacked. No foul is given.
The vuvuzelas drone on.
The 95th minute, 1-1: Suarez gets the ball at the corner of the Ghanian penalty box. He has it for one touch, then a defender knocks it away.
The 96th minute, 1-1: Suarez gets free on the right side. He plays a poor cross. It’s straight at the goalkeeper.
He can get nothing going. He isn’t able to win the game himself. He isn’t able to set a teammate up. Meanwhile, Ghana dominates. They create more chances, and have more possession in Uruguay’s final 1/3rd of the field.
The 118th minute, 1-1: Off a long Ghanian throw-in, Kevin-Prince Boateng, launches himself at the ball, sending a header cutting right by the Uruguayan goal. He misses by inches.
Suarez is losing time. His team is on the skid.
The vuvuzelas drone on.
The 120th minute, 1-1: Uruguay’s Jorge Fucile is called for a foul he swears he did not commit. As Fucile pleads his case, the linesman shoos him away. He’s not gonna hear it.
Ghana will be sending a free-kick into the box, and it’s going to be one of the game’s last plays. The last play to avoid penalty kicks, the play to send Ghana and all of Africa further than they’ve ever been before. A play Luis Suarez is not going to let happen.
The vuvuzelas reach new decibels. They make the air boil.
John Paintsil whips Ghana’s free kick into the box at head-height. The first man to it is Boateng, he flicks the ball on, sending it on a new path, and to the head of Ghana’s Mensah, where the goalkeeper swipes at it, misses. Mensah squares the ball back into the mix. With his goalkeeper off the line, Suarez sprints in to cover. He’s standing in the mouth of the goal, watching the scrum, shuffling across the line, waiting for a shot to pop out. The ball drops to Ghana’s Stephen Appiah. He has a point blank shot and a millisecond to take it. He shoots, it clatters off Suarez’s shins — he saved a goal. The ball bounces up to head-height but still is in the scrum. Two Uruguayans try acrobatic kicks to clear it, but in soars, 20-year old, Dominic Adiyiah, a Ghanian substitute. He’s attacking with his whole body, not reaching out a leg. He’s looking to hit the ball with his head. This is bravery. This is sacrifice. Adiyiah leaps through two opposing players, through the ball, and into the goalkeeper. The two Uruguayan feet bang his chest. The ball is going towards the goal, it’s going fast, it’s heading between Suarez and his teammate, Jorge Fucile. Both men jump at it with their arms. The ball gets by Fucile, but it doesn't get by Suarez. He is loaded with determination. He knocks the ball away with his hands — he saved a second goal.
The vuvuzelas stop their drone and the sound that comes out is more accusatory. It's the sound of an alarm.
Instead of scoring, Suarez screwed the rules and didn’t allow his opponents to score. He couldn’t make sure his team won. He could only make it so, right then, they weren’t sure to lose.
The Ghanians start jumping up and down, pointing at Suarez, screaming at him. He tries to run off the line, like he’s done nothing wrong. But the referee saw it. The world saw it. It’s a penalty kick for Ghana. It’s a red card for Suarez.
He was willing to give up his place on the field, to tarnish his reputation, for the better of the team. That’s sacrificing. That’s heroic.
But then he starts acting like a scoundrel. Standing under that raised red card, Suarez points to himself. He looks shocked. He asks, “Me?”
He isn’t able to walk off the field showing pride for what he did. Basking in the glory of a hero. He is unscrupulous and dishonest to the end.
He could have slapped his teammates around, got them hyped to take the chance he just gave them. He could have taken that red card right on the chin, and just loved it, been proud and worn it like a badge.
But he doesn’t. He tries to get away with it. He doesn't take his glory.
He walks off the field hiding his face.
Asamoah Gyan — a man who has scored twice already from the penalty spot this World Cup, a man who scored the game winning goal against the United States in the previous round — will take Ghana’s penalty kick.
Suarez is heading back to the locker room. He stops at the tunnel’s entrance. He has his shirt up over his nose still. He looks back to watch.
Gyan stands over the ball — listening to the vuvuzelas back in a drone, listening to whatever words of encouragement his teammates mutter to him, blocking out the Uruguayan taunts. He has teammates behind him, looking up to the sky, hands together, praying.
The whistle blows. He runs up. He strikes the ball. It slams off the crossbar. It goes up and into the crowd.
Milovan, Ghanas coach, turns nearly green. He wraps himself at the stomach. It looks like he’s burning inside.
Back at the tunnel, Suarez gets giddy. He double fist-pumps. He gets low and screams. He runs down the tunnel, cackling. There’s something evil about his reaction. He doesn’t know how to act graciously around people he cheats. He doesn’t know how to capitalize on situations that could bring him respect. .
In the shootout, Uruguay is rejuvenated. Ghana is rattled. Uruguay wins 4-2. They’re on to the semifinals.
Suarez wins. Or does he? It's not easy to tell.
* Positioning for an attacker has become much more fluid recently. The top guys are expected to do more than they were in previous years. The strikers who can only poach, the classic #10s, the David Beckham winger, they are a dying breed, not because they don’t exist, but because no manager wants them. They’re not in vogue because they’re not versatile enough.
**The Wright Thompson article
*** They won in 1930 and 1950
**** The vuvuzelas
***** Expected points per game expectation (eppg) is based off the fact that a team receives 3 points for a win, 1 for a tie, 0 for a loss in all major leagues and group stages of tournaments.