Suarez: Saint and Sinner
Liverpool striker who will be centre of attention at Old Trafford today is a complex character whose desire to win can backfire, writes Ian Herbert
There will not be much space for rationalism at Old Trafford when Luis Suarez walks into a storm this lunchtime, but that is no reason not to point out a biographical footnote to his extraordinary career in the Netherlands which has gone undetected amid the sound and fury of the past four months.
It is that Suarez's friendship with his black Ajax team-mate Urby Emanuelson was so close that the two became popularly known in Amsterdam as Sjors and Sjimmie, after two cartoon characters – one white, one black.
Emanuelson, a Dutch left-back of Surinamese descent who is now at Milan, is the reason why in the Netherlands it is hard to find many adherents to that view of Suarez which will be chanted by some of a Mancunian disposition today. The bigger question in the country where he first established himself is not whether he is a racist but whether a temperament which leads him to seek any means to win can ever be tamed.
"My wife says that if I was like I am on the pitch away from it, she would not be with me any more," Suarez once said.
His prolific four years at Ajax, from 2007, certainly ended with his reputation seriously tarnished. It is hard to watch the footage of him biting the shoulder of PSV Eindhoven's Otman Bakkal, in November 2010, without flinching and the fact that his foot had been stamped on three or four times makes no difference. The Uruguayan's apology, if taken at face value, reveals he felt he was operating outside of himself in the heat of battle.
"As the captain of the club I know I took a decision that was wrong," he said a week after the incident. "In those moments, your heartbeat is very high and sometimes you don't think about what you are doing. I am very sorry about that. I am very critical of myself. I am not like that. From this point on, I need to work harder."
The significant question is whether any manager has the qualities to help him manage himself. As usual Kenny Dalglish, who is likely to start with Suarez against United, was willing to provide no insight yesterday, brushing off the suggestion that the striker had allowed his emotional intensity to get the better of him when he kicked Tottenham's Scott Parker in the stomach, three minutes into his comeback from a nine-game ban, at Anfield on Monday.
"He just misjudged the thing with Scott Parker. I think he thought Scott Parker was going to miss it and misjudged it himself," Dalglish said.
Martin Jol, however, did provide some insight yesterday into a player he managed at Ajax. "I liked him and I knew that if you treated him in the right way, if you backed him..." the Fulham manager said. "I mean you can make a mistake, and I can forgive you or tell you that it's unforgivable. There are always two options. I did understand why Kenny Dalglish wanted to back him because, if you back him, he will... pay you back. He is an emotional guy so sometimes you have to forgive."
This reflects events in Amsterdam, where the relationship with Jol's predecessor, Marco van Basten – a more remote, authoritarian figure – was difficult. Van Basten and Suarez just never went together and when Jol's first action was to make Suarez his captain, the transformation was, by common consent, remarkable. He seemed to mature over night, helping the younger players, placing himself at the hub of the side in matches and on the training pitch and taking his goalscoring through the roof. The message was that Suarez needed the love.
Yet it was Ron Jans, Suarez's coach at his previous Dutch club Groningen, who observed that his problem was an overwhelming will to win. "He has to learn that doing everything cannot be enough to win," he said, desperate for Suarez to lose some of the visceral energy from his game, which Jans located in his South American background. As much seemed true of the tendency to dive, which coloured the early part of his Ajax career.
Jol never got the opportunity to work with Suarez after the Bakkal incident and there is a view in the Netherlands that the manager's ill-judged attempt to cover the controversy with humour ("Maybe he was hungry..." Jol said) was the beginning of the end for him too. It certainly compounded the universal dismay felt by the Dutch – for whom the biting incident was a source of horror.
The challenge for Dalglish is how to support Suarez. "If you don't back the player it's a commercial thing as well," Jol said yesterday. "Because he will tell you he needs to leave. And if a player wants to leave there will be problems."
Suarez's departure from Amsterdam certainly was commercial – Ajax were running €20.7m (£17.3m) of debt – but Liverpool may be challenged by something more emotional. The 25-year-old has frequently professed a desire to play in Spain, where his wife has family.
The impact Suarez has made at Anfield reveals the rewards if Dalglish can get this issue right. "He doesn't like the glare of publicity," the Liverpool manager said yesterday. "But a person of his talents isn't going to get away with it as easily as that. It's just unfortunate for Luis that he's fantastically talented and successful at the job he has decided to take on. I'm sure he will be able to handle that."
Suarez's Goals scoring record
Nacional (2005-06): 34 games, 12 goals; 0.35 goals per game
FC Groningen (2006-07): 37 appearances, 15 goals; 0.41
Ajax (2007-11): 159 appearances, 111 goals; 0.7
Liverpool (2011-present): 35 appearances, 12 goals; 0.34
Uruguay (2007-present): 48 games, 26 goals; 0.54
Liverpool's trouble at United
Liverpool have lost on seven of their last eight visits to Old Trafford.
20 Sept 2004: Lost 2-1
22 Jan 06: Lost 1-0
22 Oct 06: Lost 2-0
23 Mar 08: Lost 3-0
14 Mar 09: Won 4-1
21 Mar 10: Lost 2-1
19 Sept 10: Lost 3-2
9 Jan 11: Lost 1-0
Justin Bieber was one of the hardest hit
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