Lucky Devil Suarez
Liverpool striker knows stopping United could alter his reputation from villain to hero
Published 05/03/2011 | 05:00
Think of Luis Suarez. Think of hands and teeth. Hands palming away Dominic Adiyiah's injury-time header as Ghana and Africa waited, spoiling Soccer City's flashbulb moment, ruining a continent's dream.
Teeth sinking into Otman Bakkal's shoulder, four months later, as the madness descended. Hand of God. Cannibal of Ajax. Think of scorn and shame.
Think of Luis Suarez. Holding open the door to one of the ante-rooms at Liverpool's Melwood training base, the epitome of politeness, the hand that caused such worldwide loathing clutching a gourd of maté, the herbal tea he has sent over from Montevideo as a reminder of home, those same teeth occasionally closing thirstily around the attached silver straw.
"My wife always says that if I was like I am on the pitch away from it, she would not be with me any more," says the Uruguay international.
Does his status as global football's villain of the year 2010 bother him?
"No, no, but as a player you want to be known for positive things. It would be much better for people to think of me scoring goals and playing well, not just for the handball. I would love to change that impression of me."
He has made an encouraging start. His £22.8m move to Anfield, completed only after protracted administrative wrangling on transfer deadline day, was followed by a fortuitous debut goal on his debut, his weak effort bundled in by Stoke's Andy Wilkinson. He celebrated in front of the Kop.
"Through my career, I have had a lot of luck," he says, disarmingly. "At (his first club) Nacional and at Groningen, when I tried to beat a defender and it didn't work, the ball would always end up at my feet somehow. Maybe it is instinct, but a lot of it is luck."
They have a word for that in Uruguay: picardia. It is the streak of cunning, of spice, the dash of devil, which infuses the South American game.
"It is hard to explain," Suarez says. "Players like Ruud van Nistelrooy and Raul have it. It is being where you need to be when you need to be there. At Groningen and Ajax, I scored a lot of goals with picardia."
There are other, better images of Suarez that he may care to project ahead of the lucky striker, the man who always has the bounce of the ball.
He could cast himself as the lovelorn romantic who engineered a move to a minor Dutch club at the age of 19, after just a year in the senior side at Nacional, one half of Montevideo's Old Firm,, simply to be closer to his girlfriend, then living with relatives in Barcelona.
"When I went to Holland, it was to a very small town, and I was only a teenager. My girlfriend was only 16. We were very young and we did not speak the language. It is much easier to settle in to Liverpool, because we are much more mature. Plus, I have my maté. That is important."
He will never be able to deny that side of his character, and nor would he wish to. Friends back home in Salto, the town where he grew up, and Montevideo, the city he moved to as a 14-year-old to pursue his career, describe him as a quiet, family man, kind and generous.
It is not, though, the trait which will come to define him to the 44,000 who will watch him against Manchester United tomorrow lunchtime.
"When I wear the shirt of any team I play for, I become a fan of that team," he explains. "It is important to me to give everything I have to help the team win. That is what Uruguayans are like."
Suarez, in that case, is nothing if not a national stereotype. So attached to their Latin captain were Ajax's fans that he was afforded a rousing ovation as a farewell after completing his move away from the club, a move he helped to push through.
To survive what might have been perceived as treachery, the bond must have been strong. "It means a lot to me, the relationship I had with the fans at Ajax," he says. "I think it was because of how I acted, how I played. The goodbye was testament to how I worked. I would love it if it was the same here."
Early indications are positive, to say the least. The Kop already has a ditty penned in his honour, to the tune of Depeche Mode's 'Just Can't Get Enough'.
They have taken to him quickly, evidence of his intuitive understanding of his public. He has been here for little more than a month. Already he understands that Liverpool simply cannot lose tomorrow; cannot allow United to win league championship number 19.
"(International team-mate) Diego Forlan told me that this is the most important game of the season, for both teams," he says. "I know it would be a prize for us to stop them winning the league."
United, of course, still remember Forlan in song, for his remarkable ability to score against Liverpool. Forlan's name will ring out from the Anfield Road End tomorrow, mocking, taunting. Suarez will hear his name sung in rather different tones.
Think of adulation. Think of Luis Suarez. Think of hero, not villain. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Liverpool v Manchester United, Live, tomorrow, Sky Sports 1, 1.30