Although it might seem ludicrous given that his image adorns every newspaper and news website in the world, but Luis Suarez risks going down in history as the footballer who wasn’t there.
His poor attendance record is now becoming a severe problem for Liverpool more so than it is for Uruguay, who feared his absence from this World Cup in any case as the striker battled to return from knee surgery after an injury sustained in the countdown to the tournament.
The Uruguayans take on Colombia tomorrow in the Maracana for a World Cup last-16 clash that should have been made for Suarez. But he won’t be there. He won’t even be in the stadium. He has been banned from all “football-related” activity for four months, which means that, as well as missing Uruguay’s bid to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup for a second successive time, he is due to be absent as Liverpool return to the Champions League next season for the first time in five years.
He did not play in Uruguay’s first match of this World Cup – because of the reasonable reason that he was injured – and he did not play in the country’s last appearance at the previous World Cup, for a reason that saw Suarez command less sympathy. He was suspended after being red-carded for ‘saving’ Ghana player Dominic Adiyah’s goal-bound header, one that would have settled the tie and sent the Africans into the last four. Suarez celebrated with unappealing glee on the touchline, before darting down the tunnel.
He has a habit of disappearing from view just when it is getting interesting, much to the frustration, one would imagine, of the club who have been hit hardest by this latest ban, and who pay the player’s wages.
The four-month suspension imposed by Fifa includes Liverpool’s first three Champions League group-stage games. Suarez will also miss the first nine matches of the Premier League, a competition in which he did so much to help Liverpool become competitive at the top again.
Suarez cannot enter any stadium at all; he cannot even train with the team. Of course, he has experience of training alone at Liverpool before; people tend to forget that, less than a year ago, at the beginning of a season where he ended up being named player of the year, he was punished by Liverpool for comments he made following the rejection of a bid from Arsenal of £1 over £40 million. He believed a stipulation in his contract meant the Anfield club had to sell him when they received an offer that exceeded £40 million; Liverpool countered that the small print only meant they were obliged to tell him.
It is clear that, even off the field, he is happy to push the limits. But Suarez secured redemption, certainly in the eyes of the Liverpool fans, with what often seemed like a one-man campaign to get the club back into the Champions League. He scored 31 goals in 33 appearances – he missed the first five league games of the season because, yes, he was still serving a ban for the biting incident before the latest one, with Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic the victim.
It isn’t so much about the marks on various body parts Suarez has already made. They have healed and, in the case of Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, they will heal.
It is the mark he might have left on the game courtesy of his undoubted ability. He could have shone like Lionel Messi and Neymar in this World Cup; he could have done it in the Maracana tomorrow evening. This was his chance, a chance he has once again managed to sabotage.
An injury that had left him in a wheelchair just a few short weeks ago had already seemed set to mean he would be robbed of an opportunity at this World Cup, but somehow he made it back.
Somehow the street-fighter mentality enabled him to not only to return for the game against England, but become the deciding factor in its outcome. Uruguay are going to miss him. His absence could be the deciding factor in the outcome tomorrow – his country looked poor in their first outing of the World Cup, when, without their talisman, Uruguay lost 3-1 to Costa Rica.
Suarez turns 28 in January, which is two months after he is scheduled to return to the first-team at Liverpool, or wherever else he is by that time. That is nearly half a year written off in what should be the player’s prime. It is reasonable to wonder whether he will even play in a World Cup again. He will certainly miss all of his country’s Copa America engagements, if we are to presume – as we surely must – that the Uruguay FA appeal is doomed to fail. The latest sanctions should total 21 matches – nine for Uruguay and 12 for Liverpool. It means he has amassed a total ban of 38 matches for three biting incidents in the last four years. This doesn’t include other suspensions he has picked up along he way.
In 2007, he was suspended by Ajax following a half-time fight with his teammate. In 2011, he was given an 11-match ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra and, later that same year, he was suspended for another match after he was caught making an offensive gesture at Fulham fans.
Of course, there are players who have missed a similar amount of matches for reasons that are more deserving of sympathy, such as illness and injury. Scotland skipper Darren Fletcher is one. But wherever he ends up now – Liverpool will have to reach a decision on whether they can afford to keep someone who as well as being a one-man goal machine, can do their image such harm – the player himself must fear that time is running out.
But knowing Suarez as we do, and how he seems to thrive on a sense that he is being persecuted, this latest high-profile sanction might simply ensure that his inner fire is burning brighter than ever when he returns – sometime towards Bonfire night.