Should we be so quick to judge Luis Suarez?
This summer, Fernando Palomo was walking round London's Olympic Park when he encountered a 9-year-old boy wearing a Luis Suarez jersey. "I grinned, gave the kid a hearty thumbs up and shouted, "Nice shirt! Luis is a good guy!" the Spanish-language commentator recounted. "The kid scowled back at me and muttered, 'He may be a great player, but I can't stand him as a person.'"
The 9-year-old is not alone. Few Premier League footballers catalyze a more passionate reaction than Suarez. I experienced this firsthand last weekend after tweeting a photo of the 25-year-old Uruguayan belly-flopping in the penalty area against Stoke like a tired, old man. A torrent of retweets ensued, accompanied by a cascade of comments. Most mocked the clumsy theatricality of Suarez's attempted deceit, calling him a "cheating dog" or far worse.
But a passionate minority defended the controversial Liverpool star. Some pointed to the game-long battering he had received at the hands (and feet) of the brutish Robert Huth. Others tried to claim the unreliable quality of the photo masked evidence of an unseen ankle tap.
These self-interested, black and white battle lines were echoed by both managers in their postmatch comments. While Brendan Rodgers suggested his striker is "being vilified," claiming “there seems to be one set of rules for Luis and another set for everyone else," Stoke manager Tony Pulis called on Suarez to be punished retroactively, proclaiming, “The [dive] in the penalty box was an embarrassment."
I turned to Palomo, the Ian Darke of ESPN Deportes, for a Latin American perspective on this roiling debate. In the English press, Suarez's persona has assumed a cartoonish hue, portrayed as a wrestling heel who is "rightfully" booed every time he touches the ball.
The reality show, "Being: Liverpool," has offered glimpses of Suarez as a family man who lives for Monopoly, but even that fly-on-the-wall series casts precious little light on a key question. When diving, or "simulation," has become one of the most toxic issues in English football, why could the Uruguayan not resist from meddling in the dark art in full public view? Was his action born of stubbornness, competitiveness, foolishness or a combination of all three?
"What has been lost in all of the English media coverage this year is just how good a player Suarez is," Palomo began. "He is an unique talent who has been blessed with great artistry and is seen as one of the best strikers Uruguay has produced in last 20 years."
Statistics bear this out. Suarez has taken a league-leading 40 shots this season. Four of the five goals he has netted have come from outside the box, an achievement no other player has executed more than once. "Most modern strikers are focused on the goal. Suarez concentrates on the entire pitch and he is quick with both the ball and his brain to find space and create opportunities for his team."
"Suarez's challenge is the immense pressure he puts on his own shoulders to demonstrate his value to the team and reciprocate the support Liverpool's management gave him during the ugly turmoil of the Patrice Evra incident last season," Palomo said. "Luis fully appreciates the extent to which the team relies on his ability, but despite being blessed with real artistry, he simply cannot carry them game in and game out."
Palomo believes Suarez's ability is suffering as a result. "He is certainly bouncing more balls of his feet than he used to. It began during the Olympics when he was expected to lead Uruguay and make them a real force." The dismal Uruguayans failed to emerge from the group stage, and Suarez did not score. "It seemed like the pressure got to him and he appeared unable get a grip on the ball," Palomo said. "He tried too hard to make a statement and this has continued at Liverpool, where it almost seems like he is desperate to make a difference with every play."
There is not much of a thought process that goes into diving in such a situation. It is just so deeply ingrained in Suarez as part of his game that it would take training now to get it out of his system.--Fernando Palomo, Spanish-language commentatorSuarez has enjoyed 19.8 percent of his team's touches in the attacking third this season, a startling statistic that leads Palomo to declare, "No Liverpool player has been so important to the team over the past five years, but Suarez is not used to playing at a club that is struggling. He is a very competitive man who cannot stand losing and he makes his frustration visible to everyone around him and it is this -- his actions off the ball -- that have contributed to his being vilified.
"I do not celebrate diving but in many South American countries, including Uruguay, trickery is part of the culture," Palomo added. "It takes a certain skill to fool an official into seeing something that has not happened."
Premier League football fans may find that perspective hard to understand, but Palomo believes there is a double standard in the way the British media cover player gamesmanship. "I definitely see a certain bias in the reports of Latin players diving. Wayne Rooney dives but because he was born in Liverpool, the papers don't make much noise about that. As a result, Suarez is always going to be under the microscope. Just compare the coverage of his actions to those of Robert Huth. You hardly read anything about his stamp after the game."
Palomo finds it all too easy to explain why Suarez, though fully aware of being in the media's crosshairs, could not help but dive against Stoke. "That act is in the chip that makes the Latin player. It is how the game is played without the ball and is as much a part of the game as a flick or a feint," he said. "There is not much of a thought process that goes into diving in such a situation. It is just so deeply ingrained in Suarez as part of his game that it would take training now to get it out of his system."
What endgame does Palomo foresee for Suarez at Liverpool? "Personally, I think [the owners] will have a huge management decision to make in January. They must decide if they are able to do what is necessary to make such a competitive player want to stay at that club. If they don't make any big transfer moves over the winter break, he must move on and try and prove himself in a different culture," he said with a sigh. "A guy with Suarez's nature cannot stand the pressure he has experienced over the past few months for much longer. Right now, at Liverpool, it is all on him."