LONDON – It would have been a close call, but at the beginning of the season Luis Suarez may just have pipped John Terry as the least popular player in English football (the other contender, Joey Barton, had been loaned from Queens Park Rangers to Olympique Marseille so he was no longer eligible).
The Liverpool striker and Chelsea captain had both been embroiled in racism rows last season when Suarez was found guilty by the Football Association of racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra in October 2011. He was given an eight-game suspension and a ￡40,000 fine. When the teams next met last February, Suarez avoided shaking Evra’s hand, for which Suarez was later forced to apologize. Suarez’s CV also included accusations of diving and outside of Liverpool and Uruguay was loathed.
Five months later Suarez is being talked about as a candidate for the Footballer of the Year award, which would put him alongside the all-time greats who have graced English football, including Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Gary Lineker, Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo.
It is a remarkable turnaround, one bordering on unbelievable.
While Suarez’s skill has never been in doubt, his talent was overshadowed by his temperament. And though his indiscretions can never be forgotten, the media seem willing to move on from the striker’s dark days and give him a second chance.
The rise of Suarez has been achieved by scoring 18 goals in 27 matches this season — many of them breathtaking solo efforts — for an inconsistent Liverpool, which won only 46 points during 2012; only QPR and Aston Villa won fewer points in the calendar year.
Suarez has been a lone striker, relishing the burden, responsibility and challenge of leading the line. He was Liverpool’s only option because until this week’s ￡12 million signing of Daniel Sturridge from Chelsea it had no other striker, as Andy Carroll is on loan to West Ham and Fabio Borini has been injured since October.
Changing public opinion is never easy, but the supremely gifted Suarez has been nothing short of brilliant this season, his pace, vision, technique, unselfish running and finishing underlining that, even at ￡22 million, the former Ajax striker is a bargain. And, with the odd exception, he is staying on his feet.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said: “Luis has been absolutely fantastic. He moves well, he is a real threat and he is a real pleasure to work with. He is that Lionel Messi type of player in that he gets kicked all over the place, but he gets up and he produces.”
When the members of the Football Writers’ Association vote in April they have to choose “the professional player who, by precept and example” is considered the Footballer of the Year. Suarez’s past will make it difficult for some football writers to vote for him, yet Eric Cantona, who kept the F.A.’s disciplinary office in business for a while, won the award after his kung-fu kick at a supporter.
Robin van Persie is probably the favorite to retain the award he won last May, but the fact that Suarez is even being mentioned as a candidate shows how far he has come and that extraordinary talent can change the view of a cynical public.
IN THE USA, Gareth Bale would be known as the divingest player. In the Premier League he has the ignominious distinction of being cautioned a record five times for simulation since the start of last season.
Of course, the Tottenham midfielder protests his innocence and on at least one occasion he was unlucky. Yet reputations are rarely undeserved — blown out of proportion, perhaps, but if you are sent off five times for violent conduct you are going to be regarded as Mr. Nasty. Bale is not quite Mr. Dive, just a diver and perception is usually the reality, so rightly or wrongly he has an image problem.
The Wales international is a marvelous player, as exciting as there is in the Premier League. Bale claims he is only protecting himself against the more ruthless of challenges, but there are ways of falling over.
I asked a current Premier League referee who must remain anonymous as they are forbidden from being interviewed in a country where free speech is part of our constitution. He told me: “When a player is touched, pulled back or tackled, he should go down naturally.
“No dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s with an exaggerated tumble . . . just go down naturally and most of all, don’t appeal. A ref does not need an appeal to award a penalty, it is an instant gut reaction. An appeal can sew doubts in his mind.”
Players who look around and appeal are the ones who tend to be cautioned and this is where Bale must learn. Go down, but do not exaggerate the fall and don’t look around with your arms open in appeal mode.
WHEN Shaun Wright-Phillips scored Queens Park Rangers’ winner at Chelsea on Wednesday it was, understandably, an effort for him to control his emotions. He clearly wanted to celebrate like his teammates and the traveling fans, but the unwritten rule for a player returning to a former club is to “show respect” and act as if you have won the lottery only to discover you’ve lost the ticket.
Is it not disrespectful to the club that pays you to show no joy after scoring a goal, regardless of who it’s against?
Are you not showing more respect to your old club than your present one by being the odd one out?
What message did the non-celebrating Wright-Phillips send out to QPR supporters who were delirious after he scored?
That he wasn’t really happy inflicting defeat on a former club?
It is self-regarding nonsense though as it was his first Premier League goal in 53 games maybe he’d forgotten how to celebrate.
Planet Football has its own priorities. Show respect to a club you used to play for, but yell at and abuse match officials.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.