On my way into work every morning I pass a mural. Sometimes I pause and just gaze at it for a while. That’s why it is there. One of the inspirational figures painted onto the wall is Marie Curie, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Science. There is a quote from her too. Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.
I love that. The words apply in nearly all areas of life. We live in a world where trying to understand things has gone out of fashion. Trying to understand stuff takes a while. We like everything these days to be instant. The Luis Suarez jokes came instantly.
The one about his mother getting a job as a cleaner in a bus station in the capital and the whole family having to move 300 miles to live in Montevideo. Luis Suarez was seven and he was so traumatised he stayed behind with his granny for a month.
The cracker about his father walking out two years later and leaving a mother and seven sons to cope.
Or the kid having no boots and realising if he improved enough the club he played for as a kid would buy him boots. Or how his teenage girlfriend Sofia, who is now his wife, had to move with her family to Europe when he was 15. Suarez reacted like he did when he needed those boots. He played harder and harder till he got a move to Europe at the age of 19. His being depended on the boots, on Sofia.
Laugh? Far from it. Time after time Luis Suarez’s world got ripped apart and football put him back together. My favourite is the one I read about Suarez growing up in Uruguay in a culture where winning through knavery and roguery and a little deceit and foulness is a little bit sweeter. They call it Picardía. We call it being a cute hoor. There’s a thin line between being celebrated as a cute hoor and being convicted as something else. You learn that too late.
I think the Luis Suarez story is just desperately sad. I have no stones to throw at him. For a while now the Gaelic Players Association has been responding to the mental health needs of players. The We Wear More campaign (www.wewearmore.ie) which was launched recently is designed to emphasise a footballer or a hurler is more than just a footballer or a hurler. He wears more than county colours. He is a son, a brother, a nephew, a husband, a boyfriend, a student, a worker, etc. In one sense our members are fortunate that they generally maintain the support system around them while playing elite sport. They are close to family and friends and the club they grew up in.
On the other hand very few people understand the pressures they feel, or understand that being good at a sport and being celebrated for it doesn’t make you immune from other pressures and troubles. There is a fear for many players if they open up about that internal life people will say, oh yeah I’d love to have those troubles or just lighten up and enjoy it.
One thing we have learned in the GPA is it is wrong and dangerous to judge anybody without knowing their story. I look at a Luis Suarez or a Mario Balotelli and I read about them. Soccer has been their way out of isolation and poverty and fear. We give them money and expect them to cope.
Suarez arrived in Holland aged 19. He had the love of his life and he had his career but he didn’t have any of the equipment to cope. Keep winning and you can keep this life. Lose and you are in the ditch. That’s the way we feel when we are kids. That’s what abandonment does. That’s how it is for players on the edge of making it. More fear than understanding.
Suarez survived but he grew up with a distorted view of football. I really think he feels his happiness depends on it. You watch him play. Football isn’t just his job. It’s his dependency.
How many talented young players have been thrown away with stories which never get told. Gambling, drink problems, general behavioural problems. Good enough to play but not good enough to adapt. Kids who can’t cope get ditched early. There’s more talent at the door always. Suarez got through the filter. Too good to discard. Too screwed up to last.
Dressingrooms are strange places to grow up in. I’m not sure how you could grow adequately in the environments where Luis Suarez has spent his life. A poor Uruguayan kid. Then suddenly a rich Uruguayan kid thousands of miles from home. When he made that handball against Ghana in the last World Cup he got a red card and Ghana won a penalty to win the game. What serious dressingroom wouldn’t have encouraged a player to stick out a hand in the same circumstances. To take one for the team? Gyan missed the penalty. Suarez was in tears in the tunnel when the camera’s caught him shifting from despair to joy. He was the scapegoat one second, then the saviour who took one for the team. Uruguay won on penalties.
Afterwards people forgot Suarez had been punished under the rules. Ghana just didn’t cash in. Listen, how many of us list Thierry Henry’s handball down as one of the worst moments in World Cup history and Diego Maradona’s handball as one of the greatest? I watched that Henry incident in remote Zambia. The African next to me sitting on a crate supporting France didn’t see it the same way. Suarez was a hero or a villain depending on what colours you wore. Any wonder he didn’t come away with a clearer understanding of football’s morality code or how that code changes shape.
His abiding memory must have been that winning made everything ok again. In times of extreme stress it looks to me like he goes back to being a little kid on the street again. Biting and name calling. Being a cute hoor. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose it’s how you play the game? That’s not taught on the street or in dressingrooms underneath big stadiums. Winning equals reward. Losing for Suarez means everything he fears and doesn’t understand beginning to threaten him again.
He can score goals. That protects him. His dependency is football. His cartoon superpower is football. No matter what he does he is good enough to be sold on at a profit and somebody else will coddle him and use his talent for a while.
Just because he is rich doesn’t mean he isn’t being exploited. Just because Marilyn Monroe was rich doesn’t mean she wasn’t exploited. He needs to be helped not scapegoated and then serially sold on. At Liverpool last year Suarez did some work with the psychiatrist Steve Peters. I have read Peters’ book The Chimp Paradox and the man comes from a very interesting background of working with high-security prisoners. While he was in that environment at Anfield last season something changed in Suarez. When he started his season, later than everybody else because of his last suspension he was a changed player. His behaviour was excellent, his play was brilliant. He opened up as a family man.
In Brazil this week he was a South American player in the mad world of a South American World Cup. He was removed from that support structure which Brendan Rogers had put in place. Steve Peters was with the England team. The British media were back to taking pot shots at him. Not fully fit, playing badly on a Uruguayan team which was going out of the World Cup and being marked by a provocative Italian with whom he had history, Suarez flipped. Remember Zidane!
He went back to the old pathology. He bit somebody. In a stupid and obvious way.
At the end of the game against Italy he didn’t celebrate like he did against Ghana four years ago. He looked like an addict who was going to have to begin painful rehab all over again. It was desperately sad to see. Biting is an ugly thing to do, but nobody died. No bones were broken. Everybody else played on. The fuss was 100 times louder than when one professional player comes in high and premeditated with a tackle which could break a leg and end a career. That’s what it is like being Luis Suarez.
When it happened Suarez reverted helplessly to childhood, clutching his teeth, then saying his eye hurt, crying.
He has bigger problems than FIFA are qualified to deal with.
The lesson is that you can easily take young footballers out of the street and pay them big money. You can’t take the street out of all of them without a lot of love and hard work and concern for the human being not the player.
I think Luis Suarez is just another crazy mixed up kid. I don’t think he is a bad person. He has been saved by football and he has been exploited by it. His head, Marie Curie might say, is full of fears and not understanding. He has a psychological kink. Rather than nail him to the cross or sell him on for profit it would have been nice if FIFA had the wisdom to ask that he continue to work on understanding and on managing the way he reacts under stress.
The show trial was short and sweet. The punishment wasn’t as bad as the lynch mob were asking but it was still poorly thought out. I would like to have seen a good chunk of the bans suspended for two years pending ongoing work with counsellors and anger management. Instructions to take coaching badges. Instead the immediate debate was how much is he still worth.
It would be encouraging had they viewed this as a holistic problem and understood that Luis Suarez isn’t just the guy in the jersey. He is a human being whose development has been different to most people’s and whose work environment is extraordinarily pressurised at the best of times. He wears more. We have had beloved heroes whose sad dysfunction has been accommodated by the pro game as long as it suited. Imagine how we would hurt here if Paul McGrath, scarred by his own childhood, was thrown to the wolves the way Luis Suarez has been.
Liverpool Football Club need to stop permitting the impression to be given they are the real victims here. They did good work with Suarez last season. He got them to the Champions League. He has given them the financial means to replace him. To do that would be cruel. Liverpool always aspire to be more than a club. Prove it now. Forgive him, embrace him and keep working with him.
On Tuesday a fragile man just broke in the industry we all support as fans. He cracked in the pressure cooker we all built. We have created all this for our own entertainment. It’s our fun but it’s Luis Suarez’s existence. He clings onto the life he escaped to, in a wild and primal way. He cracked in the moment against Italy. Can we judge him till we have walked in his shoes? Can we deny that for the past year he has worked hard on himself. He fell back on impulse and hurt himself and his team and his family. He needs support and care, not stone throwers and lame jokes.
If I’d had the money I would have paid FIFA to skew their deliberations in the direction of decent human compassion and not a show trial. But it probably doesn’t work like that with FIFA does it?...