The sad truth the Luis Suarez saga reveals about modern soccer

Thursday August 8th, 2013

Luis Suarez may force his way out of Liverpool but not without hurting his already damaged reputation.
Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

This has been the two-speed summer. At the start there were the deals done smoothly and swiftly -- Fernandinho joining Manchester City, Simon Mignolet going to Liverpool, Emanuele Giaccherini signing for Sunderland -- and now, with a little under four weeks of the transfer window still to go, there are the deals that feel as though they have already been going on for ever: the eternal and increasingly tedious trinity of Gareth Bale, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez.

This week at least brought movement in the Suarez case, with the player offering an interview to the Guardian in which he made clear his determination to leave Liverpool and hinted that the club was acting dishonorably in keeping him. "I had the opportunity to move to a big European club and I stayed on the understanding that if we failed to qualify for the Champions League the following season I'd be allowed to go," he said. "I gave absolutely everything last season, but it was not enough to give us a top-four finish -- now all I want is for Liverpool to honor our agreement."

Perhaps that is true -- only he and Liverpool know for sure -- but there are a number of problems with the claim. Firstly, Suarez has surrendered the right to be given the benefit of the doubt by changing his tune about the reason he wants to leave. Had he said from the off that he wanted Champions League football, there would have been disappointment, perhaps even a sense that he owed Liverpool a little more given the way it has stood by him, but few realistically could have begrudged him a move.

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As it is, having claimed he has been driven out by the British media -- a line presumably intended as a sop to Liverpool fans -- only to then demand a move of Arsenal speaks of a player prepared to spin any line to get his own way. The odd thing is that there was some truth in what he said about the media. There is a tendency, always, to go after low-hanging fruit: The template of the Suarez controversy story is well-known, and so there is probably a tendency for journalists to thoughtlessly write that.

Then again, if you're found guilty of racially abusing an opponent and then bite another player, it's probably best to do everything possible not to draw further fire. And while the media loves condemning a villain, it also loves a redemption story. Given the debate over the evidence in the racism incident, it wouldn't have required too much decent behavior for the pendulum to start to swing the other way. I personally thought the 10-game ban for biting Branislav Ivanovic was far too harsh, but the best way to not open yourself up to that kind of overreaction is to not chew an opponent's biceps.

More pertinent to the present situation, though, is that term "understanding". Does that mean the clause isn't actually written into the contract? Suarez clearly believed that if another club bid over £40 million he could leave. Arsenal clearly believed him when he said that, and that's why it offered £40,000,001. Liverpool insists that a bid of over £40 million simply obliges it to inform the player and start negotiating, which given football clubs - to paraphrase Al Pacino in "The Devil's Advocate" - are to an extent always negotiating, seems a phrase about as useful as a guarantee to carry on playing football and not join cricket's County Championship instead. Besides, no club that actually wants to sign another player is ever going to bid for him without having first contacted the player's agent.

Brendan Rodgers' response was clear. "There were no promises made -- categorically none -- and no promises broken," the Liverpool manager said. "The club and his representatives had several conversations, and he knew exactly where he was at. I think Luis knows the support he's had at the football club, and that's something that's been unswerving throughout the whole of last season.

"Obviously the remarks I've read are bitterly disappointing, but my job is bigger than that. My job is to fight and protect the club. I will take strong, decisive action, absolutely. There has been total disrespect of the club. This is a lack of respect of a club that has given him everything, absolutely everything. I don't believe there is a clause in his contract that says he can leave for any sort of price."

It's easy at times to mock Rodgers for his earnestness and persistent use of business/self-help jargon, but here he was impressive: calm, decisive and commanding. Whatever the reason, whoever is in the right, Liverpool is winning the PR war. The club looks like the wronged party as Suarez looks increasingly mercenary -- although it does now seem that a sale is inevitable, so in a sense Suarez has got his own way. But there is a deeper concern.

Liverpool at the moment is in some ways the most interesting club in Europe. It is edging towards Champions League qualification (whatever else happens this season, the teams finishing fifth and sixth in England will almost certainly be the best sides in Europe not to qualify for next season's Champions League), not by enormous spending but by developing a style of play that, the club hopes, will make a squad of young players better than the sum of its parts. There were signs towards the end of last season that Liverpool was getting there.

But as Arsenal found, as Shakhtar Donetsk and Athletic Bilbao found, as Borussia Dortmund perhaps is finding, once a player starts to excel, predators with deeper pockets and a greater chance of silverware come circling -- and that eventually undermines the project. And whatever you think of Suarez, or of Liverpool, that is a sad truth of modern football.

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