The greatest footballers make their names with acts of infamy, often negative as much as positive. For all of his midfield mastery and elegance, Zinedine Zidane is remembered as much for 'that headbutt' on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup Final, to enact a sour curtain-call on his glittering career. Even Diego Maradona, often posited as the greatest to have ever graced the beautiful game, will go down in the history books as a player of equal talent and controversy. From the iconic 'Hand of God' goal in 1986; to the eye-bulging, vein-popping stare that convinced FIFA to expel Maradona from the 1994 World Cup, here was a man who played, and lived, on the edge.
It is in these fine margins where sport is determined at its highest levels. Since his transfer to Liverpool in 2011, Luis Suarez has lit up the Premier League with performances threatening to match those of Ronaldo, Messi, or Iniesta amongst the world's best. Wriggling, writhing, nutmegging, scoring - Suarez has made a name for himself as a nuisance laced with a prodigious skills-set that sets him apart from his peers. Recognised as the best in the business by fellow players and football writers alike following a remarkable 2013-14 season that produced 31 goals, the Uruguayan forward has displayed an unparalleled and insatiable appetite to succeed.
Unfortunately, however, this desire has the habit of taking an ugly turn. In 2010, the 'Cannibal of Ajax' - as Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf described him - received a two-game suspension for biting PSV's Otman Bakkal. A reproachable act, certainly, but English fans may have been forgiven for overlooking a one-off misdemeanour in the heat of distant battle. Forgivable too was the more publicised image of that year's World Cup, in which Suarez's blatant handball on the line denied a popular Ghanaian side the chance to carry the hopes of the African continent through into an unprecedented semi-final appearance. Immoral perhaps, but this was a perfect example of Suarez's competitive nature driven to its natural conclusion.
Mistakes can be made, they can be learnt from, they can be forgiven. Repeated mistakes, however, will inevitably grate a little harder and longer, and it is his where Luis Suarez threatens to undermine his precocious talents with his mindless actions. It is also threatens his status as a Liverpool player. Since the infamous racial abuse incident involving Suarez and Manchester United's Patrice Evra in 2011, the Merseyside club have closed ranks in support of their star striker. Then-manager Kenny Dalglish's ill-judged t-shirt stunt, prior to a game against Wigan with the race row still under investigation, would prove foolhardy as the FA found Suarez guilty and handed him an eight-game ban.
Liverpool promised to reform and rehabilitate what they viewed as an indispensable asset that was unloved and misunderstood by the British media. For all of Suarez's complaints of a 'witch-hunt' against him, the disenchanted column inches written about the divisive striker will continue to flow, and justifiably so. How great a season could the Uruguayan have enjoyed in the last campaign had he not been forced to sit out the first eight games following another biting ban? His bestial gnaw at Branislav Ivanovic in April 2013 revived the memories of 2010 that had been swept under the carpet in a lauding amnesia that craved footballing spectacle; and it questioned those, myself included, who had defended Suarez as a victim as much as a perpetrator.
It is in this context that the Uruguayan's actions at the 2014 World Cup become simultaneously more understandable, for he has a clear reputation, and more unforgivable, given the amount of 'lives' Suarez has been afforded in his mercurial career. As Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini ran towards the referee, shirt pulled down to display the bite left on him by Suarez during their final group game, the footballing world watched in disbelief that yet another bite could be caught on camera. It was a thoroughly deflating sight as Suarez rolled around on the floor, clutching his teeth in a cowardly attempt to con the referee into believing he had been elbowed.
There can be no hiding place for Luis Suarez this time. It is arguable that FIFA's punishment, a nine-game international ban and four-month worldwide suspension from any football, is simply too lenient for a player who seems unable to banish the ghosts of his juvenile personality. This was not a controversial handball, or even a violent, one-off headbutt, but a horrific new chapter in what has become a lineage of high-profile misdemeanours. The reaction of BBC pundits such as Robbie Savage and Danny Mills were not the hyperbolic demands of a sensational media, they displayed an understandable incredulity with such actions from a professional footballer.
Luis Suarez should be banned from international football for life. He should be sold by his club Liverpool, who must realise that his indisputable talents become barely worthwhile if regularly reduced to less than three quarters of a full season. Other clubs will inevitably take a punt on him, indeed the international ban may serve to increase his transfer value as it enables Suarez to fulfil all of his domestic obligations for club, without the pressure of playing for Uruguay. Real Madrid, Barcelona and others may be wiling to forgive Suarez, but Liverpool should not. He has proven unreceptive to their unyielding support, unresponsive to the need to reform his character.
Suarez's search for greatness has, in the end, proved to be his ultimate ultimate undoing. This is a man who lives and plays on the edge, who will try to seek any competitive advantage for himself or his team. When this desire degenerates into the ugly and often violent scenes that have littered Suarez's impressive career, it becomes difficult to see the Uruguayan ever paralleling true modern greats such as Messi or Ronaldo. Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of Suarez's own inferiority, and it is one that, time and time again, has come back to bite him.Suggest a correction