Graham Poll, he of ex-professional refereeing fame, said as much to the Daily Mail.
We all missed that part where Vidic or Sir Alex Ferguson went straight to the referee claiming that the goal should have been chalked off, and the part where an esteemed football commentator drew all the attention to the missed offside call and thus labeled the United captain a fraud or something equally offensive to his character.
And we’re all the better for it.
Because mistakes happen—this particular one due to the lack of video replays, which we won’t go into here—and there’s no need to go overboard with what ultimately is just a game.
Judging from the renewed public castigation that Luis Suarez has received since his handball goal against Mansfield Town in the FA Cup third round last week, we could’ve been forgiven for thinking that football isn’t just a game.
Before I defend Suarez’s human qualities (or attributes as a Liverpool player, because I’m probably more qualified to do that), let’s first get the controversies out of the way in order to present a more balanced picture.
It all started (or so we’re led to believe) in the summer of 2010. The Hand of God saw its second coming, when Suarez’s goal-line handball against Ghana led understandably to a sending off and a penalty kick to Asamoah Gyan.
The recurring images of Gyan’s missed penalty and Uruguay’s subsequent progression to the semifinals of the World Cup with Suarez getting the hero’s treatment on the sidelines will live long in the memory.
But perhaps—just perhaps—there would’ve been no celebrating and no tears of joy from the Uruguay striker if Gyan had buried his penalty kick as a striker in that position would be expected to do. Then perhaps Suarez would be considered as someone who gave his all in vain. A tragic hero who would still be revered in his native Uruguay, but also commended for his instincts by other circles.
Then came the bite.
That Suarez went overboard in biting the shoulder of Otman Bakkal (then of PSV Eindhoven) during his time as captain of Ajax Amsterdam is well-known and probably the incident that cemented his place among footballing villains.
While the circumstances must be taken into consideration, the common (and commonly accepted) consensus is that there is no justification for such (strangely) violent behavior to take place in a football match, and Suarez was duly charged with a massive seven-game ban.
His move to Liverpool took place in the midst of the ban, and in his two years on English shores, Suarez has caused plenty of controversy. The diving claims and racism allegations are two such examples.
Both have garnered more than enough column space on this site and others, and they do not warrant further in-depth commentary here. (I myself wrote no fewer than three reaction articles in the wake of Suarezgate back in November 2011.)
So Luis Suarez has a tainted history. He’s been vilified as a Liverpool player, as an English Premier League footballer and even as a human being. This is for actions that can most probably be attributed to competitiveness on the pitch and a love for the game.
Does this competitiveness and will to win at all costs justify such actions?
But where Suarez has gone wrong, he has seemingly put in good effort to rectify his mistakes. For that, if he shouldn’t be applauded, then at least his efforts should be recognized.
In recent months, besides the quite obvious dive that he took against Stoke City earlier this season, he has clearly been minding his theatrics and resuscitating his reputation as a skilful and competitive player for the right reasons.
(Of course, while we’re at it, the type of response that Suarez endured for his simulated fall was vastly inferior in magnitude than that aimed at Stoke’s Robert Huth for his blatant stamp on Suarez’s chest early on in the same match.)
While the negative side to Suarez’s game has dominated the headlines before, the handball versus Mansfield was most certainly not deserving of such vitriolic reaction.
Those in the game appear to acknowledge this. Expected allies in Steven Gerrard and Brendan Rodgers have sounded their support toward what has since surfaced as an official’s decision to award the goal due to accidental handball.
Fans, commentators and opposing chairmen have been quick to pour their scorn on one of the Premier League’s most dangerous forwards. However, no less than the likes of Paul Cox (Mansfield’s manager), Graham Poll (respected ex-referee) and Gary Neville (ex-archenemy of Liverpool, now turned respected pundit) have stepped forward in attempts to calm the public outrage and provide balanced perspective to Andre Marriner’s disputed decision on the day.
The former, Paul Cox, took the goal in his stride with class and grace. Gary Neville also suggested that Luis Suarez, with his qualities, would be wanted at any club and loved by any fan.
Because it all comes down to that never-say-die attitude that Suarez has in abundance and that every football fan loves to see. That desire to chase every loose ball to put the opposition under pressure, that effort to score one more goal to bring his team victory, that scowl on his face when he misses a chance despite the team’s comfortable winning margin.
Because, setting aside all the attempts to analogize Suarez’s failure to own up to the officials by comparing a handball to double-parking and other occurrences in everyday life, football was never played competitively to be fair. It has always been about winning, the silverware that comes with winning and the pride that comes with supporting a winning team.
Sure, there are other ways to go about things, such as not biting an opponent and not allegedly calling another a derogatory term. But in the chase for grander things like a big W, Luis Suarez’s fans will back him to the hilt.
That’s what the Ajax fans did—affording him a standing ovation in his sending-off announcement during his seven-game ban. That’s what Uruguay fans are still doing. And that’s what Liverpool fans hope to be doing for years to come.
When a Liverpool player that splits opinion as strongly as Luis Suarez gets a vote of confidence from none other than Gary Neville, you know he’s in the right place.
For the good of football, we’d all be better off appreciating his talents and work rate, condemning those rash and violent actions that truly deserve condemnation, and hoping that Suarez will grace the Premier League stage for a while yet.
Follow me @theredarmchair.