He’s an ecstatic and multifaceted cheat. A diver: Breathe on him in the penalty area and he will sprawl, full-length, lavishly delivering himself to gravity even as his ears twitch for the referee’s whistle. A biter: He apologized, later, for gnawing with such passion on the elbow of Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic, but the offense was beyond apology, really beyond language. A racist? Certainly on the day that he emotionally demolished Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, whispering and snickering abuse, the word negrito hanging toxically in his slipstream, until Evra—a hard little man and a seasoned campaigner—was reduced to visible misery.
But Luis Suarez of Liverpool FC is also (oh mysteries of nature) one of the greats, currently the most thrilling player in the Barclays Premier League. He first came to the world’s notice as a Uruguayan international in the 2010 World Cup, using both hands to swat a shot from Ghana’s Dominic Adiyiah out of the goalmouth and getting himself sent off. No regrets. (“I made the save of the tournament.”) Suarez has been at the head of the Liverpool attack since 2011, pressing, squirming, and grabbing, his unpredictability one of the more reliable elements of manager Brendan Rodgers’ constantly reorganizing formations. His rodent overbite seems to advertise an excess of appetite for goals, fouls, insults, action. He gets the ball, or impinges on the ball, or looks at the ball, and the grass bristles beneath him; the possibilities seem to branch out uncontrollably. Commentators love him. In the open-endedness of his second syllable, its infinite stressability, they rise and find their rapture: SuarEEEEEEEEZ ...! He nibbles at the midfield; he makes darting, perforating runs in all directions; he ferrets out space—in the 18-yard box, creates air pockets, inducing a species of turbulence in the defense. Fullbacks stumble away from him, their joints grinding. Goalkeepers clang like broken bells. Watching him carve up Spurs at the left corner flag this past weekend, NBC pundit and former Arsenal player Lee Dixon observed that Suarez seemed to be the only one out there with studs on his boots, seemed to have “some extra grip on the pitch” a poetic comment on his taste for the rind of a game.
He has scored more elegant and skillful goals than the one we are looking at today—long, smoking strikes, crazy-making solo runs, or at the end of a lattice of passes created with Daniel Sturridge or Raheem Sterling or Jordy Henderson, all of whom he has drawn into his twanging telepathic field. But the essential Suarez goal is short-range, larcenous, and inflected with chaos, a kind of white-hot bad manners, the ball nicked or pounced-on and then either hustled over the line or stabbed in from an offensive angle. Here, for example, on Jan. 12 of this year, Liverpool are in the 31st minute of a fixture against lower-table battlers Stoke. They have already scored once, from a nasty deflection—luck is with them. This season, in the words of Phil Lynott, Lady Luck has got them covered, because Luis Suarez—demonic opportunist, rupturer of probabilities—is one of Her favorites. So now the scowling Martin Skrtel, top goon of Liverpool’s back line, sends the ball up and across the pitch, left to right. The speculative drive, the long ball—the least subtle and most condescended-to ball in soccer, generally described as having been “hoofed,” “clattered,” or “thumped” up field. But as Skrtel’s ball floats into the Stoke 18-yard box, Suarez has already locked on. It takes a huge bounce; Suarez bears down; Stoke defender Marc Wilson rises like a startled pheasant and tries to head it back to his goalkeeper, Jack Butland. The header is too weak; the ball drifts; Suarez scuttles past Wilson, his eyes raised and goal-drool already shining on his chin. Stoke leg-breaker Ryan Shawcross lurches across, droning with imminent damage, but his attempt to sweep the ball away from the Suarez of the present turns out to be a neat pass to the Suarez who lives two seconds into the future—who jinks, gathers, fends off a half-hearted embrace from Shawcross, and with his first touch slides the ball under Butland’s out-flung left leg. The back of the net receives it with a sigh. Butland tastes grass and ashes, Shawcross looks blackly at Wilson, Wilson’s face is a potato of disbelief. And Suarez arcs away, rejoicing. Is it beauty? No, it is not beauty. It is greed, hazard, readiness, delight in error. It’s a way of doing things. It’s a goal.