London – Luis Suarez is finding out just how hard it is to rehabilitate a damaged reputation.
Arriving at Liverpool with the tag 'Cannibal of Ajax' after a biting incident in the Netherlands and vilified for being sent off in a World Cup quarterfinal for a cynical handball on the goal line, he's proved to be a magnet for controversy in England.
Tuesday marked exactly a year since the Uruguay striker re-opened race tensions in the English game by abusing Manchester United's Patrice Evra.
Now Suarez is at the centre of fresh controversy, being attacked as the chief culprit in a wave of diving and simulation that has crept into the Premier League.
The Evra controversy rumbled on for months, with Liverpool's antagonistic response to the sanctions, and Suarez's refusal to shake hands in the rematch, causing as much damage as the original confrontation.
Liverpool's attempt to draw a line under a dispute at the beginning of this season had seemed to be working.
“I shut up and I forget it,” Suarez said in August. “I want to leave it now.”
A goal spree to become Liverpool's leading scorer this season was helping.
But then the spotlight turned to just how he was trying to score those goals, with accusations from opponents and the sport's authorities that he was a serial diver, using simulation to try and win penalties and free kicks.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has complained that Suarez's reputation means he is being denied legitimate penalties, but a wave of football figures have piled in to condemn Suarez.
Stoke manager Tony Pulis branded him an “embarrassment”, saying Suarez should be banned for three matches for theatrically going down too easily in the penalty area during a 0-0 draw at Anfield earlier this month.
Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny used an interview with French daily L'Equipe to express his hatred of playing against Suarez because of his “cheating.”
FIFA vice-president Jim Boyce backed Pulis' call for retrospective action against divers.
“I watched the latest Suarez incident two or three times, and to me it is nothing less than a form of cheating,” Boyce said. “It is becoming a little bit of a cancer within the game.”
UEFA's refereeing chief Pierluigi Collina used a platform in London to decry any simulation.
“If there is no contact this is cheating,” he said. “If the contact is provoked by the attacker moving the leg away from the running direction trying to find the opponent's leg this is the problem.”
But just as it did in the Evra incident, Liverpool is strongly defending its striker, portraying him a fall-guy who has become a target for censure since the racism row.
“It's reputation because of what happened last season,” Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre said at the Leaders in Football conference last week. “I am not surprised by the reaction because we all feel he is a bit of target. Now everything Luis Suarez does is in the spotlight.”
Former Liverpool striker Michael Owen is one of the few players to come out in support of Suarez.
“I'd say that 75 percent of people could stay on their feet for a penalty,” the Stoke player said at the same conference as Ayre. “And if they get touched and go down it is almost, 'He got touched so it's OK to go down'.”
Owen owned up to going down easily at the World Cup twice for England.
“I played at the 1998 World Cup against Argentina and I was running flat out, got a nudge, went down,” he recalled. “Could I have stayed up? Yes probably.”
No-one in England complained about that penalty, raising the question of whether there were different standards applied to English and non-English players.
Wigan's Spanish manager Roberto Martinez said the attitudes toward diving were different in England than in some other countries, and that imports need to adjust accordingly.
“I had a player that used to dive a lot - he wasn't British,” Martinez said. “In Spain, it is not seen as cheating. It is seen as getting something back from the team.
“Here we see it as cheating. I had just signed this player from a Spanish club and the first game he goes past a defender and he goes down easy, and I said, 'You can't do that'.”
Owen, though, argues that it's another means of outwitting an opponent.
“No one is for blatantly diving, of course they are not, but there is a part of a striker that actually tries to entice the leg to come out to try to win a penalty,” Owen said. “It is a skill and it has been done for years and years and I don't think it will ever leave the game.”
And Suarez's moves will be the most closely scrutinized, starting against Reading on Saturday. – Sapa-AP