He earns £80,000 a week. He should know better. He should set an example to kids. That’s what we expect of our footballers. The rewards they receive demand a level of behaviour.
That’s what many people would say and, on one level, I’ve no argument. When I was given my first contract, the youth team coach, Eric Harrison, told me: ‘You’re a Manchester United player now.’ The implication is that certain standards are expected. And as you grow older, you realise that you’re a United player for life — your attitudes and behaviour will always be scrutinised and questioned.
But what I will never accept is people making a direct link between the amount of money you earn and your behaviour, as though a new, £80,000-a-week contract will automatically bring a certain level of responsibility.
Your character isn’t formed by your bank balance. It is developed over 20 years of growing up through different experiences — some good, some bad — through parenting and upbringing. And a £4million-a-year contract won’t change that overnight.
And as I’ve watched the debate on Luis Suarez gather momentum, I detect a rush to judge a footballer, to castigate him without any thought to how different his life experiences are.
Though Suarez is 25, he has been in England for only two years. He’s still adjusting. This is a kid who grew up playing football on the streets in Uruguay, who has experiences and a background completely different from anyone reading this newspaper. Those are the years in which character is formed. Then you’re thrust into a global game with expectations of behaviour and certain rules and regulations which maybe didn’t exist when you were learning your football.
In most professions, you build a career over time, making your mistakes in obscurity when you’re young before getting financial rewards. Who doesn’t know someone young who has been disciplined or sacked for misjudging a situation in an office? Usually it comes early in a career and most learn from it. In football it’s the other way round: the money and status comes when you’re young and the maturity comes afterwards.
That’s why I think there are such strong feelings about Suarez. Opposition fans despise him and he would be a nasty little player to go up against. I know that if I was up against him at Old Trafford today, there would be a confrontation. One of us would put in an over-the-top tackle or an elbow. At best, there would be a shouting match at some point because he’s the kind of player who takes the fight to you.
But I’ll tell you something else: he’s exactly the kind of player you would want in your team. And, as a fan, you would love to see him on your side.
Liverpool fans sing: ‘We all dream of a team of Carraghers.’ But now they could just as well chant about a team full of players like Suarez, a fighter who will chase down the ball, one of the most skilful players in the Premier League, and a player who this season has had more touches in the opposition’s penalty area than anyone in the top flight.
I understand why some people will never like him. The racial abuse he directed at Patrice Evra is totally unacceptable in England, whatever he says about what passes for acceptable language in Uruguay. But he has served his punishment for a big mistake.
But the supposed cheating, the diving, the lack of sportsmanship? For me, it hardly merits the discussion time we give it. I haven’t got a problem with the hand-ball against Mansfield other than that it was a poor decision that went against a non-League club and might have cost them a much-needed replay. But I’ve never heard the word cheat used so cheaply as in recent weeks by former players and pundits. Cheating, for me, is doping, cheating is match-fixing, despicable actions which undermine the whole essence of sport.
A handball or a foul on a player bearing down on goal is part of the game. It’s covered in the rules. You take your penalty — be it a sending-off or a free-kick — and get on with the game. Everyone in sport knows that. It’s a harsh environment, where not everything turns out fairly, just as in everyday life. What happened against Mansfield was an injustice. But it wasn’t cheating.
When I look at Suarez I see one hell of a footballer, a player whose name you can be sure will be dominating United’s preparations. This is no show-pony. This is a player who doesn’t know when he’s beaten. In that respect he’s better than Fernando Torres, who you feel might get despondent when things aren’t going well. Not Suarez. He’d be in your face, scrapping every minute of the game, even if all hope was lost.
Liverpool are going through a difficult time and I’m sure their fans will feel he represents the club’s spirit on the pitch, almost in the way that Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard do. He might have learnt his football on the streets of Salto and Montevideo, but you could almost imagine him having grown up around Anfield, between those back-to-back terraced houses, such is his commitment to his team’s cause. And they will also know that Liverpool will have to add a few more players like him if he is to stay at the club for the long term.
SUAREZ has made mistakes and had moments he will regret. But then I’ve had a few of those, especially in this match, incidents for which I was fined and missed matches. It’s right that the authorities punish you when you do step out of line. And slowly you learn to temper your behaviour and mature. And, at 25, Suarez is reaching the point when he does need to make sure there are fewer and fewer controversial moments.
Today, he could do well to look at his direct opponent. Robin van Persie is the best striker in the country. Most people would regard him as a very good professional. Last year he was the overwhelming choice for both Professional Footballers’ Association Player of the Year and Footballer of the Year.
But when he was a 20-year-old at Feyenoord he had a controversial reputation. His coach, Bert van Marwijk, called him ‘uncontrollable’. He had an on-pitch argument with the star player, Pierre van Hooijdonk. Now Van Persie’s 29 and all that has changed.
It took time to develop into the model professional. But you are dealing with a human being with a unique set of experiences and motivations, not a robot. And if Suarez can do the same, he has the potential to be a great player. – Mail On Sunday