MONTEVIDEO – Lambasted in Europe for his attitude on the pitch, Uruguay's controversial Liverpool forward Luis Suarez is in contrast seen as the saviour of his country.
Fans of the Celeste warm to his goal sense and will to win, which will stand the South Americans in good stead during the Confederations Cup in Brazil.
The 26-year-old, nicknamed “El Pistolero” or the gun-slinger, once again showed his effectiveness and class with a stunning strike in the 1-0 friendly win against France in Montevideo this week.
However talented he may be, though, European fans believe Suarez is a player who has often crossed the line when it comes to fair-play.
In 2010 in the quarter-final of the World Cup in South Africa against Ghana, he deliberately stopped a shot with his hand.
The strike would have taken the Africans into the semi-final at the end of extra-time.
Suarez was sent off but Ghana then missed the resulting penalty. Uruguay eventually won the match on spot-kicks and went through to the last four.
Uruguay's media lauded Suarez for his handball, applauding his sense of self-sacrifice, even as others saw in it characteristic cheating that led to the unfair elimination of Ghana.
In 2011, Suarez was suspended for eight matches for using a racial slur towards Manchester United's French defender Patrice Evra.
Suarez maintained that the word he used Ä “negro” (black in Spanish) Ädid not have racist connotations in his country.
This year, too, Suarez was back in the dock and banned for 10
games after biting Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic on the arm during a match at Stamford Bridge.
The incident was headline news in England and even saw Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron condemn Suarez for setting “a bad example”.
The firebrand striker has always preferred to respond to his critics on the pitch: unquestionably he is an effective operator, scoring 23 goals for Liverpool last season – the second-best scoring record in the English Premier League.
“You can lose some things, but can never lose the slyness, the passion that you have had since you were a kid playing in the street,” Suarez told AFP in an interview in March.
“If I didn't have the character that I have today on the pitch, I don't think that I would have become the player that I am today,” he added.
Former Real Zaragoza, Chelsea and Uruguay midfielder Gus Poyet, now manager with English side Brighton explained the difficulty in dealing with a player like Suarez.
“In football, you can't bite your opponent. But you have to take him as he is. If you want him to become a saint, then he won't be the same,” he said.
In Brazil this month, Suarez will attempt to win another trophy, two years after showing his undoubted class in the Copa America.
But he will then have to prove himself even more useful to his country to help them qualify for the World Cup finals next year, with Uruguay currently languishing in sixth in South American qualifying. – Sapa-AFP