The Eredivisie controversies of Luis Suarez
If it wasn’t for Elías Ricardo Figueroa Silva, the career of Luis Alberto Suárez Díaz could have been completely different. Whereas the first name hardly rings a bell, apart for mistaking him with Chilean legend Elías Ricardo Figueroa Brander, the second has seen his name in virtually every paper these days.
It was in 2006. FC Groningen was on a scouting mission in Uruguay, new ground for the Dutch club. Earlier, they had signed right-back Bruno Silva and a deal with left back Pablo Lima was agreed, but fell through in the end. On this occasion, director Hans Nijland and scout Grads Fuhler were on a mission for Elías Figueroa, a tall striker and an amazing talent, according to reports. During the South American under-17 Championships in 2005, he had scored six goals and was named one of the biggest talents of the tournament, together with one Kerlon.
When Nijland and Fuhler got there to scout the man, he hardly impressed. He was immature and tame, hardly showing any desire. Someone else did catch the eye, however. An energetic striker, playing like a man possessed, fighting for every ball and hardly impressed by the rough treatment of opponent defenders. And he scored too. His name? Luis Suárez.
Hans Nijland fell in love immediately. This was a gem. Nijland, famous for his enthusiasm, wanted to sign the striker immediately, but finance director Erik Mulder told him the Uruguayan was out of FC Groningen’s financial reach. After what has been described as the maddest negotiations Nijland has ever encountered, Luis Suárez eventually became an FC Groningen-player. Suárez had entered Europe.
Almost seven years further, anyone with an interest in football knows of Suárez. Worryingly, those who don’t are likely to know him too. Through these years, Suárez has been a wonderfully skilled footballer with some awful incidents attached to his name. Even as a youth player, he was trouble from time to time. As a Nacional youth player, he once headbutted a referee after a sending off. He was fifteen.
In his first European season with FC Groningen, he scored 10 league goals in 29 appearances and turned into an absolute star for the club, winning the UEFA Cup play-offs for the club on his own. However, the Uruguayan striker made a name for himself in another way. He got a lot of stick for his constant diving and arguing with the referee. Talking to Dutch paper Algemeen Dagblad, he said this had been the case in Uruguay too.
“When in Uruguay, I had a name for going down easily too. People were saying to me: “Luis, what is up with that?’ I then improved my behaviour.” At FC Groningen, he was training with assistant-manager Raymond Libregts to get “the diving out of his system.” Only one season in, the Suárez-chant (to the tune of Volare) had become a synonym for accusing someone of diving. He was quickly cast as the pantomime villain of the Eredivisie: loved by his own, hated by most others.
Things didn’t get any better in the summer of 2007. Despite earlier claims of the Uruguayan he would be staying at Groningen, interest of Ajax turned his head. With FC Groningen unwilling to let their main asset go and Ajax winking seductively to the Uruguayan, Suárez and his agent took matter in their own hands.
They filed a lawsuit against FC Groningen, stating a transfer to Ajax would mean both sporting and financial improvement. The lawsuit was lost, but the damage was done. Luis Suárez had made himself intolerable to the FC Groningen-crowd. An €8 million fee + add ons saw Suárez move to Ajax the same day the verdict of the lawsuit had been spoken out. “Good riddance,” was the opinion of most FC Groningen-fans.
At Ajax, he was embraced for his qualities and as a footballer he improved himself in rapid fashion, but he kept up his habit of going down easily and his arguing with referees. Opponents didn’t do his image any favours either, making the most of his reputation. In his second season for the Amsterdam club, his manager Marco van Basten was very critical of the emerging star.
“Suárez is of incredible importance to us. He’s in the middle of almost everything that happens. But he’s not doing us favours by getting booked all the time. If he goes on, he’ll be suspended every odd game. We’re going to have a talk with him and I won’t rule out fining him.” That season, the score was 22 league goals, 9 yellow cards, earning him a second place in both the scoring and disciplinary charts.
Van Basten was eventually replaced by Martin Jol, who embraced his little devil and made him captain of the team ahead of the 2009/2010 season. In what perhaps can be described as Suárez’ most comfortable season yet, he scored 35 league goals, equaling Mateja Kezman’s record as the most productive foreigner in one season in the Eredivisie.
“Fewer antics, more goals” appeared to be his motto. A few silly cards here and there were the only blots in an otherwise remarkable term for the Uruguayan striker. With the World Cup of 2010 and the birth of his first child coming up, it appeared a good time to lose the annoying side to his game and focus on showing the world what an amazingly talented footballer he was. Infamously, he succeeded in only one of those targets.
With what was surely the most iconic handball since ‘The Hand Of God’ , Suárez drew the attention of the world. He had been impressive throughout the tournament, along with eventual FIFA Player of the Tournament Diego Forlán, guiding Uruguay to the quarter finals with both goals against South Korea in the second round.
It was Uruguay’s first Quarter Finals in 40 years and they would face Ghana, the only African side still left in this first World Cup on African soil. In the dying moments of of extra time, with the score at 1-1, the defining moment for Suárez was there. Ghana were throwing a barrage of shots at the Uruguay goal and Suárez was on the line. After clearing an attempt by Stephen Appiah, a Dominic Adiyiah header was surely going in and taking Ghana through until it was cleared off the line by Suárez – with his hand. Penalty, red card, Suárez off.
To add to the drama, the penalty was blasted against the bar by striker Asamoah Gyan. In the end, Uruguay beat Ghana through penalties and the world saw Suárez celebrating. Things going Uruguay’s way made Suárez a worldwide villain; a disgrace to his sport. Celebrated in his country for a heroic deed but dismissed as a cheat of the game by everyone else. In the end, Uruguay couldn’t get to the final with Suárez suspended.
Returning to the Netherlands, he continued to display his villainous streak by going in hard on FC Twente-player Cheikh Tioté in the game for the Johan Cruijff Schaal (Dutch Community Shield), receiving a red card as a result. After serving a two match ban, Suárez got back into the side, but it was hardly the end of a controversial year for the striker. On the 20th of November, Ajax – PSV was played.
After a sending-off for Rasmus Lindgren, things got rowdy on the field and after a Otman Bakkal stamp on Suárez, the Uruguayan did something seldom seen before on a football field. Standing head to head with the PSV midfielder, he suddenly moved towards Bakkal’s neck and put his teeth to work, biting his perplexed opponent. It wasn’t noticed by the referee but the video footage soon flew all across the globe.
The man who was known for ‘that handball’ was now too known for ‘that bite’. Martin Jol played it down, calling it a love bite, but the general consensus was that he who was never the most beloved player in the Eredivisie had made himself a liability to both club and competition. He was hit by a seven game ban and a hefty fine from Ajax. The bite turned out to be one of his last deeds as an Ajax-player. Suárez had burned all of his bridges and Ajax were happy to ship him off to Liverpool, who paid €25million plus add-ons for him.
While all the above is already quite something, he added quite some extra to his controversial image. The diving, the arguing and, as last Sunday proved, even the biting and handballing remained in his system. In other controversies, he stamped on Scott Parker and slapped Gonzalo Jara while on international duty. The story of Patrice Evra and Suárez has been one of the most tiresome controversies in recent years, with Suárez of course found guilty of racial abuse.
While the Eredivisie years proved a sign of things to come in a footballing sense, they sadly did also when it came to courting controversy. The Dutch competition was in many ways a warming up for the career of Luis Suárez: world-class footballer & worldwide villain.
Thanks to Rob Brown (@robbro7) for editing