During the second half of the Valencia match, the camera focused on Luis Suarez in closeup, and held that gaze. What we saw wasn’t pretty.
Suarez looked pained, like the person on the tracks who sees the headlight, knows that it is a train yet can’t do anything about it.
And during the match, in the days after, we rip and tear at the carcass, as if Suarez himself doesn’t wish that he could do better, wish that he could magically return to that magician for whom Barça paid 82 million Euros, a sum that now seems a pittance. He understands. And even as someone who really has no flippin’ idea if this is the case, allow the poetic license that his anguished look was that of a man who understands his situation and is powerless to stop it.
Every aging athlete has that moment when a decision is required. Everything is right. Situation, placement, moment, knowledge — everything. Then you do what you do, and the result is all very, very different. It is next to impossible to know what to do in a situation such as that, when you’re an athlete whose life has been defined by the battle, the cut and thrust. As a cycling track sprinter, my moment came during a race, when everything was perfect. All that was required was to accelerate, stuff the bars in the hole, spread the elbows and post up for the cameras. The brain knew what to do, the synapses fired, the legs rolled and what used to be a nice, easy 40+ mph was upper 30s.
And the moment was gone. It seems as though it happens just like that, but it doesn’t. Like a car’s performance that deteriorates over time, the magic ekes away in dribbles and drabs. We have to consider the question, what if this is the new normal for Luis Suarez? What if this is all that he has left?
Observers of the game always watched him and predicted this, that the bottom would drop out precipitously, that his thick muscles and heavy step, his rage and willingness to fight, would crash hard. For those who wanted to look closely, the signs were there — missed shots, botched passes, moments that Former Suarez would have smoked, but Current Suarez comes up short. And we scream. “How could you miss that?!” “How are you offside yet again?!”
Suarez was offside six times against Valencia. He leads the Liga in that category. As a forward, he always presses the limit, always dances around the line. With age and decline comes the pressing. The great Flippo Inzaghi, the quip went, was born offside. But as he aged, the offside calls mounted as he had to play it closer and closer to get some kind of advantage against the younger, more agile defenders who jobs it was to thwart his ambition.
Getting caught offside as an attack starts is a sign. A young striker pops back and forth, darting those few strides to always stay in line with the defense. It’s hard to catch a gazelle offside, because it doesn’t have to be. As miles pile up in the legs, conservation starts. I’ll move on later, as the ball circulates. But with a team like Barça where the ball circulates like a windmill, later is often too late. The pass comes, and you are offside. Worse still, your teammates see that you are off and you aren’t a passing option at all.
Suarez went from a vibrant part of the best attack in football, pinging the ball around and darting hither and yon to a ficus tree, rooted to a spot, shouldering aside a defender to gain position for a ball that is never going to come. There is so much depending on you, so many people looking at you to do what you do, and you aren’t as adept as you used to be.
And he knows it.
The years that you spend with your body as an athlete build in knowledge. You understand when you are good, when you are bad. Dembele in a few years won’t have the injury that he picked up, because he will understand his body better. When you are 19, what do you know? Everything is perfect, comes back fast. You don’t have aches, and niggles, don’t need nine hours of sleep or that shin kick that you took yesterday still throbs. You’re always ready to go. At 30, it’s all different. You know when you are good, when you are bad, when you are doing what you need to do, when you know what to do but just can’t.
When Iniesta talked about coming to grips with a feeling that he was having about continuing at Barça, it’s easy to speculate that it was this feeling, this notion of asking whether he could still help the team that he grew up with and in weighing on his mind. We see it with Iniesta as well, the knowledge coming short of the physical capability. But his game is different, still silk, still influence more than finishing. Every now and again he will plop a weak shot at the keeper, but everyone knows it will be saved, but he has to try, because that’s what you do.
Suarez missing shots that he used to make went from a frustration on the part of supporters, a “He’ll get the next one,” to wondering and watching his movement, seeing that he is arriving at the spot a fraction of a moment later and with less alacrity, which gives him less time to make the precise, correct decision with the ball. And it goes wide or high when before, it was always true. It isn’t just control that gives you time, but also pace and quickness. You get to a spot with plenty of time to take the pass, then fight with the defender for shooting space. As it takes more time to get to the spot, the defender is now there waiting for you, and taking the pass becomes a multitask, because you have to now battle the defender at the same time. It happens just like that.
You know. Masters cycling competition, the age group stuff, is full of riders like me who are still fast, almost fast enough to compete at the national level, but lack that last little bit. We still adore the sport, still love the training and the racing, but it’s all different. The hook we would throw as a young rider, risking a crash, now makes us think, “I, and my competitor, have to work on Monday. Calm yourself.” It happens automatically. There is no masters category for an aging striker, just the glare of the spotlight as one of the best teams in world football needs your input, your gifts, and you have nothing to offer.
Movement and influence through that movement? Sure, you can offer that. But your job is to put the ball in the net, not slide defenders around like chess pieces, and you understand that. You aren’t doing your job. You have five goals in 12 matches, one more than a Brazlian midfielder whose job is really that of a facilitator.
Valverde played Paco Alcacer in tandem with Suarez, a move that gained him some time by giving him a foil. Alcacer thrived more than Suarez, because reality is still cruel, but Suarez had more space, more playing distance to compensate for the little bit of extra time he now needs to execute the same task. We wonder about his touch, and it isn’t the touch. It’s that with less time, everything has to happen more quickly and in that haste, fine detail is a casualty. It seems like Umtiti has all the time in the world to control a ball and move it along, because he does. He’s young, his feet are quick, his pace is as high as his skill. At 30, when the gate often slams on footballers in the modern game, Suarez doesn’t have the same luxiries.
We compensate, say his form will come back, believe in that magical moment of which great players are capable. The same kind of thinking is happening in Madrid, where a 32-year-old Ronaldo is battling those same forces. His coach too, as does Valverde, continues to play him because you believe in the iconic veteran, that today will be the day. A coach watches, and he knows, because that coach is a former player who understands all too well what happens.
Messi is an alien. He is 30, but it doesn’t really matter all that much for him. Rakitic is 29, and maybe the “What the hell is wrong with Ivan,” questions are as simple as, “He’s almost 30 and has a lot of football in his legs.” He knows too.
Great athletes are too good for “Well but,” as in “Well, but look at how he made that defender move.” Especially when we used to say, “Look at how he gutted that defender before smoking the ball into the net.” The difference between those two things is a step. Not much, but everything, a defining second that makes all the difference, a difference about which Luis Suarez knows.
And every now and again, in the quiet moments during lulls in the battle, the camera focuses and we see, understand and it hurts a little bit to see that pain. So maybe you scream a little less loud the next time he misses a sitter or bollixes a pass, because that look of anguish lingers — that hurt. Suarez knows. What is next, however, nobody knows.