No idea who said it, but the idea that all it takes for a hero to become a villain is to overstay their welcome is apt when it comes to Luis Suarez.
As the Uruguayan leaves FC Barcelona, he does so with 198 goals in 283 matches. And quibble all anyone wants about the sitters missed (all strikers miss those), the Messi passes fumbled and everything else, that is a massive output. His first season with the club was delayed because of a suspension, but he hit the ground running, forming the feared MSN that led that year’s team to a treble. He’s banged in absurd goals from absurd angles, key goals and match winners. He was a specialized machine in that his job was to score goals, and that’s what he did.
As with everything in life, multiple things can be true. He can be a massive player who gave his all and helped the team accomplish great things. He can also be, and is, a player who stayed two seasons too long. But he was as much a victim of the board and its appalling plannnig as everyone else stuck at FC Barcelona and being excoriated in their dotage.
Rakitic should have been moved on right after the World Cup, but there was no plan. Suarez should have been moved that same summer, but there was no plan. Umtiti as well. And the process of converting Busquets to that Xaviesque role of elder statesman and exceptional substitute, along with Pique, should have been in process. But none of that happened. Everyone had to stay too long because what other options were there? It was the same with Suarez.
Great players are victims of their perception. How would we have thought of Samuel Eto’o had he hung on instead of being used as a makeweight in what is to this day a ridiculous transfer? What if Ronaldinho had stayed another season or two? The list goes on. Players and their legacies are often saved by actions we consider heartless at the time. Tom Brady? Belichik knew it was time. It’s rare that a player gets to control his own perception. Michael Jordan was one, but then he messed it up by coming back. Luckily, he didn’t stay long enough to tarnish his memories. But being a legend is hard, and often comes down to timing.
Luis Suarez got it wrong, because his club got it wrong. And for all of the past two seasons, as we screamed about his getting slower by the second, passes he couldn’t quite get to, a first touch that let him down and everything else, it wasn’t entirely his fault. That reality should temper our perceptions of him then and now.
One of the first things that came to mind in considering his time at FC Barcelona is the diner robbery scene in the movie “Pulp Fiction.” The Samuel Jackson character talks the robber into giving him his wallet back as part of a redemption path. He tells him to look for the wallet that has “bad motherfucker” on it. That would be Luis Suarez’s wallet.
We expected more than goals from him. He came to the club with the reputation of a biting, racist taunting hothead. I hated the transfer and what it represented, and wouldn’t feel any different today. People said give him a chance, but that chance wasn’t mine to give. It was his to take, and he did. There were no similar incidents during his time at FC Barcelona. All he did was put out.
We rip on players as their bodies betray them. Some who know such things said of Suarez that he wasn’t going to age well. Big bodies rarely do. We so rarely accept the idea of a player’s best being a sliding scale. We want Treble Suarez, we don’t want 30+, sore kneed, clunky Suarez. Aging players, even with all the experience that we have with them, is still a difficult thing for supporters to accept. Suarez gave his absolute all, even when it wasn’t good enough. Not for us, not for his teammates but even more crucially, not for himself. We could see him berating himself for being that step late, for pushing that shot wide, for missing that pass he had made countless times before. And at home, smug in the judgment-free comfort of our match viewing spots, we judge.
“Whatever you did, you did your best,” is one of my favorite Buddhist sayings because of its absolute truth. The idea is at that time, in the moment, you did what you could do. It doesn’t seek to absolve, only to understand and explain. It’s a deeply human idea that is also beautiful.
When it comes to athletes, some are “effort” players, specimens who rise above their station by dint of putting in work. Others are “natural” talents, gifted beyond measure, who make it all look easy. What we forget is that all of them work. Michael Jordan worked harder than anyone else in training. Cristiano Ronaldo is a workhorse. Messi works his ass off. Effort facilitates execution, even when effort becomes a faucet that time slowly begins to turn off. A player can try his ass off, do his best and still not be good enough. It happens all time, and is a key part of the heartbreak that is as much a part of sport as victory and cheering.
Luis Suarez tried his ass off, every second he was on the pitch. Even when he was lumbering, you could almost see him thinking, “I have to save this for the time when it will really matter.” Bicycle racers call this idea “burning matches.” You only have so many matches to burn in a race. Sometimes, you sit and watch an attack. If that is the winning attack, your calculus was off. You should have burned the match. Instead you look like you let the winning break go. All athletes do that math. “If I sprint hard now, is this the right time. Who has my back?” Age makes athletes into mathematicians and conservators of matches. The cruelest part of the game is that we so rarely account for that diminution. We don’t allow for it, don’t care about unless it is a favorite, then we make excuses, explain how they are as good as they ever were, if you do a certain kind of math and wear a certain kind of rose-tinted spectacles.
Luis Suarez was a goddamn warrior who did his absolute best for his club. FC Barcelona did a video that celebrated Thierry Henry as a club legend. On social media, people are debating whether Suarez is a club legend. They should save the bandwidth. He is.