Luis Suarez, right and wrong decisions and sheer spite

My cycling discipline is sprinting. Essentially, 12 seconds of all-out effort, then the nearest chair.

I took part in longer races just to get some laps in and build fitness, never finishing, because why? One night, I saw someone talking to his cohorts as a 50-lap event was about to start. He laughed and said to me, “We’re taking bets on what lap you get dropped.”

Furious for every second of that race, each time my legs told my brain, “You know, we don’t need to be here,” my brain said, “Yeah, but that dude is an asshole.” I finished, looked at that man and said, “Who had 50 laps, you fucker?!”

Thinking of Luis Suarez this season brings that story to mind. Athletes have reserves. Athletes are also human, which means they have spite. When you couple sheer spite with the quality that allows a competitor to raise their game, things happen. When Barça cut Luis Suarez loose, effectively paying him to go to Atleti, my initial reaction was that he was what they would need to win Liga, and Champions League. And I’m far from a tactical genius.

The move was more than the points in the standings, the goals he scored. It was giving a recent, bitter rival the presence of a figure that goads, that drives, a person who is hungry to do nothing more than make the club that rejected him sorry that they did, and has the quality to drag others with him. Anyone who knows anything about sport could have predicted that Suarez would have exactly the kind of season that he’s having, which is what makes it astonishing that people in the FC Barcelona braintrust didn’t see such a thing.

A truly delightful article posted yesterday at the Guardian by Sid Lowe, about the disaster that was the Suarez free transfer to Atleti. No spoilers here, but the wake of the piece is interesting, as people staked out spaces.

There was the, “He always had it in him, he was just injured, etc, etc,” space.

There was also the, “Barça was right to get rid of him, no matter what happened,” space.

But the weird thing about events is that they should make us reconsider conclusions. And even if we stick to our original assessment, it’s at least a better-informed one. Luis Suarez is the exact reason that Atleti have the points lead that they do. If you take away his match-changing contributions, Atleti is a point or two behind Barça and Real Madrid. It’s rare that a transfer, particularly a free one, has that direct an effect on the league and the standings.

Let’s give the Barça braintrust a bit of credit for making the presumption that the team wasn’t going to spend the first two months of the season staggering around like football reprobates, making errors and acting like a bunch of strangers at a pickup game. If Barça plays like its capabilities, they’re within a point or two of Atleti. Instead they’re in no hope zone, and it’s their own fault. Yet because two things can be true, the negotiators who let the Suarez to Atleti move happen were also idiots because if someone like me can see it, then what the hell were they thinking.

Some of it was salary, but you had to pay him anyhow, so that removes that part of the equation. The world’s most expensive super sub? Sure. Why not. At least he isn’t killing you at another club. Never give an assassin the weapon he needs to kill you. Atleti was always right there, have been for years. Last season they had 16 draws. Turn even half of those into wins and the standings begin to look quite different. That is what Suarez did and was always going to do, even had Barça Suarez showed up.

But Atleti got “up yours” Suarez, the fit, trim athlete who is angry and determined to show everyone how wrong they were. Spite is a powerful motivator. When was the last time someone told you that you couldn’t do something and you moved heaven and earth to prove them wrong? Diego Simeone got that Suarez, then applied him to the existing structure of the team, in fitness, work rate and tactics. Suddenly, instead of having to have someone less skilled at scoring goals work to get into position, there’s Suarez. Just give him the ball. He changed their offense and defense. It was always going to be thus, and yet …

Was Barça stupid to let Suarez go? Nope. So much happened that couldn’t have been predicted, from the team’s poor start to key injuries. Losing Ansu Fati and Gerard Pique at the times both injuries happened was significant, especially when in the case of Fati, the substitute is a player who is nowhere near good enough in any parameter of the game. It’s difficult to say what might have happened but when Fati went down, he had four goals in seven matches. Playing retrospect is fun, but also fantasy. But it’s difficult to imagine that a fit Fati wouldn’t have his team in a better position in the standings by this point in the season. Could Suarez have been a more useful addition than Braithwaite? Not for what the Barça team needs, even as it’s difficult not to imagine what having Suarez on the end of those Dembele balls into the box might have meant.

Was Barça stupid to let Suarez go to a direct rival? Without question, especially as they not only gave the assassin the rifle to shoot them, but also paid for the contract killing. Suarez wasn’t going to help Barça in the condition he was in, yet it’s safe to say that he wouldn’t have had the same spiteful motivation had he stayed, even filled with the determination to show Koeman how wrong he was, as Eto’o did to Guardiola that treble season. Tactically, fiscally, it was time for Suarez to leave Barça. But a lot of other crap happened. Send him to Juventus, or Inter and the damage is a lot less significant.

It’s possible for two things to be right, and true. This Tweet, an eternal verity from Diana Kristinne on Twitter, is everything:

It will be easy, when Atleti hoists the Liga trophy, to say that it was because of Suarez, even as a lot of things have contributed to that team’s gaudy record. Jan Oblak has been a wall, and their ferocious defense is the best in the league, and one of the best in Europe. When you only need one goal to win, it makes life a lot easier. But the contribution of Luis Suarez will have been significant, and even the determining factor. Over time, Bartomeu and his board will have a lot to answer for, from fiscal hijinks as yet uncovered, to the hubris-based idiocy that has put FC Barcelona in a significant financial pickle. But most supporters don’t care as much about that stuff. They want to see the team win, and win trophies. Yet one correct-yet-stupid decision by the sporting side of that board has changed everything.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.