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The polarizing figure of Luis Suarez: Controversies, talent, and divisiveness in global football

There may not be a soccer player on the world stage more divisive and controversial than Uruguay’s Luis Suarez. Throughout the course of his 18-year career, the 36-year-old forward who is finalizing a move to Inter Miami has been accused of racism and called a cheat. He has been banned on three separate occasions for biting opponents during matches, both at the club and international levels. Many fans around the world see him as the devil incarnate.

Suarez is also among the best goalscorers that the sport has ever produced. The anthology of his career exploits is best summed up by his numerous nicknames. Suarez was the “S” in “MSN” — the acronym used to describe the legendary three-man Barcelona strike force of Lionel Messi, Suarez and Neymar. His oldest nickname relates to his signature goal celebration. He points both hands like he’s carrying two guns and fires off several imaginary rounds, earning the moniker “El Pistolero” (The Gunman) for his lethal scoring talents. But in 2010, Suarez was also dubbed the “Cannibal of Ajax.”

He was the captain of Dutch giants AFC Ajax that season when he inexplicably bit PSV Eindhoven’s Otman Bakkal on the shoulder during a match. The incident occurred inches away from the referee, but Suarez was not punished. There was no video assistant referee (VAR) at the time, but because of the overwhelming video evidence, Ajax suspended Suarez for two matches after the incident. The Dutch Football Federation then charged Suarez with committing a violent act and doubled down by handing the Uruguayan a seven-game ban of their own. He would not play again for Ajax, but his more than 80 goals across four seasons caught the eye of Liverpool. Despite that biting incident and subsequent suspension, the Premier League club signed Suarez in the winter of 2011.

Further controversy soon followed. During a match against rivals Manchester United that season, Suarez was accused of using a racist slur toward United defender Patrice Evra, who is Black. Evra said that Suarez had referred to him using the N-word. Suarez in turn admitted to saying “negro” (pronounced “neh-gro” in Spanish) in the same way a Spanish speaker may refer to someone as “flaco” (skinny) or “rubio” (blonde), he claimed.

Backed by Liverpool, Suarez maintained his innocence and pleaded not guilty when the English FA began its investigation. He was ultimately given an eight-match ban for racially abusing Evra. In a 2014 book written by Suarez titled “Crossing the line: My Story,” Suarez insisted that he is not a racist.

Two seasons later, Suarez attacked Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic with another ferocious bite to the forearm. A horrified Ivanovic fell to the ground as Suarez acted as if nothing had happened. But, once again, consequences soon followed. Suarez was handed a 10-game ban. Ivanovic pushes Suarez away after getting bit on the arm on April 21, 2013.

Suarez phoned Ivanovic after the bite and apologized. The Serbian defender would later refer to the ordeal as “really strange.”

A little over a year later, at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Suarez bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder during a group stage match in Natal. Suarez’s chomp was clear as day, and despite the tooth marks on Chiellin’s shoulder, Suarez again escaped the referee’s punishment in the moment.

Four years earlier in South Africa, Suarez was branded a cheat by an entire continent. During an intense World Cup quarterfinal between Uruguay and Ghana, Suarez intentionally handled the ball inside his own penalty area in a desperate bid to prevent what would have been a decisive goal for Ghana. With the match tied 1-1 late in extra time, Suarez parried away Dominic Adiyiah’s header with both hands, preventing a surefire winner for the African nation.

If Diego Maradona’s goal against England at the 1986 World Cup was deemed the Hand of God, Suarez’s two-handed goal line save was quite the opposite.

The Ghanaians will always view Suarez as a lawbreaker, but the Uruguayan remains a respected and revered player in Liverpool and Catalunya. After winning his first European Golden Shoe (given to the top scorer on the continent) with Liverpool in 2014, Suarez joined Barcelona that summer and clicked immediately with Neymar and Messi, his good friend. Suarez was clearly one of the best strikers in the world — a tenacious goal scorer and a big-game performer.

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