What to do with Luis Suarez?
Had he been a lesser player, Eric Cantona would surely have been kicked out of Manchester United as quickly as his own feet flew into the Selhurst Park crowd on that night in 1995.
Just a few months on from the world’s most infamous football/kung fu mashup, Paul Ince, an international midfielder, was shown the Old Trafford door, amusingly for wanting to be called ‘The Guvnor’. In football’s bizarre logic, getting too big for one’s boots was a worse crime than assaulting a fan with them.
Ince was expendable (a young Nicky Butt was waiting in the wings); Cantona, the mercurial catalyst for Manchester United’s modern domination, wasn’t. There were plenty of calls for Cantona to go, but the club gave him another (final) chance. And how he repaid that faith, masterminding United’s double success the following the season by scoring in a succession of 1-0 victories, the last of which was the FA Cup final againstLiverpool.
Their opponents back then have a similar dilemma now. What are Liverpool going to do with Luis Suarez? Landed with a 10-match ban for inexplicably sinking his teeth into Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic’s arm on Sunday, many are now weighing up whether the striker’s damaged goods are worth retaining at the club. His racist spat with Patrice Evra last season saddled Anfield with an unprecedented amount of bad press. Throw in a previous biting incident, an admission of diving and a deliberate handball to deny Ghana a place in the semi-final of the 2010 World Cup, and he will forever be just a sneeze away from dominating their story. Surely it’s time to get rid?
And yet – Suarez is world class. In performances alone he would be a worthy winner of the Footballer of the Year, sitting comfortably alongside the likes of Robin Van Persie and Gareth Bale. He is the man around which the team is built, and it would be impossible to find a replacement as talented.
That’s why Liverpool will bend over backwards to offer him another chance and see he gets the best possible anger management treatment. They may condemn the action, but will offer support to the person. They want him restored, reformed and living out his potential. Suarez is their genius, and they will do what it takes to keep him, just as United did with Cantona.
It’s in this measure of forgiveness and vision of what could be, that I catch a glimpse of God. Sure, the comparison is tenuous in many ways (the football club is selective in who it wants to save), but at its heart lies a desire not to be parted, an overpowering wish for repentance and redemption. Wounded, yes, but with arms open and ready to embrace, desperately seeking transformation in an errant child.
The Bible’s narrative is one of a people forever turning their back on God, and yet God somehow remaining faithful to them through it all. He is the one, we are told, who will fervently go after his one lost sheep of a hundred; throw a party for the son who squandered his inheritance in a blizzard of self-centredness and greed; forgive the wrongs we have done and stand with us as we go about change. In the Bible we see Jesus forgive a criminal on the cross. In life we hear testimonies of murderers whose lives have been transformed by their encounter with Jesus.
God does not turn his back on his people, and his grace is often described as outrageous. It’s why one writer, ruminating on events in Boston, stated earlier this week that while “God was laying alongside the victims… maybe the most scandalous part is that the God of incomprehensible love is still with the two criminals who detonated the bombs as well.”
When Luis Suarez bit an opponent on Sunday, my first reaction was that it was a disgrace and Liverpool should either sack or sell. But as a Christian I realise I can’t support that language. I can scarcely grasp how much I’ve been forgiven, and I want to hear more stories of forgiveness. Yes, his punishment should be accepted, but every attempt should be made to rehabilitate.
Like Cantona, wouldn’t it be great if one day Suarez truly repaid the club on which he has brought so much angst?