Liverpool's now grown-up genius
LUIS Suarez is football's redemption story this holiday season.
He is the Uruguayan who began the season barred for biting an opposing player, and was then made to train in isolation after trying to force Liverpool to sell him.
But scoring goals changes perceptions.
On Sunday, Suarez led Liverpool as its captain. He scored twice. He helped set up three more goals. He was the catalyst for such a humiliating 5-0 home defeat for Tottenham Hotspur that it fired its coach, Andre Villas-Boas, less than 24 hours later.
Suarez was back in London the next night. The player who divided fan opinion just five months ago was in a tuxedo, honoured by the Football Supporters' Federation as its top player of 2013.
Whoever writes his script is a fantasist.
The award ceremony took place at Emirates Stadium, the home of Tottenham's closest rival, Arsenal. It had been Arsenal that bid a pound more than the £40 million (S$82 million) required in his contract to try to get him to leave Liverpool in August.
John Henry, the chief shareholder of the group that owns Liverpool, refused the sale, and Suarez sulked and was ordered to train apart from the rest of the team.
Yet, on Sunday, a familiar voice praised Suarez on French television. "He turns into a demon when he's on the pitch," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said. "We all dream of having players like that."
Liverpool is in the mix to qualify for next season's Champions League. After that, perhaps Suarez will be allowed to leave if some other team, like Real Madrid, offers a world-record sum for his services.
Fantasy? Maybe not. When Suarez is in form - which he has been in every single game since he finished his 10-game ban for biting Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic last April - he draws comparisons to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
He does not have Messi's immaculate balance or Ronaldo's dancing feet. But he has tenacity, and he chases down lost causes and turns them into goals. He has an impudence bordering on genius.
He served a long banishment for racially taunting Manchester United's Patrice Evra. He had an earlier biting incident while playing in the Netherlands for Ajax. He cheated Ghana out of the 2010 World Cup with a deliberate hand-ball on the goal line.
Sometimes, he tells us that the ill tempers and the sneaky moments are the product of a difficult childhood in Uruguay. He is the fourth of seven sons from parents who separated when he was nine. At 15, he was sent off for head-butting a referee.
But even then, he had a sweetheart who could bring out a better side to him. He followed a girlfriend, Sofia, to Europe when her family emigrated.
Each time he has let himself down on the field, it is said that Sofia, who became Mrs Suarez, calms him and explains to him that this is no way to live his life.
There was a moment before Sunday's match at Tottenham that showed his grown-up side.
Olivia Brown, a 10-year-old allowed to walk down the line of players in the centre of the field, cheekily withdrew her hand when Suarez went to shake it. She put her thumb to her nose and giggled at the opposing player.
He saw the funny side. It turned out that the girl's father, Mr Des Brown, a Spurs fan, had bet his child £20 to thumb her nose at Suarez.
Mr Brown and his daughter might not have felt so clever 90 minutes later after the stand-in captain, perfectly well behaved, took his tally to 17 goals in 11 Premier League games.
"Nothing different happened today," Suarez said after defeating Tottenham. "For me, the only one who is captain of Liverpool is Stevie," he said, referring to Gerrard. "I play striker."
Striker, destroyer, controversialist, inspiration. And, until the next demonic outburst, a fan favourite, too.