The adage dictates ‘24 hours is a long time in football’. The pace at which the football world turns leaves no place for sentimentality, which is why Luis Suarez was 100% right to celebrate scoring for Barcelona versus Liverpool.
Ninety minutes is all it took for Barcelona to sear through Liverpool in Camp Nou on Wednesday in their Champions League semi-final first leg. A microsecond in football terms.
Clinical, classy and above all economical, the Catalan giants brushed aside a Liverpool team believed to be the best since the Merseysiders won an English league title 30 years ago by a 3-0 scoreline.
But the biggest dagger plunged into the hearts of Jurgen Klopp’s men that night was not being thrashed before 98,000 fans in Barcelona’s amphitheatre home stadium and millions more around the world.
It came long before Lionel Messi graced both ends of football’s skill spectrum by tapping in to double Barca’s lead on 75 minutes, and then justifying his deism with a sublime free kick in the final ten minutes.
Much earlier, Jordi Alba threaded a ball into Luis Suarez to stick out a leg and instinctively flick home to open the scoring. Twenty six minutes played. One-nil Barcelona.
The Uruguayan wheeled away, pressed a finger to his lips and sprinted with pumped arms outstretched to the corner of the pitch and launched into a knee slide to mark his first goal against his former club.
As Suarez skidded down the turf, what seemed like an avalanche of criticism followed – with large sections of fans labelling Suarez a “disgrace” and “classless” for refusing to honor his former club with muted celebration.
Former Liverpool forward Suarez became a fan favorite during his four seasons at Anfield. He was voted the club’s Player of the Year in two of those. In those moments of ecstasy, that meant nothing.
But such is the scorching pace and highly-charged nature of the environment in which Suarez plies his trade, there is no room for sentimentality. In an industry where billions are invested into achieving glory, a player must in turn invest his ability and emotion into their cause.
If all players remained shackled to their past, where must the line be drawn?
Suppose Suarez’s goal came in not the semi-final, but the final of the tournament itself. Surely he could be excused for ignoring any murmerings of lost loyalty and enjoy the unbridled delirium of putting his current team within touching distance of glory at the expense of his former club. After all, he did leave Anfield in pursuit of trophies.
Given the results of the first leg of semi-final games, that predicament could become a reality, if we minus Liverpool for Ajax, from where Suarez joined Liverpool for £22.8 million ($30 million).
It’s hardly believable that Reds fans would label Suarez a ‘disgrace’ should he score against the Dutch team on one of the biggest nights of his career.
The subject of loyalty in football is an obscure one, and is often governed by unwritten rules.
In 2013, Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo returned to Manchester United, the team with which he won his first Champions League crown and picked up the first of five Ballon d’Or trophies, with new team Real Madrid. What’s more, he delivered the goal to send the club out of Europe
On the pitch, his muted celebrations were given a nod of respect by fans who still held the Portuguese winger in dizzyingly high regard. After the game, Ronaldo was even sombre when reflecting on his first goal against his old club.
“I feel a little bit sad because it is not easy to forget this home,” he said. “I played for six years here and the people were very nice to me. I came here like a child. It was quite a strange feeling.”
Fast forward five years and that emotion had seemingly evaporated. When United again met Ronaldo in Europe’s premier competition, this time in the colors of Juventus, the child from Madeira who became a man in Manchester showed no such reserve, celebrating his opener in their group game with the now infamous and still effortlessly cringe-inducing show of his six-pack.
Football had moved on. Ronaldo had paid his dues and moved on to pastures new, his allegiance now thoroughly tied to his new employers.
A more pertinent piece of irony that arose from the resultant brouhaha was the shock with which fans reacted to an odious element of Suarez’s character being revealed. Indeed, Suarez’s move to Barcelona in 2014 was dogged by a summer saturated with negative publicity after he sank his teeth into Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini at the FIFA World Cup.
That was the second of three separate incidents in which Suarez has been sanctioned for biting. Some felt aggrieved their defense and support of Suarez following his conviction by the English Football Association for usually racially aggravated language – a charge he denied – that saw him banned for eight games was not repaid with respect.
Nevertheless, in moving on from the club, Suarez has seemingly moved on from that incident, and therefore wasn’t burdened by an unpaid debt.
Not all however were quick to admonish Suarez. Two-time Champions League winner Jose Mourinho, who has crossed paths with the 32-year-old marksman during his time at Liverpool’s Premier League rivals Chelsea, hailed Suarez’s attitude as “incredible”.
“He did something which I think it is good, and I love it,” Mourinho said. “[Playing for Liverpool] has nothing to do with these 90 minutes. And for these 90 minutes, he [Suarez] forgot he had played for Liverpool.
“The only thing he was focused on was that match, his job, go to the final, win the Champions League. He scored the goal, he celebrated the goal.”
A footballer’s career is short and if players are to reap any worthwhile benefits from their time on the pitch, they must seize those seconds of joy standing atop football’s pinnacle they’ve toiled hours on the training pitch trying to reach.
Players who act like robots to bottle up emotion, afraid to incur the wrath of other supporters, are rarely ever likely to become terrace heroes. On the contrary, ostracizing yourself from fans by declining to reciprocate their joy is an outright betrayal.
Suarez’s attitude is simple: to win at all costs, regardless of any misty-eyed memories of yesteryear. Precisely that endeared him absolutely to the Kop, and precisely that now earns him unconditional adoration at Barcelona. It is that what football fans must come to love.