Luis Suarez kissed his ring finger, then his wrist, hopped up, and pumped a fist. It was the third time that afternoon that he got to deploy his goal celebration ritual, having curled yet another shot past John Ruddy from the edge of the box. That made it 4-0 to Liverpool, on its way to a slump-busting 5-2 win over Norwich City on Sept. 29.
Yet following the game, the talk wasn't of the 25-year-old Uruguayan's hat-trick, which rocketed him up to second place in the Premier League goalscoring charts, it was about a penalty that he had earned but wasn't awarded. His manager, Brendan Rodgers, said he worried that Suarez was being discriminated against on account of his reputation.
He's probably right to. Suarez's persona is separated into two incongruous elements. He is tantalizingly talented and perhaps the most dynamic forward in the game. Yet he's also its most controversial player.
There blazes a competitive fire within Suarez that is both terrifying and awesome. He rages about the field, gritting his bucked teeth. You wouldn't be surprised to see his thick nose emitting steam if you looked closely. It's a fire that causes him to endlessly harass referees. For all his natural ability and polish, he nevertheless niggles and cons and cheats as if he were only marginally talented and relying on grit to stay in the game. Barely grazed, his theatrical flops have earned him countless penalties and saddled opponents with yellow and red cards.
Consequently, and here is the crux of what Rodgers was saying, he has no credibility remaining. For years, referees have been so concerned with being bamboozled by the amateur thespian that they are reluctant even to call fouls fully merited.
"He's a magician when he's on it," his Liverpool teammate and captain Steven Gerrard told the English press after the Norwich game. But when he's not, he becomes a menace. When Suarez's frustration boils over, his acts are a blight on the sport.
During a game on Oct. 15, 2011, Suarez racially abused Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, incurring an eight-game suspension. The next time the teams faced off, Suarez refused to shake Evra's hand, ignited a scuffle of sorts with him in the tunnel during half-time and generally acted like a brat throughout, twice slamming the ball out of bounds or in Evra's general direction. When they finally did shake hands in their contest this year, this non-aggression tellingly made the news.
Suarez's temperament and transgressions are as much nurture as nature. He scrapped his way to the top. And now that he's inarguably there, he's either afraid to clean up his act or doesn't know how to. He seems to lack inhibitions or a filter for his actions.
One of a single mother's seven children, Suarez grew up so poor in Montevideo that he had to refuse a call-up to a Uruguayan youth national team because he couldn't afford cleats. He turned pro with Nacional de Montevideo soon thereafter, but he was not yet 16 when a coach had to set him straight about partying to the point where it showed during practice.
After a single season he was sold to FC Groningen in the Netherlands. Discipline was forever an issue. In one five-game stretch for Groningen he was booked three times and sent off in another. On his senior debut for Uruguay on Feb. 8, 2007, he was sent off with a second yellow card for dissent.
After scoring 15 league goals for Groningen and forcing through a transfer to Ajax by going on strike, Suarez went on an absurdly prolific three-and-a-half-year bender, amassing 111 goals and 56 assists in just 159 games.
But Suarez remained as divisive as he was productive. He continued to clash with managers, scuffled with a teammate during a game, was repeatedly suspended and expanded his immense collection of yellow cards. He got nine in the 2008-09 season alone, the second-most in the league - as an attacker. "Suarez is incredibly important for us," said his exasperated Ajax manager Marco van Basten. "But he puts us at a disadvantage with all of his yellow cards too."
He agitated opposing crowds and players. Online forums voted him the most "annoying" player in the Netherlands; coaches expressed revulsion. "He does everything he can to provoke and irritate," complained then-AZ manager Dick Advocaat.
He guided Uruguay to the final four of the 2010 World Cup, scoring three goals, two of them game-winners. But in the quarterfinals against Ghana, with minutes to spare in extra time, he punched what was surely Ghana's game-winner over his own crossbar. When the subsequent penalty was missed and Uruguay moved on after the shootout, Suarez was unabashed in his celebrations, casting himself as the tournament's villain. Yet Suarez would pay no penitence. "It was worth it," he said. "The Hand of God now belongs to me. I made the best save of the tournament."
He celebrated his return to Ajax with a red card for a two-footed tackle in the season-opener. In one of his last acts before being sold to Liverpool in January 2011, he bit PSV midfielder Otman Bakkal in the shoulder during an on-field melee. He was fined and suspended for two games by Ajax and banned for seven more by the Dutch federation.
And this was all before he stepped into the spotlight at Liverpool.
So if Suarez is preceded by his reputation, he only has himself to blame.