Luis Suarez during the England-Uruguay match at the 2014 World Cup. Photo: Getty
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Luis Suarez is a beast

On the taxonomy of strikers, the Uruguay star is an apex predator.

Once Uruguay had beaten England to stay in the World Cup, I turned off the TV and exhaled. What a display from Luis Suarez!

It would have been naive to expect anything less. After all, Suarez has shown how decisive he can be at Liverpool. A few days ago, I had a long, rather touching conversation with a Liverpool fan I found walking around Copacabana beach. He spoke of Anfield’s magic, of his love of Dalglish and Gerrard and his almost physical disgust at the sheer mention of Wayne Rooney, born in Liverpool only to torment Liverpool fans, first at Everton and then at Manchester United. But most of all he spoke of Suarez. “The greatest footballer who ever played for us,” he told me, to my astonishment. Surely he was exaggerating, I told him. After all, Suarez has barely been at Anfield for a couple of years. “Not in the least!” he said, not taking my skepticism well. “We have never had anyone attack like that, fight like that. Sometimes I think he was born in my own neighborhood. Suarez is a beast. A beast!”

I don’t know if there’s ever any question about that. In any case, Suarez’s two goals against England should dispel any doubts. What we saw at Arena Corinthians was the display of a very peculiar kind of striker. We might as well follow the taxonomy, because Suarez is a beast indeed.

There are many types of them in the world of football. There are great poachers, of course. Think of Javier Hernandez, who seems to have an intuitive sense of what happens inside the box but gets lost outside of it. Chicharito is always there at close range, but seems to fade when faced with opportunities from afar. Paolo Rossi was, in my opinion, one of the best poachers the World Cup has ever seen: absolutely lethal at close range. Then there are the specialists, men who seem destined to score using mostly one particular skill. Peter Crouch was one. Oliver Bierhoff was another, perhaps even Miroslav Klose, who, among other things, is a master of the header. Then there are the aesthetes, highly accomplished strikers who seem to interpret scoring as an art form. They craft goals and see the back of the net as a canvas. Their power comes from beauty, not violence. Butragueño comes to mind. Perhaps Bebeto and even Van Persie, although he can be brutal when need be.

And then we have the beasts. For them, scoring is a matter of rage. A goal is an explosion, an opportunity to test the goalie’s fear. They dream of shredding the hexagonal threads of the net; putting the ball not in the goal but past it. They are the equivalent of those sluggers who fantasise about hitting a home run way over the green monster and onto the streets of Boston. They are the masters of the slam-dunk; those who seek to tear the hoop and smash the glass. They hit 340-yard drives; 160-mph serves. They are… beastly.

The biggest beast I’ve ever seen was Gabriel Batistuta. The wonderful Argentinean didn’t strike the ball: he punished it. What I remember most about him, apart from his famously massive thighs, was his penalty-taking style. Batistuta took eight or nine steps, ran towards the ball and simply killed it. Pity the keeper who dared touch that thing! I honestly think that, given the right (or wrong) angle of impact, one of Batistuta’s insane kicks could have easily broken a goalie’s wrists. Very few got the chance to prove me wrong: there was simply no way to get there in time. Hristo Stoichkov was also a beast. I painfully remember his goal against Mexico in 1994. Poor Jorge Campos, like a character from the Matrix simply trying to avoid a swerving bullet. The great Ronaldo was a peculiar kind of beast: being Brazilian also forced him to add some panache to his violence; a little ballet before unleashing hell. I could say the same of Van Basten and Cantona, beasts themselves.

Luis Suarez belongs to that band of magnificent executioners. Take a look at his second goal against England. Of course, he needed to strike the ball hard. But there’s a certain extra oomph there. It’s the same fury that has lead him astray before, the same temper that had him bite (!) Ivanovic or (disgustingly) spew out racists slurs against Patrice Evra. It’s the rage of the unpredictable, of the magnetic rabble-rouser – oh, how people react to Suarez at Anfield! It’s Cantona kicking a fan. It’s Roy Keane, or Gennaro Gattuso (not strikers, I know, but beasts nonetheless.) Luis Suarez understands football as a confrontation, against the other team, against opposing fans, against everyone who is not on his side. That’s why, after his goals, he immediately (and instinctively) puts his index finger to his lips and orders the opposing crowd to be quiet. He has scored, but he has also won a bloody fight. You can almost hear him growl: a true beast.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.