Illustration by Nigel Buchanan of Luis Suárez
© Nigel Buchanan

As compelling and ambitious protagonists on the World Cup stage go, Luis Suárez takes some beating. In the two previous tournaments, Uruguay’s star striker has managed to cram more drama, comedy and even outright farce into a few weeks than most theatres manage in a year. On both occasions he has showcased the talent that makes him one of the world’s elite players; on both occasions he has exited, stage left, pursued by an outraged media. The first after cheating spectacularly; the second after biting an opponent.

For some, Suárez is a villain, dogged by a hot temper and a shameless line in theatrics; for others, a tragically flawed hero whose burning desire to win has spilled over into recklessness. We are about to see the third act in this long-running drama: how will this supremely talented, troublesome figure respond?

We theatre critics hunt for a character’s motivation. Suárez comes over as a warrior for the cause — beloved by fans for battling tenaciously to the end. But, as so often in great drama, in virtue lurks vice. In 2010 Suárez took his “hands-on” approach to scandalous new heights, illegally stopping a crucial, goal-bound header in the dying moments of a quarter-final.

Banished to the bench, he was cast either as a flagrant cheat or a self-sacrificing hero, who literally put his body on the line for his team. After all, his crime didn’t go unpunished: a red card meant he had to watch the aftermath from the sidelines — and the opponents, Ghana, were awarded a penalty. Poetic justice, it seemed. But then, in a spectacular plot twist, that penalty kick hit the crossbar. No goal. Cue spotlight on Suárez, fist-pumping with joy.

The celebration was bettered only by his unrepentant post-match assertion that he “made the best save of the tournament”. Gamesmanship, or cheating, depending on your view, is not exactly unknown in the beautiful game, but generally it comes with denial or defence. Here was a character who cheerfully admitted to it. What to make of such insouciant transgression? Forget Macbeth (tragically ambitious), Hotspur (foolishly hot-headed), Coriolanus (fatally proud), Laertes (passionately loyal) — this was more akin to outrageous bad boy Richard III, who revelled in his misdemeanours. Was ever football in this humour won? Uruguay, minus their suspended star, were knocked out in the next match.

On to 2014 and Act II. In a compelling subplot, Suárez’s club career had seen him become one of the Premier League’s hottest properties with Liverpool. But yet again he mixed sensational football with senseless controversy, resulting in two long bans. On the eve of the World Cup in Brazil, a dramatic flourish saw an injured Suárez leaving hospital in a wheelchair just a few weeks before curtain-up and then, remarkably, fighting his way back to fitness to play a key role in despatching England with two goals.

Just when it seemed that he had left his villain’s cloak in the dressing room, there was a shocking climax. In the final group-stage game against Italy, Suárez sank his teeth into a defender’s shoulder. A global audience was stunned. Although many more physically damaging fouls have been committed on the pitch, there is something so disturbing about biting that it defies comprehension. Incredibly, this was Suárez’s third such offence.

What ailed him? The crisis at the end of Act I was explicable, fuelled by a determination to win at all costs — not so this distressing incident. Suárez’s downfall was swift. His self-destructive impulse saw him exiled — like many Shakespearean characters before him — from the very activity that so impassioned him: he was given a four-month ban from football.

Now the curtain is about to rise again. Suárez is at Barcelona, part of a stunning forward line and undeniably one of the greatest footballers on the planet. He has sought help from a therapist — and largely stayed out of trouble. What will this latest act of World Cup drama bring? Shakespeare’s tragedies offer gloomy odds. Let’s hope, instead, for a scenario in line with his late, great plays, in which rifts are healed and redemption achieved. The mature glow of The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale rather than the desolation of Macbeth. And some truly sensational goals.

Sarah Hemming is the FT’s theatre critic. She thinks Brazil will win the 2018 World Cup

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