The fact Barcelona are not allowed to unveil their latest superstar signing until his ban for biting is up ought to tell you enough about the signing himself. Luis Suarez, the mercurial striker with an addiction to bizarre controversy, signed for the Spanish giants for a reported £75 million and Barcelona are already facing a headache caused solely by the wayward behaviour of the Uruguayan forward. While his 4 month ban from any football stadium remains, a Camp Nou unveiling is out of the question. Barcelona are apparently considering an appeal to FIFA, though any sort of avenue for meaningful recourse seems unlikely to be provided by football’s governing body. Nor should it be; Suarez’s third biting incident in his career has pushed his behaviour well over the boundary of normalcy. His image as a maverick, a player who seems incapable of controlling his urges (incisory or otherwise) despite the best efforts of managers and team mates, is set in stone. He represents a risk at the best of times, and the only reason any club is prepared to take him on (let alone one of the world’s biggest and most successful) is that he is an absolute magician on the field.
The issue that immediately came to mind when his transfer to Barca was announced was how exactly he would fit in a club that has a history of mercilessly and deliberately weeding out disruptive egos. Barcelona have had the privilege of fielding some of the the most outrageously talented footballers of the last 10 years and they have reaped the glittering rewards that have come as a result. But footballing genius, as is the case with genius of all sorts, often goes hand in hand with eccentricity, primadonna-ness and planetary-sized egotism. Barcelona, playing maybe the most team-oriented style of football ever seen, have always been quick to recognise the danger of such characters and have, often in spite of on-field performance, been quick to cull the turbulent individuals.
At the beginning of the 2005/06 season, the world’s best player, Ronaldinho, was preparing for his third season with Barcelona. He had just led them to the title in the previous season, and had won the won the FIFA World Player of the Year award. He was entering what would be his best years as a footballer, though he didn’t know it. The Brazilian in his pomp was a sight that would captivate even the most disinterested of onlookers; he was electrifying, a crackling storm of blinding skill and pace. It seemed like he could do anything on the pitch, like he had an unbreakable line of symbiotic communication with the ball and an agreement that they would illuminate the world together. He was a force of nature, and that season Barcelona rode with Ronaldinho to a second consecutive league title and their first Champions League triumph for 14 years. Ronaldinho was given a standing ovation at the Bernabeu by the Real Madrid fans after orchestrating a 3-0 victory there, such was his excellence. Eider Gudjohnson, his team mate at the time, recalled what it was like seeing Ronaldinho at the summit of his footballing powers:
He seems ready for every situation and the bigger the game, the more he can handle it. [Of a free kick scored against Werder Bremen] He saw that they were going to jump. What he said in the dressing room afterwards was the two really big guys in the wall wouldn’t jump so he put it under the smaller ones. He’s a great player and I guess that makes him psychic. When you play with him and see what he does with a ball, nothing surprises me any more. One of these days, he will make the ball talk.
Two years later, Ronaldinho, after a season plagued by injury, was sold to AC Milan. Barca president Joan Laporta stated that the Brazilian’s departure was “best for everyone” and that the club was beginning “a new cycle” that didn’t include Ronaldinho. Pep Guardiola had taken over from Frank Rikjaard as manager and one assumes that his tiki-taka philosophy was already being prepped by the new coach. The uber-collective mentality required for it to flourish was one that could not accommodate an indivudaul like Ronaldinho and, apparently in decline as a player, the club legend was let go. Ronaldinho always had the aura of a prize show pony (insert teeth jokes here) one that, if specifically groomed and pampered, could storm any competitor who challenged him. Rumours of laziness and ill-discipline had begun to rumble around the Brazilian by the end of his Barca career and so, the world’s best player only a season or two previous, was culled. He was the first of many egos to be ousted.
Deco and Samuel Eto’o soon joined Ronaldinho in leaving the club. Both had also been integral squad members when Guardiola took over. It’s worth remembering that Guardiola was completely untested at the top level of management when he took over, only having coached at lower levels within the club. His decision to sell Deco to Chelsea was one that the Portuguese midfielder was outspokenly critical of, claiming his sale was badly dealt with and that the Chelsea deal almost fell through because the Catalans wanted a bigger fee for him. He had been a key midfield cog in the great 2005/06 season and was named Barca’s Player of the Season that year. He too was known for his less than subdued personality and so he, despite his always impressive work rate, was also considered by Guardiola to be surplus to requirements. His subsequently turbulent Chelsea career showed that Guardiola had accurately foreseen the potential disruption that Deco could become.
Samuel Eto’o’s exit was even more unusual. One of footballs most consistently successful strikers, Eto’o scored an outstanding 36 goals in Barcelona’s treble-winning 2008/09 season, including the opening goal in the Champions League final victory over Manchester United. He later claimed that he and Guardiola didn’t speak for most of that season, despite his immensely impressive individual worth to the team. For a star striker to be sold after a career-defining season, there must have been a wholly convincing reason to do so. Again, it was down to a clash of personalities rather than anything football related that led to Eto’o’s exit. It was a cut throat decision for the club to make, on that could easily have backfired horribly. But that seems to be the modus operandi that Barca employ; egos that usurp the team are not tolerated.
Ironically enough, the very next season, Barcelona brought in the biggest ego in football, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The marriage ended messily, as you might have anticipated. He scored 21 goals in 45 appearances for Barcelona in the 2009-10 season, a respectable tally (even if slightly substandard by Zlatan standards). When it became apparent exactly how massive an ego Zlatan was, he was swiftly sold, like Ronaldinho, to AC Milan. Ibrahimovic has been more than vocal about how Messi, Xavi and co. “were like schoolboys” and that “everyone did what they were told”. In his own words, while at Barca, “Zlatan was no longer Zlatan”. Indeed.
The history of Barcelona football club over the last 10 years, in a way, can be mapped by the litter of footballing egos it has left in its trophy-laden wake. The club has, until very recently, achieved consistent and unprecdented success domestically and in Europe using this methodology, so why should they abandon it now? Look at how Neymar, a brilliant superstar, has been assimilated into the system at Barca. For a player who at times seems to play almost on his own for his national team, to happily be subsumed fully into the Barca’s egalitarian system, exposes the key difference between Neymar and someone like Ibrahimovic. So now we turn to Luis Suarez, a player who was so pampered and protected by Liverpool (remember the t-shirts?) yet still was unable to settle down and fly right. The suspicion is that this move to Barcelona will make or break Suarez. Will he manage to overcome his scandal-magnet ways, to put aside his disorderly personal will, and thrive in Spain? If he does, it will be the first time in his career that he’ll have done so. He will undoubtedly play well for the Blaugrana, but history indicates that Barca will not tolerate abrasive personalities no matter the on-field success. For the club, the priority is going to be how best to tame Luis Suarez. A muzzle might be a good start.