Luis Suarez is the most recent and arguably most important addition to FC Barcelona’s attack that won the treble in 2015.
As one of the world’s best strikers, it’s natural that Suarez is a wanted man on the pitch. Alongside partners Neymar and Lionel Messi, defenders up and down Europe hunt the trio like Wile E. Coyote does the Road runner.
Unlike the bird, the equally looney Suarez has a well documented short fuse. It’s believed Barça explicitly wrote in El Pistolero’s contract that he isn’t allowed to spaz out like he did most famously on Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic.
Dazzling foot skills and temper tantrums have long been the stereotype of South American stars for years, but it turns out the popular criticism is also backed by numbers.
According to political scientist Sebastián Saiegh, co-author of National Cultures and Soccer Violence, Messi, Neymar and Suarez’ former national teammates were some of the most statistically violent players in the game.
The study looks at the average number of yellow and red cards earned by players of various nationalities across the world's top leagues from 2004 to 2006. It found that players who came from countries with impressive histories of civil war since 1980, such as Argentina, Colombia and Turkey, were the most violent among their club teammates.
Comparing the years players spent maturing (ages zero to 18) with a country’s times of war, the study was able to pinpoint which nation produced the world's most violent professionals.
Extremely strong correlation between civil war and violence on the pitch is one thing, but explaining why the phenomenon exists is more complex.
The study suggests a history of violence in a country affects local cultural norms, making violent conduct more socially acceptable, expected, or even desirable.
“Our speculation is that it’s how these players are socialized; what is acceptable in society growing up. Something they experience at home, school, what they watch on the news. Some argue that our study is flawed because it assumes that every player has the same type of exposure to civil war, which isn’t true; it makes the results of our study even more surprising,” Saiegh said.
What’s less surprising is a player’s salary also correlates strongly with how many yellow cards they concede.
“These guys are the targets for more fouls - look what happened to Neymar just a few weeks ago in the Copa America. He felt that the ref wasn’t protecting him properly, that the players are taking turns fouling him, so at some point he’s going to retaliate and get a card,” Saiegh said.
Given the ease of access to a player’s finances, the world’s best-paid players are inevitably more visible. They’re targeted by fans with humiliating chants, kicked to pieces by opposition, and generally shown a torrid time week in, week out.
Much like prejudice by paycheque, a player’s nationality can play as large a part in their treatment on the pitch. Unabashed racism from fans is the most obvious example of discrimination in the game, but the motivation behind players’ actions isn’t as clear, unless you’re someone like Suarez.
But what about the ref? Every fan has thought it. The ref is clearly out to get their team, and they can’t figure out why. While tough to prove, it is reasonable to speculate that players of various backgrounds receive different levels of sympathy from officials.
“There are refs who interact regularly with certain high profile players who are more easily recognizable. [Especially] In the case of international competition, it would [make sense] that he gives the Colombians more cards [over a more docile team - South Korea], based on his bias, yes. It’s definitely possible,” Saiegh said.
At one point in his career, Toronto sports psychologist Paul Dennis consulted three teams of three different sports, all at once. He juggled his full-time position with the Leafs alongside the needs of Toronto FC and the Raptors.
“It was easier with the Leafs. I was with the team for every game. My work with TFC was whenever I could fit it in. When athletes are struggling with their emotions, they need constant encouragement and counselling opportunities, and I couldn’t be around for that,” he said.
Dennis acknowledges the main reason TFC wanted his help was to “fix” a “problem athlete”, similar to the maligned Suarez, not help the team. In his time working with the club, Dennis knew there were skeptics within the organization.
“They should’ve hired somebody full time. Some teams don’t understand what role a sports psychologist plays in a professional team. It’s not for a lack of resources, they have the money. I think it’s a philosophical decision that has to be made, but they don’t see the value, so they don’t do it," Dennis said.
Mental health is an issue largely overlooked in the world of sport, and especially so in a game as maddeningly traditionalistic as soccer. Embracing psychology as a beneficial tool in soccer has always been taboo, and not just in North America.
“Some people say if you need a sports psychologist you’ve got a mentally weak team, which is ridiculous, because you’ve got a nutritionist and strength coaches, so why not hire someone who works with the mind?” Dennis said.
It’s a valid point. Worldwide, soccer is heavily criticized for its reluctance to change. Fans gripe about the inflexibility over safe standing in England, slow adoption of game-enhancing technology across leagues.
Maybe the next problem will concern recruitment outside how much an addition will cost and where they’ll play.
Players with discipline issues are an inherent risk to a team. Volatile players walk a thin line between utility and liability for their sides, those that use conflict as a means of success are the most difficult to change.
“There are some that realize that their violence pays. They intimidate opposition, refs; they use their aggression to their advantage. They have this instinctive ability to hurt people, and they like it, so why change? I’m not able to help that type of person," Dennis said.
There are obvious drawbacks to violence in soccer, but top managers still value what a hard man brings. Dennis agrees that while there’s a better balance to be struck between slide tackles and skill, it’s a tough sell to teams who find success in rough play.
“These types of individuals have the power to influence the mindset of the opponent, they’re always looking over their shoulder and that throws them off their game. The intimidation factor is huge, and so is the fear of injury. [It’s] enough to occupy the mindset of athletes to the point that they are completely distracted, and their skill level is neutralized. It’s a part of sport, sure,” he said.
As it stands, clubs have two options to improve. Stop signing the game’s most violent players, or just pick their brains.