By GERALD IMRAY
The Associated Press
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — First, it was his hand. Then, his teeth. Luis Suarez’s feet and football ability are yet to take center stage for Uruguay at a World Cup.
Maybe this time, now that his head is right.
Like Barcelona teammate and close friend Lionel Messi, Suarez could be playing for his World Cup legacy in Russia. At best he has three games left, starting with today’s quarterfinal against France.
Messi’s failures at the World Cup have been well documented. Suarez’s experiences have been far rawer.
At both his previous tournaments, the Uruguay striker hasn’t just left disappointed, he’s left in disgrace, labeled a cheat in one and the world’s dirtiest player in the other.
“You mature, you learn things and you live in the present,” Suarez said at Uruguay’s team base in Russia in the buildup to the France game.
In South Africa in 2010, Suarez’s defining act was to block a goal-bound header from Ghana with his hand in the dying seconds of extra time in their quarterfinal. Suarez was sent off for the intentional handball but Ghana missed the resulting penalty.
Suarez’s clear cheating and wild celebrations on the side of the field incensed a continent as it helped Uruguay reach the semifinals at the expense of Africa’s last hope.
Four years ago in Brazil, there was an even more shocking exit: Suarez bit Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini in a group game — leaving visible teeth marks in Chiellini’s left shoulder — and FIFA banned him for nine matches and four months, ending his tournament. It was the third time Suarez had been banned for biting an opponent.
Suarez, now 31, is back for another go at the World Cup, maybe his last.
At Uruguay’s base he appeared unaffected by his ignominious history at the tournament, answering questions from journalists about previous disciplinary breakdowns with no outward signs of discomfort.
There seemed to be no attempts to hide anything, either.
Suarez has taken steps to address his on-field behavior for Uruguay, he said, with the help of Oscar Tabarez, the coach and former teacher who has been in charge for Suarez’s entire international career.
“Tabarez helps a lot. He’s one of the best coaches in the world because of his personality, the way he helps players,” Suarez said. “Personally, he has helped me a lot. Before games, he always talks to me about what goes on in my head. That’s important to me. That talk I have with him is important.”
For over a decade, Tabarez has worked to develop a specific team mantra in the Uruguay squad, putting emphasis on humility, work ethic and respect for others.
That has manifested itself at the team’s World Cup base in Russia, a sports center on the outskirts of Nizhny Novgorod where the players’ accommodation is more like school dormitories than five-star luxury.
From the camp, stories emerge of Uruguay’s best players and biggest stars being asked to clear away their own plates and cutlery after meals, wash their own boots, carry training equipment to and from the field, and, in a nod to plain good manners, start press conferences by greeting journalists with a “good morning” or “good afternoon.”
Suarez also spoke about the “serenity” Tabarez brought to the squad and referred to himself, once the troublemaker, as now a veteran and a role model.
“Now I’m one of the oldest, an example … the younger ones look up to us,” Suarez said. “You get nervous (in games), but at the same time you are one of the ones who has to remain calm. You have to set a good example to the younger ones. You have learned how to handle these situations.”