The likes of Luis Suarez must earn their goals

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 October, 2011, 12:00am


They are the men who fans pay to watch and that the TV cameras and journalists love to focus on. Yet how far should administrators go in protecting the beautiful players of the beautiful game?

Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish is the latest manager to call for greater protection for a star striker, this week demanding that referees better look after Uruguayan import Luis Suarez, who was left battered and bruised at the end of recent matches.

Dalglish can relate to the kind of treatment that his star forward is receiving. Like Suarez, Dalglish wore the No7 shirt for the Reds in the 1970s and '80s and was a brilliant attacker who was constantly targeted by opposition defences.

In the past decade or two, the game has become faster yet a lot less physical. Blood-curdling challenges that may not have even earned a yellow card in Dalglish's heyday now usually result in instant expulsion in Europe's top leagues.

'If I were against Suarez, I wouldn't mind kicking him either because he is just one of those annoying players,' Singapore international defender Daniel Bennett, capped more than 100 times for his country, said. 'He is obviously a great talent but he also has a knack for diving and frustrating defences.'

Suarez (pictured) is an expert in pushing the limits of sportsmanship in earning free kicks and penalties, which has led to inevitable questions about his integrity. He cleverly gets his body between the ball and his opponent to maximise the chances of his team being awarded set-pieces in potent, attacking positions.

Uefa boss Michel Platini has been among the influential voices to observe that today's gifted players get an easier time than the likes of Pele, Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona did in their prime.

Now, defenders must walk a disciplinary tightrope. They need to not only halt the progress of creative geniuses but also avoid falling for their tricks.

'It is even more of an art form for defenders to cope with the theatrics of strikers than in the past,' Bennett, 33, who also played two seasons with Wrexham in the UK, said.

'The likes of Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer were clearly playing a quite different game. Chelsea's David Luiz is one defender who acts like he thinks he's still playing in the 1960s because while he is willing in attack he sometimes lets his emotions get the better of him. He can be a naive player and naive players are what managers least like.'

Great defending will never receive the acclaim of scoring a hat-trick in a 6-0 rout. But to focus only on goals is a superficial way to watch matches. Instead of pinpointing Lionel Messi's failure to score at the the 2011 Copa America, why not acclaim the four South American teams who kept him quiet in Argentina?

Quite rightly, centreback Nemanja Vidic was named Premier League Player of the Season in 2010-2011 after his gritty displays - keeping clean sheets at home - helped Manchester United secure their record-breaking 19th title.

The combative Vidic is often in the referee's bad books and a regular recipient of yellow and red cards. But it is not always one-way traffic when it comes to fouling because strikers are giving it back to defenders in equal measure.

The man who has given away more free kicks than anyone else in the Premier League is actually a forward - Bolton's Kevin Davies, who was England's worst offender in terms of fouls for six out of seven seasons. Two years ago, he had the cheek to slam opposing defenders for hitting the deck too easily after his tackles.

'Davies is a prime example of a striker who repeatedly fouls defenders and yet, more often than not, walks away scot-free,' Bennett said.

Last weekend, Chelsea forward Didier Drogba was shown a straight red card for a two-footed lunge on QPR's Adel Taarabt at Loftus Road. His teammate Fernando Torres was suspended for three matches last month for lashing out at Swansea's Mark Gower.

These kinds of incidents need to be punished, but the physical side of the game must remain. It would be a mistake to water down the absorbing physical battles between the constructive and destructive forces at club and international level.

Obviously Nigel de Jong went over the top at last year's Fifa World Cup final in South Africa, but it was still intriguing to see the Netherlands trying to cope with the sizzling skills of Spain. The last thing we want to see is strikers and creative midfielders protected to the extent that soccer becomes like basketball, with scoring every minute, as attackers waltz through the middle of the park before showy finishes and celebrations.

Remember, it is a contact sport. Leg-breaking challenges or off-the-ball thuggery should never be tolerated, but the likes of Suarez can't be pandered to. They need to earn every goal they score.