World Cup Countdown: Cherish It

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

It was only a few months ago when Luis Suarez took one good look around the Barclays Premier League and decided to have his way with it. As a Liverpool supporter, looking back on that time now is somewhat akin to reflecting upon the happiest days of one’s life. As the fall gradually turned into winter, it became apparent to anyone following the club that we had been granted the privilege of witnessing the world’s best footballer at work.

Seven days after Liverpool suffered a disappointing loss at the Emirates on November 2 — the last time Brendan Rodgers would trot out a 3-5-2 to start a match — Suarez decided to take out his frustrations on poor Fernando Amorebieta. He bagged an easy brace as Liverpool dismantled a terrible Fulham side, winning 4-0 at home.  That was followed by the Merseyside Derby, when Liverpool battled out a 3-3 draw in the Game of the Season at Goodison Park.  In the first half, Suarez whipped in a magnificent free kick from well outside the area to restore Liverpool’s lead — a strike none other than AC Jimbo called one of his favorite ever.

Then, there was the loss in Hull on December 1. Who knows what happened in the three days before Suarez took to the pitch December 4, under the floodlights against Norwich City at Anfield; what matters is that it was the start of one of the most devastating runs of form in recent memory. Suarez would score 10 in the span of four games — the now-legendary four-goal performance against Norwich, followed by a treble of braces against West Ham, Tottenham and Cardiff City — to bag 12 critical points for Liverpool and rid the club of the bitter aftertaste of East Yorkshire. By the time Liverpool went to City on Boxing Day, Suarez had scored an astonishing 19 times in 12 league games.

It’s still obvious now, as it was then, that we were witnessing a world-class athlete at the peak of his powers. Seemingly an indestructible force of nature — incessantly in motion, cutting and turning with the ball at his feet in a manner that simply belittled anyone attempting to stop him — Suarez’s technique and physicality was only part of his brilliance. It was cerebrally, via preternatural vision and anticipation, that he operated on a level above all his competitors.

Of course, at the end of the day an athlete is only as good as his body. Suarez might be able to see everything on a football pitch before it actually happens, but it’s no use if he can’t get himself where he needs to be, as well. Which is why it was depressing to wake up May 22 to news that Suarez had damaged the meniscus in his left knee and would have surgery that day with the expressed goal of playing in the World Cup in just over three weeks.

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Photo by Alex Livesey via Getty Images

Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

I get the impression that most of the casual football-watching populace has reacted to this development as though it’s a mere obstacle on the way toward an inevitability — Suarez will surely take the field in this summer’s showcase, ready and able to perform at his maximum capabilities. The suggestion is that even if he’s not on the field June 14 against Costa Rica, he’ll sure as hell be ready to take on England in Uruguay’s second group match. I wish I could subscribe to such an optimistic notion. In reality, I’m consumed with worry for the magnificent talent we had the privilege of watching this past season.

Suarez had a partial meniscectomy in Montevideo on May 22. It appears that in the interest of shortening recovery time between the procedure and when he’ll next be able to take the field competitively, doctors partially removed the meniscus, or cartilage, in his left knee. An alternative approach would have been to repair the meniscus, as Gareth Bale did in 2009, and take the rest of the summer off to prepare for the coming season. In American sports — and basketball, in particular, where cartilage injuries are as common as in any sport — this has been a tried-and-true approach by the likes of superstars like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. The drawback is time; one sacrifices an expedited recovery in favor of the long-term structural integrity of the knee cartilage.

This does not seem to be the approach Suarez chose. In the favor of returning to action as quickly as possible, he opted for the meniscectomy. Doctors removed the damaged portion of the cartilage via keyhole surgery, thereby eliminating the time needed for the meniscus to heal. The drawback, of course, is that Suarez has less cartilage to work with in his knee for the rest of his life.

Among the athletes who have taken this route — with varying degrees of invasiveness — are Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul in the NBA and, notably, Fernando Torres in the Premier League. At the time of their injuries, both Wade and Paul had their cartilage removed in interest of returning to the court as soon as possible. Wade is 32 now, while Paul is 29. Both are among the greatest players of their generation. And both are feeling the effects of their procedures, with limited mobility and an inability to stay on the court a factor for both. They’re still superstars and valuable contributors, but the impact of those injuries has been undeniable.

Torres, meanwhile, is a case that will surely strike close to the heart for Liverpool fans who had the privilege of watching him work at the peak of his abilities. He was a devastating striker; one with the physical gifts to single-handedly transform a game. But as he battled injuries, so did Liverpool find themselves unequipped to make up for his loss. The undisputed talisman of the side, it always felt like he was being rushed back from one problem or another.

Liverpool’s miserable 2009-10 campaign was notable for the side’s slow, painful degeneration into mediocrity — and no player epitomized that struggle better than Torres. He tore the cartilage in his right knee in the FA Cup loss to Reading in January ’10, going under the knife and barely missing six weeks before returning in late February against Man City. He proceeded to bag six goals in his following seven league appearances — a run of form that would impress next to any other (save Suarez’s, of course).

But Torres aggravated the cartilage issue against Benfica in the Europa League quarterfinals at Anfield on April 8 — five days after Rafa Benitez suffered widespread condemnation from fans and pundits (and even his own captain) for taking him off in a 1-1 draw at Birmingham City. I vividly remember Torres’ two-goal performance against Benfica that day. It was later revealed that he had played on a bum knee for 80 minutes.

Torres had surgery the next week, ruling him out of the Europa League semis against boyhood club Atletico Madrid and Liverpool’s run-in to a pitiful, 7th place finish. In an effort to rush back for Spain’s to-be-triumphant 2010 World Cup campaign, doctors removed the damaged meniscus and did away with it. He was never the same player.

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Looking through the record, it’s amazing that Torres’ ensuing career tailspin can be considered a mystery at all. Simply put, losing part of protective cushioning in his knee not only robbed him of his pace but also affected his ability to move as fluidly as he’d been accustomed to. Any confidence issues related to Torres’ performance must surely stem from the fact that he’s probably known for years that he’s shot. He reportedly didn’t even have a full medical before making his £50 million move to Chelsea, which would also explain a lot as far as that deal is concerned.

I bring all this up because I used to love watching Torres as much as I love watching Suarez now. That 09-10 campaign will unfortunately linger long in the memory for a lot of shitty reasons — Xabi Alonso’s departure messing up the entire team’s equilibrium; Rafa’s silhouette ballooning under the weight of floundering expectations; finishing in 7th place — but the biggest one will always be Torres’ fall from superstar striker to injury crock. It was a vicious cycle of overuse and mismanagement that, coupled with a disintegrating squad lacking in cover, signaled the end of Rafa Benitez’s designs on bringing a league title to Anfield.

While in many ways a matter of luck and misfortune, there are proper ways to handle an injury like this. And while you can blame any number of parties for the Torres situation, in the end it came down to the player. Torres might not have known that he was altering the course of his career by having his cartilage removed, but he knew it was a short-term solution made in the interest of making the plane to South Africa that summer. He’s since said that he doesn’t regret the decision. He did it so he could play World Cup football on the sport’s ultimate stage.

Psychotically competitive, Luis Suarez finds himself somewhat in the same boat this summer. Admittedly, there’s reason to be less alarmed about Suarez’s situation; the meniscus issue was reportedly found not to be as serious as feared, and Suarez certainly doesn’t have a history of knee problems. Less than two weeks after going under the knife, he’s already back in training. There is a chance that the rules simply don’t apply to Suarez, indestructible specimen that he is.

But I keep thinking of Suarez’s array of breathtaking dribbles — how, when finding himself one-on-one with a defender along the goal-line, he’ll cut and twist and turn until he’s beaten his man into oblivion. It not only demands immense technique and vision but also a more elemental factor: torque. It’s hard for those of us who don’t play professional sports at the highest level to truly appreciate the strain it places on the human body, but there is wear and there is tear and there is toll. It is why these guys can’t do what they do forever, unfortunately.

I hope Luis Suarez has an incredible World Cup. I hope he returns to the competitive area against Costa Rica in 10 days, physically ready and able to display the genius we see every time he steps onto a pitch. I hope his was the most partial meniscectomies — a slight trim of the affected area, minimally invasive and leaving plenty of cartilage behind for the rest of his career. A World Cup in the year 2014 without a fit and firing Luis Suarez simply wouldn’t feel right.

But more than anything, I hope that we one day look back on the halcyon days of late 2013 and remember merely one of several peak periods in the career of a magnificent footballer — not the singular, defining peak. I hope this injury doesn’t rob us of another transcendent talent, as it has too often in the past. I hope that Luis Suarez, true to form, is exceptional.

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