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Luis Suarez could be Uruguay’s hero if he can stop playing the villain

We may never see Uruguay at its full potential with Luis Suarez, and that’s Luis Suarez’s fault.

Italy v Uruguay: Group D - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

I have a disdain for Luis Suarez I can’t hide.

With athletes and celebrities, we only know what we see in those few moments they’re in the public sphere. Sometimes the person we see isn’t who he really is. It’s not fair to judge a man solely by what he does on the soccer field.

But even knowing that, Suarez has played the villain so well that it has overshadowed how good of a player he is.

In 2014, he bit Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder during a group stage match between Uruguay and Italy. Literally took a bite out of him. Uruguay needed to win to advance. Suarez wasn’t penalized during the game for the bite, but was subsequently banned by FIFA for nine international games, the harshest ban ever delivered to a player in World Cup history. He was also banned for participating in any soccer activities for four months.

That was the third time Suarez had bitten someone. In November 2010, he bit PSV’s Otman Bakkal on the shoulder while playing for Ajax. The team suspended him for seven games as a result. Three years later, when he played for Liverpool, Suarez bit Branislav Ivanović. England’s FA banned him 10 games for it. Between those two biting incidents, he was banned for eight games after being found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra in October 2011.

There’s more. He also handballed a sure goal by Dominic Adiyiah when Uruguay played Ghana in the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup. He was sent off, but stopped to watch and celebrate Asamoah Gyan missing the resulting penalty kick before going down the tunnel.

Suarez dives, fouls defenders then pretends the defender fouled him, elbows people, makes bad tackles, talks trash to his opponents, and is a general asshole when he’s not scoring goals or struggling because he’s out of shape. He consistently ranks as one of the dirtiest players in the world.

That isn’t to say Suarez is obligated to be an angel to his opponents, but the act gets tiring. At his best, he’s always bordering on ruining an enjoyable game with his antics, and at his worst, he threatens the health of other players who are just doing their jobs.

It was insidious for him to go in late and wild on Dani Alves. He did the same against Felipe Luis. And Nicolas Otamendi did nothing to deserve a tackle from Suarez that almost snapped his leg. The most ridiculous part of the Otamendi tackle is that afterwards, Suarez fell to the ground clutching his knee as if he was the one hurt to try to avoid punishment.

Suarez is still beloved by his teammates, and was even celebrated by Uruguay fans for his handball in 2010. There are neutral fans who appreciate his villainous act, because soccer, like all theater, needs bad guys. Suarez fills that role almost as well as Sergio Ramos and Diego Costa. He is dedicated to what he is, and he is still arguably Uruguay’s best player, even with Edinson Cavani on the team.

But for Uruguay to have a chance at success in the World Cup, they will need him on the field.

Players are under no obligation to be nice to each other. What happens on the field isn’t dictated by morality, but rather what players can get away with by manipulating the referee and the rules. And Suarez seems to enjoy riling up rival players.

Those dark arts often work in his favor. He has probably benefited more than he has been punished for his antics. But when Suarez has been caught in the act, he has greatly limited his team’s ambitions. And as long as he’s on the edge of being sent off, Uruguay can never truly count on him.

At the age of 31, he won’t have too many more chances to right his wrongs, and yet it’s naive to believe Suarez will change for the World Cup. It would be wonderful if he had a calm and prosperous summer, so the world can finally see how good Uruguay is, and so he himself can create a positive international legacy. Suarez scoring goals and nutmegging opponents would make for a better spectacle than watching him have to trudge off into the tunnel for doing something silly.

But Suarez will probably find a way to be the villain. The biting, diving, elbow-throwing, bad tackles, and nasty arguments have been part of his game for so long, we have to accept that what we see is who he his.