LONDON (Reuters) - Combining game-changing brilliance with headline-grabbing controversy, Uruguay striker Luis Suarez’s last World Cup was his career in microcosm.
In the space of a few weeks in South Africa four years ago, he forged a reputation as a sharp-eyed goal-getter, before joining the tournament’s hall of infamy for a goalline handball that ultimately deprived opponents Ghana a place in the semi-finals.
It is a pattern that has repeated throughout a footballing career where the peaks have been moments of maverick ability and ingenuity that have propelled him into the stratosphere of the game’s elite.
The troughs, however, have come to define him as a player and a personality and have included two lengthy suspensions for biting, one for racist abuse and a reputation for diving that has stuck with him despite valiant efforts to shed it.
His abundant quality has never been in doubt. He has a unique ability to engineer and get the better of defenders in one-on-one situations, a deadly finish and a knack for pulling off the spectacular.
That can be lethal when combined with a streak of sheer competitiveness and a healthy distaste for defeat that gives him an almost unrivalled work rate off the ball.
“I‘m one of the best players in the world, so having the opportunity to win everything – and losing only occasionally – is what drives me,” he told Four Four Two magazine earlier this year. “I‘m ambitious. I want to win and won’t stop until I score one, two or more goals.”
He heads to Brazil in the form of his life at club side Liverpool, where his goals have been the fuel for an unexpected title challenge.
He has already broken the Merseyside club’s goal record for a Premier League season, taking the accolade off club great Robbie Fowler, a player Liverpool fans affectionately dubbed “God”.
This month he became only the seventh player in the last 22 seasons to score 30 goals in the Premier League.
His World Cup qualifying goals, 11 in 16 matches, also helped book Uruguay’s spot at the tournament.
Yet in another microcosm of the Suarez saga, his record-breaking season began under the cloud of a lengthy suspension and amid accusations of brazen disloyalty.
Heading into the campaign and with the remaining six games still to serve of a 10-match ban for biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic last April, Suarez tested the patience of Liverpool fans by trying to force a move to title rivals Arsenal.
The striker was ultimately persuaded that his ambitions could be satisfied on Merseyside, but the will-he-won‘t-he saga dominated the transfer-hungry English media in the close season.
It was not the first time Suarez had found himself hogging the headlines, with question marks hanging over his character.
Before arriving at Anfield, he was branded the “Cannibal of Ajax” by the Dutch press after sinking his teeth into PSV Eindhoven’s Otman Bakkal, an offence that led to a seven-match ban.
He had been at Liverpool just 10 months when he had to sit out eight matches for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, while an early fondness for going to ground quickly in the penalty area won him few admirers.
By alienating many neutral fans, his first seasons in England made life easy for tabloid journalists on the lookout for a pantomime villain.
For supporters of Ghana, however, his greatest indiscretion was at the last World Cup where his impromptu goalkeeping skills proved cruelly decisive.
Three goals in the opening four games had helped Uruguay reach the quarter-finals.
Yet with their last-eight clash locked at 1-1 heading into the final minute of extra-time, Dominic Adiyiah headed what should have been the winner, until Suarez leapt to parry his effort to safety, earning a red card for his efforts.
It proved a shrewd move, however, as Asamoah Gyan hit the bar with the resulting penalty, as cameras panned to Suarez, who wheeled away pumping his clenched fists in celebration.
Four years on and this World Cup will give Suarez an opportunity to continue his stunning season on the game’s greatest stage and tip the scales firmly towards the side of the good and away from the bad and the ugly.
”This is my best season yet. I feel in a very good place, physically and mentally ... personally speaking, I want to continue that mentality throughout the World Cup with Uruguay.
“I‘m 27, at my peak ... I like winning. I hate losing – I’ve done enough of that.”
Reporting by Toby Davis; editing by Tony Goodson and Mike Collett