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A message for Luis Suarez: winning at all costs isn’t winning at all

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I was once invited for tea with Jack Nicklaus at a hotel next to St Andrews. He greeted me with courtesy, showed me to a seat, and then poured. He was kind, discursive and humane. Almost old-worldly. This sense of decency characterised the way he played the game, too. He respected the rules, respected his opponents and generally conducted himself with honour. At the 1969 Ryder Cup, he conceded a crucial putt to Tony Jacklin on the final green, an act that has, to many, become synonymous with the elusive spirit of golf.

Now, here is something else about Nicklaus that is, perhaps, even more striking: he was a winner. In the way he swung his clubs, he was ruthless. He nailed important putts and he rarely missed the green when a major championship was approaching its climax. He ended up winning 18, a record that may not be surpassed for some time.

Do you see the distinction, here? Nicklaus, like Tom Watson and others, was vindictive, but in a wonderfully limited sense. He was ruthless with his clubs rather than with his manner. He wanted to win, but never tried to punch anyone who got the better of him. He was ultra-driven, but grasped the subtle truth that ambition can never be an excuse for betraying one’s values.

All of which brings us to Luis Suárez, who has moved from Liverpool to Barcelona for a vast fee of £75 million. The Uruguayan is a fine footballer and will doubtless add to an impressive array of players. The logic of the transfer is unmistakable.

But many have positioned the sale not merely in football terms, but in psychological terms, too. They have made the point that a man who is prepared to bite someone (well, three people), and engage in other kinds of unsavoury behaviour, will add steel to a team that is — how shall we put this — a bit goodie two shoes.

In a thought-provoking piece previewing the move, Rory Smith, my colleague, argued that Suárez would “shake things up”. He compared him with Hristo Stoichkov, a former Barcelona player, who once stamped on a referee. He wrote that Luis Enrique, the new Barcelona coach, “wanted the Uruguayan despite the controversies that have soured his time in the Barclays Premier League; it is just as likely, though, that he wanted him because of them.”

In his forthright memoir, Zlatan Ibrahimovic also invoked the idea that the Barcelona of recent years were a bit too nice. “(Lionel) Messi, Xavi (Hernández), (Andrés) Iniesta, the whole gang, they were like schoolboys,” he wrote. “The best footballers in the world stood there with their heads bowed.”

The Swede’s point, and it has been made ad infinitum since the Suárez move, is that these choirboys need a bit more of the Machiavellian spirit. They need to find their inner rogue if they are to conquer Europe again.

Forgive me for disagreeing. Barcelona have been the finest team on the planet. They have played beautiful football with a keen competitive edge. The idea that because Iniesta and Xavi listen attentively to the coach, go home after training (rather than getting hammered and having a punch-up?), and rarely indulge in two-footed lunges (despite provocation), they are therefore a bit soft, is to conflate two very different things.

Let us call it the Nicklaus fallacy. It is the tendency to confuse decency with a lack of ambition. On the flip side, it is the insinuation that by biting someone on the shoulder, or stamping on an opponent, you are showing just how much you want it. But can we really entertain this argument? Surely, we show how much we want it not with petty displays of spite, but in the way we practise, make sacrifices and invest our time in preparation.

This argument has ramifications beyond sport. We often hear that those who behave badly would lose their “edge” if they were forced to tone down their vindictiveness. But there is no evidence for this. At Greenhouse, a charity that provides sport and mentoring in areas of deprivation (and which has been supported by The Times), we have seen the exact opposite. As young people learn to respect other people and the rules, they grow in ambition. They grow in maturity and self-respect, too. And they perform better, in sport and life.

Values are not incompatible with success; from a wider perspective, they are essential to it. Sport can’t function without a set of rules and a majority willing to play by them. Many of the greatest champions, far from having low standards of conduct, have had the highest. Think of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Yes, they are ruthless, driven, and, in a sense, vindictive. They attempt with every fibre to thwart the ambitions of opponents. But they do so within a framework of civility.

I attended a conference for investment banks last week and was struck just how often “values” were mentioned. The industry that was partly responsible for the credit crunch had woken up to the realisation that “ripping the eyes” out of a client is not a sign of ambition, but of losing one’s moral way. The really ambitious bankers, one speaker said, were those who did the right thing, worked hard, and made profits, even as competitors were bending the rules. It is a precious message.

I suggest that Suárez would lose nothing in footballing terms if he ditched the urge to bite people. Indeed, he would become a better player. Why do you think Liverpool hired Dr Steve Peters, the psychiatrist, to offer counselling? They were not thinking: “well, Suárez might lose his edge, but at least he won’t be banned so often”. No, they thought he could become a more complete player devoid of these tendencies.

As for Barcelona: they have much to improve if they wish to regain the superlative form of yesteryear, and Suárez, a magical player, will help mightily with that. But they have nothing whatever to gain from the less savoury aspects of his persona (and much, potentially, to lose). Nicklaus once said that “winning at all costs is not really winning at all”. They are words we should never lose sight of.

© 2014 The Times | This article was written by Matthew Syad and first appeared in The Times on 19 July 2014.

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