As Liverpool edge towards an improbable league title and Tottenham fade away, many have taken the opportunity to compare the differing fortunes of the two clubs. Both teams started the season having finished outside the top four and were looking to break through this season. Both (initially) had young managers with much to prove. Tottenham have slipped up, unable to take advantage of Manchester United’s slide, whilst Liverpool have soared up the table and are now serious contenders, if not favorites, for the title. The obvious question is what did Spurs do wrong and what did Liverpool do right?
Some cite the impact of Liverpool sticking by their manager Brendan Rodgers despite a poor season last year. Others would point to Liverpool’s British base of talent and the rejuvenation of Steven Gerrard as both player and leader. Liverpool’s lack of European football has also been suggested as a factor. All these points may have their merits. But there is one oft-repeated point that is irksome: the Suarez-Bale debate.
The argument goes that Tottenham’s big mistake was selling Gareth Bale to Real Madrid while Liverpool stuck to their guns by refusing to sell Luis Suarez. Suarez has since become one of the world’s best footballers at Liverpool. Bale is still one of the world’s best but now plays for Real Madrid, not Tottenham. If only Spurs had held their nerve and not sold their talisman, they could be where Liverpool are now.
This view however, is seriously misguided.
This isn’t to say that Spurs are somehow a better team without Bale. They clearly aren’t this season. What is strange is this comparison between the two situations, as if both players and teams were in identical positions going into this season. There appears to have been a kind of collective amnesia amongst the media, pundits and the wider soccer-watching public. People seem to have forgotten about everything that happened with Suarez last season and the season before and they have also forgotten about Bale’s situation at Tottenham. So let’s call this article a mythbuster: Why the Suarez and Bale sagas shouldn’t be compared.
The Real Madrid Campaign
When most football fans think about Gareth Bale now, the main thing they remember is last season where Bale was scoring wonder goals every other day. After that, perhaps the month long transfer saga that was the prelude to Bale’s eventual move to Madrid. What seems to have been forgotten is that Real Madrid were strongly linked with Bale the season before. As it turned out, it was only Luka Modric who left that summer but the link was already made and Bale made no secret of his desire to play abroad. This was not, as it seems to have been remembered, a case of Real Madrid suddenly making a big play for Bale last summer. This was a move that was nurtured carefully, and consistently pushed along by the biggest club in the world. The culmination was last year’s saga, but this had been on the cards for much longer.
In contrast, Luis Suarez was more of an afterthought in the minds of the clubs that could afford to buy him. Real Madrid were focused on the Bale transfer, which dragged out over the whole summer, Barcelona were focused on signing Neymar. PSG had decided to spend their money on Edinson Cavani. Chelsea seemed focused on Wayne Rooney whilst Manchester City were busy buying a number of players who they felt would fit into their new system under manager Manuel Pellegrini. The only club that made a serious play for Luis Suarez was Arsenal, and even they only made a derisory offer to try and trigger the buyout clause. The only other team that may have had the money to buy Suarez was Bayern Munich but it seemed unlikely that Bayern Munich under Pep Guardiola would sign such a potentially divisive player. Which brings us neatly on to the next point.
Image and Reputation
This season Luis Suarez has generally been well-behaved but last season and the season before, this was far from the case. First, there was the racism incident with Patrice Evra that saw Suarez face a substantial ban and Liverpool’s good name tarnished. Then last season there was of course the biting incident. Suarez was undeniably fantastic last season in a soccer sense, almost on a par with Bale in fact, but there were serious question marks about his character. Despite Arsenal’s glaring need for a striker last summer, plenty of Arsenal fans were not sold on buying Suarez largely because of his reputation and image, not because of any questions about his ability. For the global mega clubs that could afford to sign Suarez, this was always going to be a big drawback to any potential transfer.
Gareth Bale, aside from his penchant for diving (an activity that Suarez also seems to enjoy), was essentially a model footballer. Keen to stay out of limelight and never really associated with anything unsavory, from a reputational standpoint, Bale was essentially zero risk. This clean cut image combined with his remarkable talent made him extremely marketable and, over the course of last season, he became not only a Tottenham icon, but a poster boy for the Premier League as a whole. As a result, any club looking to purchase Bale would know that as long as his talent translated to a new team and, as it turned out a new league, there would be no issues with attitude, behavior and image.
Gareth Bale moved to Real Madrid for a fee of somewhere between £80 million and £100 million, making him one of the top three transfers in soccer history alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and potentially Neymar (it’s still unclear how much he cost but it appears to be around £80 million). For a club like Tottenham that does not have the commercial revenue of the top four clubs (or in fact Liverpool), this was a serious amount of money. In fact, even for a club with big revenue’s like Manchester United, £80 million plus was considered too much to turn down when Real Madrid came after Ronaldo.
The numbers that appeared in rumors about Suarez were significantly lower. £60 million was probably the upper limit of figures that appeared in the media but the only serious offer appeared to be Arsenal’s £40,000,001. This was likely because of image and reputational issues as even last season, it was hard to doubt Suarez’ talent. In any case, the fact remains that unless there were seriously largely bids taking place outside of the media’s knowledge, the sums of money being discussed for Suarez did not come particularly close to those linked to Bale.
Time at the Club
By the time Gareth Bale left Tottenham Hotspur he had been at White Hart Lane for six years, having first arrived in 2007. At first he struggled, but from around 2010 he became a genuine star and last season he became a superstar. He was a key player in Tottenham’s 2009/10 season that saw Spurs achieve Champions League qualification and burst on to the global scene a year later when he decimated Inter Milan in the Champions League quarterfinals. Tottenham fans obviously did not want Bale to leave but there was an understanding I think that Bale had been a good servant for Spurs for the last three or four seasons. Particularly as he had helped Spurs not only get into, but perform well in the Champions League.
Luis Suarez on the other hand arrived halfway through the 2010-11 season. After an impressive first half-season, his 2011-12 season was relatively disappointing as he ended up with just 11 league goals. Suarez was of course much much better in 2012-13 but still managed to get himself suspended for biting an opponent. Since Suarez signed for Liverpool, the Reds have never finished above 6th, a poor showing for a rich (if not mega-rich) club with a long history of success. Despite his brilliant goal scoring record last season, it could be argued that Suarez hadn’t really done enough to repay Liverpool for standing by him through all his troubles. Indeed there was plenty of talk last season that perhaps it was time to cut Suarez loose as he was too much of a liability.
Taking all these points into account, the only real similarity between the two players is that both had great season’s last year for teams that didn’t make the Champions League. In pretty much every other way, their situations leading into the summer of 2013 were different. To suggest that Tottenham and Liverpool basically had the same decision to make at the end of last season and went in different directions is not so much missing the wood for the trees but more like missing the wood for a couple of dead weeds.
It does of course make a compelling narrative and create a useful contrast to try and explain the differing fortunes of the two clubs, but it is a short sighted and shallow analysis. There are plenty of differences between the two clubs – their attitude towards their young managers, their willingness to promote young players and the presence of a true team captain, to name but a few. The sale of Bale and retention of Suarez however, were completely different situations and to equate them is to completely misunderstand their respective contexts.