Can you be a world-class football player and a good dad?
Luis Suarez, the Premier League’s leading scorer last season, kisses his right hand for every goal he scores for Liverpool or the Uruguayan national team. The kisses represent his wife and two children: Delfina, aged three, and Benjamin, seven months. ‘I kiss here for my wife, I kiss there for my daughter’s name’ – as he points to his wedding band and right wrist – ‘now, with Benjamin I kiss here. I have my wife and two children; I kiss three fingers for them.’
As one of the buzz players in football, Suarez received a great deal of media attention in the run-up to the FIFA World Cup, currently taking place in Brazil, with critics and fans alike speculating on his likely behaviour during Uruguay’s matches. Broadcaster ESPN and the New York Times, in common with many other media outlets, have highlighted Suarez’s past antics on the field.
What most journalists fail to emphasize is the transformation Suarez has undergone on and off the field since he became a father. His gradual change in attitude has been slow but consistent. It has been noticeable to fans in his native Uruguay and in Liverpool –which hosts his family throughout the football season. Having broken records in last season’s Premier League and now leading the attack for Uruguay in the World Cup, it seems pretty clear that fatherhood is good for his game.
After a successful early career in his native Uruguay, Suarez moved to the Netherlands to play for Groningen in 2006. The following year he was transferred to the country’s biggest team, Ajax, where, during an intense match in late 2011, he bit an opposing player. He was fined and suspended; he later apologized, telling the press: ‘I want to be known for great goals, not biting.’ Two years later Suarez lashed out again, biting an opponent during a Liverpool-Chelsea match. Fans were shocked at Suarez’s second outburst and lack of self-control. He vowed that there would not be another incident, and has had 15 months of good behaviour since.
About 80 per cent of men across the world will become fathers at some point in their life. Brazilian NGO Promundo has carried out extensive research on the roles fathers play in the development of their children and the well-being of their family. The International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES), which examines the attitudes of men as partners and caregivers in over 20,000 households in different countries, shows that violence is not inherent. Men learn violence by witnessing it as children in their homes (the survey found that boys who witnessed a man beat his mother during childhood was the strongest predictor of men’s use of violence as an adult) and in their communities. However, just as violence can be learned, it can be prevented and behaviour transformed. Seen through this lens, Luis Suarez is an example of that kind of transformation.
ESPN, the New York Times and others will continue to fill blogs and online gossip forums with stories of the violent tendencies of Suarez and others. With their words and pictures, these international outlets further perpetuate the stereotypes that are associated with football players. But Suarez can be considered an example of the positive effects fatherhood can have. While we celebrate our teams’ progress in Brazil, we should also celebrate the men who play the beautiful game before going home at night to tuck in their children, just like the rest of us.
Mary Robbins is a programme officer at Instituto Promundo in Rio de Janeiro. Promundo works internationally to engage men and boys to promote gender equality and end violence against women. Find out about their MenCare campaign - a global fatherhood campaign active in 25 countries.