Bites, bans and a bucketload of goals. It would be hard to profile Luis Suárez on his 30th birthday without remembering the bad as well as the good – and to do so would be to ignore what makes him special.
Suárez’s volatility is central to his character on the pitch. He is so determined, so focused on winning, that moments of controversy are inevitable. But so too is that rare ability to turn a game by yourself and to inspire better from your team-mates. It’s not a phrase that will have been said about him too many times, but Suárez leads by example.
Though he is well known as being shy – Suárez himself said he was “timid” when he was introduced to Lionel Messi and Neymar at Barcelona – the Uruguayan is clearly a strong character off the pitch as well as on it.
He was the fourth of seven brothers, born into relative poverty, and remembers playing football barefooted on the streets of Salto as a child.
A move to Montevideo in order for his father to find work as a porter would eventually prove to be crucial in the making of Suárez, but even after he was picked up by Nacional as a nine year old his life was hardly plain sailing.
Aged 12, his parents separated. By 14, with his father having departed, Suárez was fighting for his career. In his own words, he had stopped dedicating himself to football. He was going out in the evenings, drinking, and either skipping training or being dragged to it by his coach who would turn up at Suárez’s home.
Then, aged 15, Suárez met his future wife, Sofia Balbi, and everything changed. She was the good influence he needed. Suárez took to working as a street sweeper, picking up coins so that he could take out his love, and when she and her family moved to Spain in 2003 he was devastated but determined.
It gave him a defined goal. If he continued to persevere with his training, he could earn a move to a club much closer to the girl he pined for. To most teenagers, such a plan would have remained a dream, but Suárez made it a reality.
Yet his start to life as a first-team player at Nacional was a rocky one. He did not score in his first five games and was missing “five or six chances each game” according to Ruben Sosa, who was the club’s forward coach at the time. He was close to being let go.
But he kept on working, kept on shooting, and eventually the goals came. He finished his first season at Nacional with 12 goals and was picked up by FC Groningen in the Netherlands. Plenty of South American players never make it to Europe, but Suárez managed it in one season aged just 19.
Sofia followed him to Groningen, but by now Suárez must have known it would not be straightforward for him. Nothing ever was.
Unable to speak either Dutch or English, he initially struggled. He was also ordered to lose almost 7kg before he would be considered for the first team.
As usual, Suárez was up to the challenge. He rejected the club’s offer of English lessons to learn Dutch instead. And he immediately cut out fast food and fizzy drinks, adopting an ‘only water’ policy he still sticks to today.
Even once assimilated off the pitch he had problems on it – in the space of five games in January 2007 he scored four goals but picked up three yellow cards and one red – but 10 goals in 29 Eredivisie appearances come the end of the season persuaded Ajax to stump up €7.5million and a five-year contract.
It was considered to be a significant fee, especially considering Suárez’s problems, but his potential was obvious.
At Ajax, Suárez played in a team packed with talent. With Edgar Davids, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen, there was enough quality for the team to hold its own in the Champions League. It was not long before Suárez was being linked with moves to one of the major European leagues.
Then, at the 2010 World Cup, he really found the eyes of the world on him. The tournament was being held in Africa for the first time, and Uruguay topped the group and helped dump out both the hosts and 2006 runners-up in South Africa and France.
A brace saw off South Korea in the first knockout stage, with an unnerving bend on the latter from their new starlet.
Diego Forlan had been the talisman for much of the tournament, but Suárez’s stock was rising. He was ruthless and enthralling to watch, like a blood-thirsty shark.
Then came the quarter-final against a Ghana side with the hopes of the continent resting on their shoulders.
With the score at 1-1, Dominic Adiyiah rose in the penalty box to head home an injury-time winner. But on the line was Suarez, ever willing to take one for the team. He made an instinctive save and was sent off. The images of him celebrating as the resulting penalty was saved drew condemnation worldwide, but the team made it through to the semis.
Most people can understand why he did it, and it’s not exactly the first time a player has taken one for the team.
“The Hand of God now belongs to me,” Suárez said afterwards. “Mine is the real Hand Of God, I made the best save of the tournament. Sometimes in training I play as a goalkeeper so it was worth it. There was no alternative but for me to do that and when they missed the penalty I thought ‘It is a miracle and we are alive in the tournament’.”
Uruguay went on to lose in the semi-final against the Netherlands.
When Suárez joined Liverpool in January 2011, he was briefly their most expensive signing in history, but Andy Carroll soon came along to take away a large portion of the media attention – handy considering his indifferent start to life in England. Fernando Torres’ struggles at Chelsea helped even further.
Suárez, of course, soon found his feet. After scoring 15 goals in 46 Premier League appearances in his first season and a half at Anfield, Suárez scored 54 in his final 66. During the second half of his stay, he was unstoppable.
Alongside Daniel Sturridge, he almost helped Liverpool win the title under Brendan Rodgers in 2013-14, but Suárez’s time in England will be as well remembered for the ridiculous moments as it will be the sublime.
He was found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra during his first full season at Liverpool, and then in 2013 he was caught biting an opponent, amazingly, for the second time in his career. He had previously bit PSV’s Otman Bakkal while at Ajax.
Suárez was banned for 10 games but remained at Liverpool despite a £40,000,001 bid by Arsenal and his own desire to leave at the time. He went on to score 31 Premier League goals, winning the PFA Player of the Year award and sharing the European Golden Shoe with Cristiano Ronaldo.
He became the first Liverpool player since Robbie Fowler in 1996 to score 20 or more goals in consecutive Premier League seasons, and the first to score 30 league goals in a season since Ian Rush in 1987.
It was well-known by now that Barcelona wanted Suárez, and not even a third biting incident at the 2014 World Cup could dissuade the Catalans from making their move.
He was banned by FIFA from all football-related activity for four months for biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder, yet Barça still agreed to a £75million deal. This was a player that had scored 82 goals in 133 appearances for Liverpool. He was worth the hassle.
At Camp Nou he has hit even greater heights. He has already scored more league goals in Spain than in England – in 30 less appearances – and after 100 games for Barça he had contributed 88 goals and 43 assists. It was a combined tally higher than either Messi or Ronaldo managed in their first 100 for Barça and Real. His tally of 37 goals in 2016, meanwhile, was more than any other player managed in Europe’s top 10 leagues.
Along with his dogged determination, one of Suárez’s greatest strengths is his consistency. To have scored goals as freely as he has for five different teams – in four different leagues, each in a different country – is no mean feat.
It has not been easy for Suárez. And some of the toughest times have been all of his own doing.
But he has matured as both a player and a person at Barça. With his wife and children alongside him, in the city which Sofia’s family have lived for 14 years, Suárez is at home. With Messi and Neymar as team-mates, he is even able to avoid the media spotlight he loathes so much.
It’s been one hell of a journey, but Suárez has finally found his happy place.
By James Milin-Ashmore
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