By now he may be the most famous biter in the history of sport, even ahead of Mike Tyson. He’s a serial diver and he’s been convicted and banned for racist actions. Most recently there will also have been some writing him off as guilty of cynically constructing a fairytale narrative normally just be fed to the gullible and naive.
Luis Suarez and his ‘love’ for Barcelona.
At one level it fits with the guff which players have always churned out. Hence the suspicion.
Never mind the huge contract, never mind the lure of winning trophies instead of clawing for top league survival, never mind exchanging a bunch of journeymen for shiny new elite colleagues you still get …… ‘I love this club… I’ve always wanted to play for this club… I’ve got the club crest tattooed on my heart…’
You know the drill.
As his debut for Barcelona draws closer the anecdotes have sluiced out. How he came to the Camp Nou as a fan, an impoverished 16-year-old who was captivated by the football but couldn’t afford to liberate a pair of ‘Ronaldinho’ boots until he came back again the next time with more dosh in his pocket.
How this is the club at which he wants to retire. That this is the culmination of a football love affair, at least on his part. But of course this is just another part of the walking contradiction that is Luis Suárez. Family man, consistently immensely popular with his team mates, world class footballer… occasionally no better than a street thug.
Thus, what could have just been glib phrases crafted by a PR agency turn out to be bang-on true.
Suárez first visited the Camp Nou when his then girlfriend, now wife, Sofia Balbi, moved with her parents to Catalunya. He’s a kid going off the rails at Nacional back in Uruguay. Sloppy and temperamental of attitude he’s not training well, drinking and, in due course, gets red carded and suspended for a physical attack on referee Luis Larranaga.
Aged 14, Nacional, his club, warned him they were about to release him, tired of his lack of focus and impatient with him “keeping bad company”.
Like Edmilson, who had a brilliant career here having been a juvenile alcoholic, the ‘last’ chance was the right one. There’s a long, brilliant, essay by Wright Thompson about those days where the writer goes to Montevideo and finds that Suárez’s part in that referee assault actually catalyzed events which led to a shooting. I urge you to take time and read it (after this piece, of course).
However, Sofía is his redemption. But she’s half a world away. When he first visits it is the transition season, Luis Enrique scores for Barcelona in a 1-1 Clásico draw at Madrid, Ronaldinho arrives in what Ferran Soriano [now the big boss at Man City] told me was “our rock ‘n roll” signing.
The Brazilian’s first goal comes at the Camp Nou in Autumn 2003, well past midnight because a dispute between Barcelona and Sevilla means the game kicks off just after midnight. [Spain, huh?]
Ronaldinho produces a slalom run and vicious long range goal. Because it’s so late at night and the city is quiet the 90,000 roar from the Camp Nou registers a blip on the city’s earthquake seismographs. Another real street fighter, Edgar Davids, (Suárez and he share a philosophy about means and ends) will join and Frank Rijkaard’s first season will erupt into what becomes an unlikely chase for the title.
Barça’s ascent to greatness has begun again, Suarez (by fluke) is present and is seduced.
“I was 16 and on holiday to visit Sofía and so we went to the Camp Nou and although I couldn’t afford any of the gear in the club shop we went there and I had photos taken with a replica model of Ronaldinho.
“Then when I’d saved up and went back I bought my first pair of serious football boots and they were the brand which Ronaldinho wore with his name printed on them.”
Kids with Scouse accents
Eventually his move to Holland lets him reunite with the love of his life. Now he and Sofía have kids. With Scouse accents.
“If you’ve someone beside you in life to support, guide and help you it bears fruit. My wife’s the one who makes me follow the correct path. Even if I score four in a game when I come home I’m a dad and a husband first: not ‘Luis Suárez’.”
Over the years, when Sofía and he visited her parents he’d take in a Barcelona match at the Camp Nou, incognito, and thus he swears the desire he feels to be here, to debut against Madrid not only because he’s desperate for redemption but to make Barça soar, is genuine. Not manufactured.
Indeed he claims that when news reached him via his agent, Pep Guardiola’s brother Pere, that the transfer would still take place he cried in relief that Barça hadn’t backed away from the deal after THAT bite on Chiellini.
“I thought I’d ruined my career.”
It’s all stuff the fans will love. At base level it just happens to be true.
“I’m at the club I always wanted to play for and If I could do well enough to retire here it’d make my career perfect,” he’s said since arriving.
Heard it before, of course.
Fat chance of a debut
Suárez’s fellow ex-Ajax alumnus, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, clawed and dragged his way to Barcelona out of love for the Guardiola playing style.
When I interviewed the Swede at the Barcelona training ground he talked of his adoration for this football school. That he wanted to submerge himself in the system and culture of the brand of football people would still be writing about, enjoying and trying to teach in 20 or 30 years. Remember how that one worked out?
What’s fascinating about this Pandora’s Box of a player is that the lid has been closed for months now. We’ve seen glimpses – goals against Oman, forcing an Saudi Arabian own goal in the friendly against Uruguay, and a couple for Barça B against an Indonesian youth select mean that he’s now scored 35 times in his last 38 club and international matches.
But his rehabilitation as a player (“When I came on in the Gamper presentation match for Barcelona I didn’t feel like their player, it was like I was just a guest”) has largely been done in secret. Closed doors training.
Luis Enrique’s ‘he’s NOT fat!’ outburst a few days ago stems from the images of the Indonesia U19 match, beamed around the world on Barça TV, which certainly didn’t show the Uruguayan at his leanest.
But given how often managers talk about players getting the last part of their fitness from playing, not training, perhaps that’s not wholly surprising. Certainly he looks more svelte now.
His fellow players have been knocked out by his training. Hold on …no NOT by punches!
Gerard Piqué marveled, the other day, at Suárez’s incredible ability to make the ball fall to his feet time and time again when players tackle him, seem to have the ball but, somehow, it ends up in him winning three consecutive rebounds off defender’s boots or shins and a goal-bound shot.
For his part the striker says: “You see the matches and you know their quality but when you train with Xavi and Iniesta and Messi you see them making passes which you think are totally impossible and when they pull them off it stops you in your tracks.”
There’s also been teasing. Oh yes.
“Don’t bite me…!” has laughingly been thrown at him if a defender wins a challenge in training. Incident free so far.
But Suárez admits that he “can feel the anxiety, the impatience to help the team and to demonstrate my worth to the coach, rising” as the D-Day approaches.
Whether that’s a factor which Luis Enrique needs to take into account – ie Suárez sitting on the bench getting more and more uptight in a Clásico and liable to unleash his adrenaline in an inadvisable way or beginning the match having built up to it knowing he’s playing – is up to Lucho. A big judgement call.
What’s clear is that whether behind every great striker there’s a great woman, there needs to be one to counsel, guide and calm this one.
Maybe Barcelona should put Sofía on a consultancy wage, just to ensure that their prickly, unpredictable new striker stays on the right path.