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“He struggled with himself, too. I saw it, I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.”
– Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Is there a player more provocative, more talented, and more capable of dividing opinions as neatly as Luis Suárez? One thing that is certain is that his mention does, indeed, provoke a very sharp, divisive response. His supporters seek to justify what lies beneath, arguing that his considerable and unquestionable talent on the ball ought to leave everything else in the shadows. Then there are the vehement naysayers, calling into question the issue of sportsmanship, antics, and an extreme version of pure unadulterated will to win that no one really knows the limits of, least of all Suárez. At this juncture, it’s essential to ask if those who claim to understand Suárez really, in fact, understand him.
Suárez as a player is worthy of further examination, not just for the sheer intensity, skill, and instinct that he displays as the ultimate predator heading the attack, but also for when he lets commonly accepted rules of sanity take a backseat, letting the raw survival instinct take over. There is no better exposition of that than a Luis Suárez on the edge, battling for the ball because it’s not just a ball to him; not just a game with a scoreline.
Major newspaper reports would cite that the first incident where Suárez bit an opponent was in 2010 during his time at Ajax. He was banned for seven games and given the moniker “The Cannibal of Ajax”! Apologies followed, but what also followed was the transfer to Liverpool.
There was a story that had appeared in one of those London-based papers, known more for their sensationalism than journalism. The source for those stories can be traced back to Uruguay, where Suárez was a youngster playing not football, but the ball. Pelota. That meant not just football, but street football. There is no softness to street football, no kindness in the proceedings. Even the surface seems to hold a grudge.
When Suárez was 16, he head-butted a referee and made his nose bleed, as a response to receiving a second yellow card for verbal aggression. Referees who officiated in Uruguay have been inconclusive in their recollections to the press. In a separate, but not unconnected, incident in 2003, there had been reports of a Uruguayan referee being threatened by the then head of youth football into changing a post-match report. The referee had issued a red card to a player who then subsequently attacked him. The journalist who had broken this news was on the receiving end of an assassination attempt, which ultimately failed, and the persons responsible were jailed. A lengthy trial followed, but further research failed to reveal the name of the player whose actions were the trigger for the chain of events that followed. Journalists who have reported extensively on this have had no clear traces to an original documented incident, no eye witnesses, no local reports, no league disciplinary records to refer to so that the player could be identified. It wasn’t until a journalist for the ESPN had met Suárez’s former youth director, Daniel Enríquez, that the long forgotten incident was linked to Suárez.
Perhaps, it is not unsurprising that the recollections of that incident way back in 2003 have been murky for a lot of Uruguayans. Suárez doesn’t divide opinions as sharply in his homeland as in Europe or the rest of the world. The people in Uruguay are not oblivious to the beginnings of Suárez, events and conditions which laid the foundations of what he was to become. Harsh conditions under which you can either sink or swim, football was the plank of wood that Suárez chose to stay afloat. It is quite impossible for us to put ourselves in those shoes; those conditions are not capable of mental replication for the sake of analysis. They have to be experienced. It could also explain the supportive voices that continued to back him from his country, despite all the other voices clamouring for fewer leniencies.
Suárez is a product of scarcity. Scarcity in terms of money, a well-knit family, or even a father figure. The last of these was particularly important in shaping Suárez in multifarious ways. Fans can see his aggression or that sense of his masks slipping away to reveal a Tyrannosaurus Rex in flesh and bone, willing to do whatever it takes to save itself, and unleash any amount of viciousness on whatever stands between him and his pursuits, to hold on to what is precious to him, ends justifying the means.
As the middle child of a group of seven, he grew up in Salto, which was a quaint town in north-western Uruguay. It’s a laidback place with hot springs, 19th century architecture, and a pretty riverfront. His mother secured a cleaning job in Tres Cruces, a neighbourhood of Montevideo and soon it was imminent that the family would have to move, too. Suárez despised this but was left with little choice. It was smooth for a year, but soon thereafter, his parents split. This deeply affected Suárez, who slipped from his football routine, started missing his practice sessions, started drinking, and began leading the kind of life that would have all but guaranteed that his footballing legacy never left those streets of Montevideo.
Enter Sofia Balbi. Sofia would go on to have a huge say, maybe more than she would have thought, in where and for whom Suárez would end up playing for. He was enamoured by her and fell in love with her when he was 15. In Sofia and her family, he saw and experienced for the first time the kind of family that he craved for. He felt he was a part of them. At the same time, the then scout of Nacional, Wilson Pirez, was busy making a case for Suárez to be promoted from the Nacional seventh team. Bolstered by the love he felt in his life, he almost broke the Nacional youth record for the most number of goals in a year. The record was 64, and Suárez scored 63.
However, the decision of Sofia’s family to move to Spain in 2003 would again hit Suárez hard. He exhibited the similar symptoms as before and football seemed to again be in danger of taking a backseat. It was a month later that the first violent incident would supposedly take place, the act of a man lashing out at a referee who was standing between him and his dreams of playing a final game with Nacional, his family in football. Was that “Suárez the player” angered by the red card or “Suárez the boy,” having just seen the life that he wanted and the woman he desired move away? It’s a guess, at best.
Moving to Europe was a big deal for Suárez. The catch was that he didn’t have the money. The plan that he arrived at could also possibly point us towards what makes Suárez tick. He chalked up the route he had to take to get to where Sofia and her family were, which meant he had to make it in Europe. Making it in Europe is probably the biggest bounty that a footballing career has to offer, the chance to play in some of the most elite level leagues in the world, the one stop that could give you a further ticket to the biggest names in world football. If he was talking to someone on the streets of Uruguay about this grand plan, there were chances he would have been dismissed as naïve.
He had to work tirelessly towards football, and get so good that it was good enough to attract a European team. The only way to be close again to Sofia was through football. He toiled with Nacional, which eventually earned him a move to Groningen, a first division Dutch team. He scored 10 goals in 29 appearances for Groningen, helping them finish eight in the 2006-07 Eredivisie. That attracted the attention of Ajax, who put in a serious bid for him, but Groningen didn’t want to let go. Protracted proceedings with the Royal Dutch Football Association followed, but Suárez did not get the ruling in his favour. On the day of the ruling, Ajax doubled their bid and Suárez ended up signing a five-year contract with them. The first big European dream was now well within his sights. It wouldn’t be his biggest, though, but it was a mighty step towards reuniting with Sofia and her family.
Suárez would go on to score 81 goals in 110 appearances for Ajax. He was voted Player of the Year for two consecutive years, and the title of Dutch Footballer of the Year followed in the 2009-10 Eredivisie. Records tumbled again when in 2010-11 when he reached the 100 goals mark for Ajax and found himself in that enviable bracket that includes legends Johan Cruyff, Marco Van Basten, and Dennis Bergkamp. Controversy followed soon, though, when he bit Otman Bakkal in a league game against PSV Eindhoven on November 20, 2010. Ajax suspended him for two games which the Royal Dutch Football Association increased to seven. His talent still defined him and a transfer to Liverpool on January 31, 2011 represented the next step in his long road to European glory. He had comparatively modest returns in the 2010-11, as well as the 2011-12, Premier League season. The highlights, however, were him being the Player of the Tournament at the Copa America 2011 in addition to finishing sixth in the FIFA Ballon d’Or list.
Two incidents, however, stood out in his remarkable stint with Liverpool. The first of these took place on 15th October 2011 when Suárez was accused of racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. The Football Association opened up an investigation and on December 20, 2011 handed an eight match ban and a £40,000 fine. Suárez later stated in his book that he did indeed use the word “negrito” or “negro.” Nonetheless, he claimed that the word didn’t have the same meaning in Spanish and English. He claimed the Spanish language is full of such ways of addressing people based on their physical characteristics and so even though he called Evra “black” he claimed it was a result of the language which couched their on-field argument, and not a reference to just the colour of the skin. He didn’t claim it was friendly but was vehement in his denial that it was racist. He could have denied he said anything at all because the FA weren’t successful in gathering what was actually said conclusively from the video evidence. However, Suárez chose to try and make clear what was said even though this would prove to his detriment. He struggled with English, giving opportunity to the media to interpret what he explained as they deemed fit. The last thing that was needed was another statement and another sentiment lost in translation.
Brendan Rodgers knew the value of the asset he possessed in the form of Luis Suárez and this was integral to him standing by Suárez after the second controversial incident in a Liverpool shirt, when he bit Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanović. The decision to stick by Suárez and have him lead the attack led to Liverpool being in the UEFA Champions League in 2014, as he ensured Liverpool finished in the top four of the Premier League. There were parallels to how Ferguson had stuck by Eric Cantona after his infamous kick at a fan in the stands. The 2013-14 Premier League season was a historic one for Suárez and Liverpool. He struck an impressive partnership with Daniel Sturridge, a partnership built on speed and creativity which would torment the defenders week-in, week-out. On April 27, 2014 he won the PFA Player of the Year Award becoming the only non- European to win it, followed by the Premier League Golden Boot. 31 goals in 33 games also brought him the Golden Shoe, which he shared with Cristiano Ronaldo.
A very rarefied level beckoned Suárez, the difference between being good and great. However, Suárez was never the one to let things come easily to him, sometimes he had to make sure they were hard, hard enough for him to rise up and claim them. It was the 79th minute of the World Cup game being played between Italy and Uruguay and the scoreline stood at 0-0. Uruguay seemed set to make an exit from the tournament when Suárez was vying for a ball inside the Italy penalty area. Suddenly, Suárez seemed to lean into Chiellini’s shoulder. This was followed by Suárez clutching his teeth and throwing himself into the ground. Chiellini was furious, pulling his shirt down to reveal the marks made by Suárez’s teeth on his shoulder, he was trying desperately to make the referee notice the incident which had gone unnoticed at the time.
Suárez would eventually be banned for four months ruling him out of the rest of Uruguay’s campaign in the 2014 World Cup. Forced into a temporary exile, and forced to question his reaction on the field, Suárez knew that he had to make the right noises for his dream move to materialise. He apologised to Chiellini, and set out to conquer what would probably represent the apex of his career, the much vaulted association with Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr. at FC Barcelona.
Barcelona held a very special appeal to Suárez and this was not just related to football. Sofia, now his wife, belonged to Barcelona. It was her family shifting to Barcelona that had prompted Suárez to undertake this long journey from the streets of Montevideo to the hallowed grounds of Camp Nou, that mecca of football which had seen illustrious strikers over time, but none quite in the same vein as Luis Suárez, though. He would not just be a striker who could lead the line; he would prove fundamental to the changing nature of the game at Barcelona, the team now looking for more ways to hurt the opposition.
FC Barcelona didn’t need to look further than his talent to express their interest and put in a serious bid, but maybe there was something more that prompted them to place their bets on this inflammable talent. Johan Cruyff had made a similar gamble when he brought in Hristo Stoichkov from PFC CSKA Sofia in 1990. Cruyff had a solid plan with which he had set about revolutionising how Barcelona played their football and the first step was to do away with the regular four-man defences, which were considered standard. Having three at the back meant more players in the opposition half with the adept ball playing midfielders able to push higher up and distribute the ball to the wide skilful players. This created more chances for the strikers, but he needed someone to deliver that lethal end-product, that unwavering eye for the goal. The Spanish Press even called him “mala leche” (bad milk).
Suárez embodied similar traits, and it’s surely worth a thought whether the club had been just too nice for too long, the intricate pass and move, the skill and flair of its players as they chose to glide rather than storm their way in, all conjuring up an image of those who valued the process too much than the product. It’s extremely difficult to prove that Barcelona were crying out for Suárez considering that they had the best player in the world, the best midfielders in the world, and a promising Brazilian prodigy who was a rising star in football at the time. It would be safe to say though that an injection was necessary, an injection of bad milk.
It was the second El Clásico on March 22, 2015 and the stage was set at the Camp Nou. Real Madrid was trailing Barcelona by a point in the La Liga table with victory meaning a very comfortable four-point lead over a direct rival. As the match progressed, Madrid tried to keep possession and control and Barcelona were thriving on the counterattacks, an unusual sight for many. Jeremy Mathieu had headed in the opening goal for Barcelona from a Messi free kick, and Cristiano Ronaldo had equalised, courtesy of a great exchange between Luka Modrić and Karim Benzema. With the score at 1-1 and Barcelona finding control elusive, the Blaugrana changed tact. Dani Alves sent a long looping arc of a pass beyond the Real Madrid centre backs. Suárez took two touches, the first one to gently cushion the ball on its first bounce on the turf, and the second one to direct it into the low corner much beyond the flailing hands of Iker Casillas. Barcelona, the club that looked for and sought control, had thrived in chaos.
Suárez would go on to have possibly the best season of his career at the end of the 2015 season, winning the treble in his first season at Barcelona and heralding a style of play that ensured that Barcelona did not always wilt under lack of control. There was a plan B now and it was mighty destructive. Add to that the intensive press that Suárez maintained for the better part of 90 minutes, which meant the opposition defenders had no time to think, rest or take a calculated decision. A moment’s lapse would ensure that the incredible front three would spring at it, leaving teams confused as to the focal point of the attack. His will to fight for every ball is in some ways a natural extension of the Barcelona philosophy of not losing the ball, and that lends an air of urgency to Barcelona’s pressing, belief with a touch of nastiness. The club finally stumbled upon a real number 9, someone who could keep the mantle.
Barcelona was winning 4-1 against Celta Vigo at the Camp Nou, when Messi was tripped inside the box and earned a penalty. He set it up as usual to dispatch it into one of the corners, but his touch merely passed it sideways, which saw Suárez get to it first, who had just started his run inside the box. Suárez was not part of the plan actually, the pass being intended for Neymar. The fact that he was the first to it is very much revealing of what drives him. He didn’t need a plan; he just knew he wanted to get to the ball first. Diego Simeone, the Atlético Madrid manager, himself a master of willing his aggression and intensity onto his team, has seen at close quarters the difficulty his team have had to contain that front three and his choice of words is as close to an impartial assessment of Suárez as it gets. Simeone said, “I haven’t got a bad thing to say about him. He’s complete: he can turn with his back to goal, arrive from deeper, score from mid-distance, head it, and take free-kicks. I love not only the way he plays but his intensity and voracity. He gives a touch of ‘vertigo’ to their attack that they didn’t have before.” They really are a study in contrast, Messi, Suárez, and Neymar, as if someone decided to assemble James Bond, Jake LaMotta, and Jason Bourne to carry out one heck of a demolition job.
In many ways, Suárez doesn’t fit into the mould of archetypal flair players that have come to define Barcelona over the years. His style of play is more brusque, and somewhat curious, because he never seems to be in control, always harrying, always struggling, looking to be out of it and then suddenly, in a flash, back in it. He knows where he wants to go, but not quite how to. It looks more like an obstacle course for him, each one to be conquered in his own way, the body shaping and reshaping itself to contort itself into so many shapes, so that he doesn’t lose sight of the ball. The motion of the ball, the defender who is leaning into him with all his strength to take the ball away, the gravity of the earth all pulling him down and Suárez has to fight against all of this. There is no respite for him because losing that battle with each of them means losing the ball. He got where he is because he hated losing, because for Suárez, he is not on the football pitch playing just a game. In his head he is out there on the rough streets of Montevideo, pulling everything close to him in a desperate attempt to hold onto what is dear to him. He has to fight because it’s not football, it’s life.