“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? What is undeniable is that his mention does, indeed, provoke a very sharp, divisive response within competing sets of fans. 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 for the sake of analysis. 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 do, 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 civility 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 score-line.
It’s important to dial back the years here. 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. More on that later.
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 of 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 rather difficult 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 clamoring for reduced leniency.
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. As the middle child of a group of seven, he grew up in Salto, a quaint town in north-western Uruguay. It’s a laid back 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 became 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. Drinking soon followed, and he began leading the kind of life that would have all but guaranteed that his footballing legacy never left those rough 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 enamored 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 hit Suárez hard. He exhibited similar symptoms of regression 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. However, if he was talking to someone on the streets of Uruguay about this grand plan, there was a good chance he would have been laughed at and 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, 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 connotation in Spanish and English. He claimed the Spanish language is full of similar 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. Anyone who has followed the workings of the media in England, in the context of football atleast, knows how sly they can be and they took full advantage of someone who was grappling with conveying what he meant, in a language that he is not used to articulating in.
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 Sir Alex Ferguson had stuck by Eric Cantona after his infamous kick at a fan in the stands at Selhurst Park. 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 Giorgio Chiellini, the Italian defender’s shoulder. The next visuals showed 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. 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.
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 highly 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 revolutionizing 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 skillful 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). An injection of nastiness into something pristine.
Suárez embodied similar traits, and there was a genuine discussion all around 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 their way in, all conjuring up an image of those who valued the process far too much than the product. While it sounds reasonable to question something if it doesn’t get results, it was a very convenient argument to make at the time because the style that Barcelona prized had served them exceptionally well. So much that it was the cornerstone on which arguably the best club side ever was built by Pep Guardiola. 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 were 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. Suárez was not part of the plan actually, the pass being intended for Neymar. Suárez got to it first, after having started his run inside the box. 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 were 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.
Luis Suarez returns to familiar hunting grounds for the Champions League semi final tie against Liverpool in a few weeks time. In many ways, he is a far more developed and mature version of the footballer who left Liverpool in 2014. There are some things that remain the same though- the will to fight for every ball irrespective of the context of the match or that unwavering belief in his ability when he takes chances that most wouldn’t because of the sheer audacity of it. Jan Oblak, one of the finest goalkeepers in the world felt the full force of that a few weeks back when Atletico Madrid played Barcelona for a chance to halt the former’s march to the league title. Anyone conversant with the evolution of Jan Oblak at Atletico Madrid knows that this is not a goalkeeper who is beaten often. He has faced around a 100 shots this season on goal and saved 81 of them. Oblak kept Barcelona out for a good 85 minutes or so and then it happened. As the ball fell to Suarez, Oblak was perfectly positioned and he had calculated his angles so that the far post was covered and out of danger. This meant that Oblak would have gotten to any shot that was headed straight to the inside of his post no matter how hard and perfect the shot. So, Suarez’s shot not only needed to curl away before curling back inside, it had to be at the same speed as a direct shot so that Oblak would have no chance of getting to it. Suarez executed it with surgical precision and Oblak, for once, felt suddenly human. It was also the goal which, more or less, ensured that there were very little chances of the league slipping away from Barcelona’s hands. Cometh the hour, cometh the number nine.
It’s not just that there are a staggering number of goals scored, he also has a knack of scoring when its most necessary. A brief look at this season throws some interesting talking points on this. The last minute goal in that thriller of a game at Villareal which ended 4-4 and ensured that Barcelona didn’t falter, the game that Ernesto Valverde- the most measured of men- called “mad”. It was also the goal which made him the top scoring Uruguayan in La Liga taking over from Diego Forlan. He scored two against Real Madrid to take Barcelona to the semi finals of the Copa Del Rey, and another three in the league Clasico in October 2018. The stage that has effectively seemed to resist his charm has been Europe since the last couple of years. He is yet to score in the Champions League this season and his away goals in the competition, a key metric for teams to gain a foothold in a two legged tie, have dried up. In the league, however, he is second only to Messi in the number of goals scored since 2015 leaving even Cristiano Ronaldo in his wake. The debate around Suarez, especially among members of the fan base and the larger Spanish media, have been quite intense over the past year. The starting point of such analysis is usually goals, and its fair to say that Suarez has had his bad patches in the past two seasons with more frequency than at any other point of time in his career. The injury to his knee that he was struggling to manage since the beginning of 2018 had something to do with it too. However, it must be asked if its fair to judge a striker like Suarez solely on the basis of goals, despite it being the defining characteristic of that position. He is a constant pain for the defence, never stops pressing from the front, and his vision and game intelligence is a severely underrated aspect of his game that usually goes unnoticed because its all wrapped in a clumsy package that belies the threat underneath. No one expects him to, and then he goes on and does it. Nowhere was this more evident than at the game against Real Betis at the Benito Villamarin in March 2019. The game would be remembered for that chipped goal Messi scored against Pau Lopez which saw the 54,172 fans in the stadium rise to their feet and chant his name, but there was a ludicrous assist nestled in between all this that came from Suarez. The kind of assist that looked it was measured on a scale, and fed to Messi’s path like it was a training exercise. The reality was that he was surrounded by no less than three Betis defenders and if there was space to feed in a pass through there, no one really saw it till Suarez made it happen. Flip the plates and there was another goal that showed another side of him. Collecting the ball towards the center circle, he ran through the entire Betis defence- making Marc Bartra contort his body into shapes that he didn’t think was possible, and leaving defenders crashing into each other and slotting it past Lopez. He is as adept at threading the needle as he is at breaking down barn doors.
Luis Suarez would meet a Liverpool side that he probably might not recognize under all that makeover it has undergone since he left. That team which he was such an integral part of was one that had a thriving attack, largely due to his goals, but never had the collective strength in its building blocks like the Liverpool of today. It was a sharp attack, with a middling midfield, and an unreliable defence. An inverted pyramid that didn’t take much to topple over. Cut to 2019, and Liverpool’s defence this season is the cornerstone on which their run in the Premier League and to a lesser extent, Champions League, has relied on and they are no pushovers. The addition of Allison Becker, Virgil Van Dijk, the consistency of Andy Robertson on the left flank, and Trent Alexander Arnold on the right flank has seen them concede fewer goals than anyone in the league. How that defence fares when faced with the prospect of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and in all likelihood, Ousmane Dembele running at them is something everyone has been prognosticating about, whether that be the pundits sat in their studios or those fervently supporting either teams. Suarez will have a clear mandate and that would be never to let Liverpool’s two central defenders have a moment to breathe or think. To occupy them so much that they are oblivious to larger dangers lurking nearby. There are teams that have taken the game to Liverpool and made the defence look vulnerable, notably Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspurs in the Premier League, but none of those players have the ridiculous accuracy in their decision making that the likes of Suarez and Messi do. Simply stated, when they get into the box, the likelihood of them missing their chances are quite slim. They have a mental image of where the other is, and have an innate understanding of the others movement in the box that makes it hard to defend against. Putting the onus on Van Dijk alone might not work, and this is the kind of game where Liverpool will need to dig deeper and find those gears that make them a formidable unit first and less about the individual shiny parts. They know the kind of player they face if they look away for a moment, waiting to pounce and strike the moment their jugular is exposed, and drain the life out of them.