Ridiculous and Brilliant: The Dutch Education of Luis Suarez

Priya RameshSpecial to Bleacher ReportFebruary 16, 2017

Luis Suarez celebrates a goal for Ajax in a Champions League match against AJ Auxerre in 2010.
Luis Suarez celebrates a goal for Ajax in a Champions League match against AJ Auxerre in 2010.B/R

"It's ridiculous. It's brilliant!"

Hans Nijland, general director of FC Groningen, is talking about the rapid rise of Luis Suarez from a chubby teenager in the Dutch club's white-and-green strip to arguably the best striker in the world. He uses the two words that perhaps best summarize Suarez in general.

Suarez's biting incidents and general tendency to be unaware of the boundaries of behavioural norm: ridiculous. His amazing return of goals and assists: brilliant. His animated gesticulations and penchant to look for fouls: ridiculous.

His ability to produce all kinds of finishes, from bicycle kicks to long-range screamers? Brilliant. Ridiculously brilliant.

In the summer of 2006, Nijland, general director of the Dutch club FC Groningen, and Henk Veldmate, then the technical director of the club, flew to Uruguay to scout young attackers. Ten years on, Nijland can still hardly contain his excitement as he recounts, with great pride, the story of Suarez's transfer from Nacional, Uruguay's top club, to Groningen.

A considerable share of the global audience that watches Suarez toy with defenders, in Barcelona colours, is unaware that Luis Suarez was once a young, wet-behind-the-ears attacker in the low-lying Netherlands.

Suarez celebrates with his Groningen teammates in October 2006

There is a certain ownership that has come to define the feeling watchers of the Eredivisie hold for standout talents—from Ronaldo's PSV days to the likes of Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld of Tottenham Hotspur by way of Ajax: Ha! We got to witness their magic before you did.

It is no different with the Uruguayan who came out of nowhere and underwent an astronomical rise in four-and-a-half eventful years.


 

Among Dutch clubs, South America had generally been PSV's stamping ground in scouting since the '90s, with smaller clubs like Groningen rarely able to afford such drawn-out, expensive transfers. But having been informed by scouts of some attainable young talents, Nijland and Veldmate landed in Montevideo on 10 June.

Their primary target was Elias Figueroa, a tall 18-year-old striker who impressed in the Uruguay national youth teams. Veldmate and Nijland met with Figueroa's agents and were invited to watch him play in a match for Liverpool Montevideo against River Plate the same afternoon.

It is often said that sheer luck saw FC Groningen end up with Suarez rather than Figueroa, but Veldmate, now the head of scouting at Ajax, denies this: "We were more focused on Figueroa, but we already knew Luis Suarez before our visit because he was mentioned to us by an agent in Holland who had contacts in Uruguay.

"We already knew he was a big talent and were able to see him the same weekend. So it was partly coincidence, but it was not only coincidence."

Playing for Nacional against Defensor Sporting, the 19-year-old Suarez did not take long to make a more memorable impression than Figueroa.

"He was a youngster of course, with ups and downs," Veldmate says. "But in the game, in about 20-25 minutes, he started dribbles, he gave crosses and showed all the skills he still demonstrates in big games."

Indeed, 20 minutes in, a long ball was punted up to Suarez, who was waiting high up the right flank. The full-back miscued his interception and the ball reached Suarez, running at full speed around the outside of said defender. He charged into the box and then stopped just as quickly, letting inertia have its effect on another befuddled foe.

Two simple feints took a few more defenders out of the equation, and then he wrapped his left foot around the ball to send it sailing straight into the far corner of the goal. Hugs galore. Suarez wheeled off in celebration, with an emphatic thump of the chest and a kiss of the badge. The men from Groningen were besotted.

"Sometimes, he had a bit of luck—or it looked like he had a bit of luck," Veldmate says. "But soon, we realised: Look, this is no luck. This is quality. He knows exactly what to do in situations inside the box, and he always creates something on his way towards the goal. So we were quite enthusiastic and certain that this was something special."

That same evening, the Groningen officials met with Suarez in their hotel and inquired about a potential transfer. However, they were met with an obstacle: Suarez's agent, Daniel Fonseca, himself a talented striker in his day, was a few thousand miles away, in Milan.

Convinced that Suarez was worth the hassle, Nijland and Veldmate caught a flight to Italy the following week, but the deal was nearly thrown off by Fonseca's asking price. Groningen had originally been prepared to pay €1 million for Figueroa, but the agent waxed lyrical about Suarez and placed a €4.2 million fee on his head.

That was an awful lot of money for a club like FC Groningen. They had, after all, just completed the construction of their new stadium. The Euroborg spreads out behind Nijland as he continues narrating the story; its lush green pitch contains seats of an equally verdant shade, the plastic shining amid the grey and chilly winter afternoon embracing it.

As the director continues to gush—his eyes bright with nostalgia—one can almost see a young Suarez lighting up not just the stadium but also this vibrant northern city as he upstaged the popular veteran Erik Nevland.

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Nijland still expresses incredulity at the fee: "I said that is not possible for us. That's crazy!"

That could have been the end of the story. One wonders how things might have panned out for Suarez and Groningen, not to mention Ajax, Liverpool and Barcelona, had that been the full stop.

As Nijland and Veldmate tell it, the Groningen delegation travelled back to the Netherlands without either striker, and it seemed the adventure had been in vain until a twist in the story appeared and the full stop became...an ellipsis. A week later, a call arrived from the Suarez camp: "Mr. Nijland, can we come to Groningen on Monday to talk again about Luis Suarez?"

Suarez sat in a hotel room in Amsterdam as negotiations dragged on for three days. Discussion got so heated that glasses and cups were flung around, Nijland told Dutch broadcast outlet RTV Noord (link in Dutch).

But by 12 July, almost exactly a month after they had first been smitten with Suarez, Groningen put a ring on it and made the commitment official: They had reached an agreement to pay €1.585 million for the youngster.

"For Groningen, it was a big transfer, one of the greatest talents from South America," Nijland says, beaming, "Not Ajax, not Feyenoord, not PSV, but his choice was FC Groningen." He once described the Suarez signing as the "craziest" transfer negotiations he had been part of.


 

Before Suarez could take his baby steps in European football, he had to work on getting rid of the baby fat he was still carrying. In his autobiography, Crossing the Line, Suarez writes that manager Ron Jans refused to include him in the squad until he reduced to a reasonable 82 kilograms.

Beyond the money and the footballing potential, FC Groningen also understood that they had taken in a young boy in a foreign environment. They set about educating him on diet and discipline. "Ron checked my weight every day. I wanted to succeed," Suarez told Helden magazine in a recent interview.

And as former team-mate Antoine van der Linden told Voetbal International: "Once he was fit, there was no stopping him."

By all accounts, the presence of slightly older compatriot Bruno Silva also helped him settle in, but in the end, Suarez had a simple thought process: He would do anything to play football, and if "anything" meant shedding a few kilos, he'd do it. He reached the target, and more, within two weeks and ever since has consistently maintained his weight at 81 kilograms.

Suarez poses for the cameras in May 2007
Suarez poses for the cameras in May 2007Getty

On the pitch, Suarez took some time to click into gear, and his initial performances for the Groningen U23 were far from impressive. "He didn't play well at that level and [his] only impact [was] a few terrible fouls, for which he could have been sent off," notes Wim Masker, a journalist who has covered FC Groningen for many years.

Back at Nacional, he had been given an attacking role without much other instruction. His flair was his game, and when he arrived at Groningen, he would wait high up the pitch for balls to arrive to him.

Suarez was hardly wanting for energy, but he went to the Netherlands having to be instructed on how and where to channel it. Soon, by observing his team-mates and with the input of coaches, he realised that he would have to work for and with the team and began pressing higher and running harder.

It took Suarez 19 minutes of playtime to get his first goal in green and white. Away at Partizan in the UEFA Cup and 1-4 down, with barely a minute left to play, Suarez chased down a flick-on header from Nevland, tussling with the defender before getting a decisive touch on the ball to lift it over the rushing 'keeper and into the goal.

It was a goal that showcased many typical Suarez qualities, and it earned him a start at the weekend against Sparta. He repaid the faith by assisting the game's only goal.

Erik Nevland, a cult hero among the Groningen faithful, says it was initially challenging to function with Suarez in a strike partnership.

"Luis was a very individual kind of player, so sometimes it was frustrating for me because there were many times where he could play the ball, but he did it on his own," he says. "But, after a while, he learned how we play, our own game, and I realised that he had exceptional talent and could do a lot on his own, so I basically worked off him and adapted my game to him."

Like a cascade pathway, with every decisive involvement he had in a match, Suarez seemed to grow in confidence, which in turn made him an even more decisive player.

Two weeks later came the performance that turned heads in the 19-year-old's direction—and what Nijland describes as Suarez's best performance in a Groningen shirt. Playing at home against Vitesse and trailing 1-3 with 82 minutes played, Suarez's fervour led him to win a penalty, duly converted by Koen van de Laak, and then score two goals himself in two minutes, all but single-handedly earning his team a 4-3 win.

"How is it possible?" commentator Robbert Reimering cried in Dutch, stressing each word individually to emphasise the sheer wonder of Groningen's comeback and, more, the heroics of this unknown Uruguayan teenager who wore his hair long and his socks short, a wide buck-toothed smile plastered across his face.


 

Suarez's adaptation to Dutch football had been remarkably rapid, given the foreign language and culture. His football was becoming more aligned to the Dutch way of playing, too, and his awareness of space in behind defenders was improving. After the Vitesse game, Jans would no longer be justified in playing Glenn Salmon over Suarez, and he went on to start all but five of Groningen's remaining league games.

Former Dutch international Ronald de Boer, who currently works as a pundit for Fox Sports, says the regularity with which Suarez was getting minutes at Groningen was an important factor in his development.

"When you know that you can play 90 minutes every game, it makes you more aware of what it means to be a professional football player," he says. "Playing week in, week out, against stronger teams as well as weaker teams, makes you understand the game much more."

And in Ron Jans, Suarez had a real believer. He put higher expectations on Suarez than the teenager had experienced at Nacional, but with Groningen (and indeed, even with Ajax later), it was clear that if you gave Suarez freedom up front, he would shine.

That is not to say Suarez was getting ahead of himself. Veldmate says one of the main concerns Groningen had when signing him was his shooting. Nearing the end of his first season with Groningen, in which he scored 14 times and notched seven assists in 36 games, Suarez told Voetbal International in May 2007 that he understood that part of his game was subpar.

"I cannot shoot well," he said. "It should be better. I always just want to finish with the inside of my foot, [where you generate] less force. I am young and can learn a lot, especially from Nevland."

B/R

Suarez was young, impressive and grabbing headlines. It wouldn't take long for one of the big three Dutch clubs to show interest in him.

When Ajax first called Nijland to talk about Suarez, he responded with categorical refusal. Ajax had cheekily bid €3.5 million for Suarez—a fee Groningen considered insulting and, in hindsight, a precursor to Arsene Wenger's £40,000,001 offer in 2013. But the tenacious forward, who could barely rest after hearing of Ajax's interest, decided to make himself heard.

"The next day, Luis knocks on my door. 'Big boss, next year, I am a player of Ajax. I leave, I leave Groningen and I go to Ajax,'" Nijland says. It wasn't so much a request as a declaration.

"He was very persistent, every day," Nijland continues. "He was a fighter, not only on the pitch but also in my office!"

Suarez was no stranger to a dramatic transfer saga. The Nacional-to-Groningen adventure hadn't been his first go-round: He was spotted by Nacional when he was playing at the U9 level, but his local club, Urreta, were reluctant to let him go. Young Luis did not care once he knew Uruguay's biggest club wanted him.

Ajax came back with an offer of €6.5 million. FC Groningen were starting to entertain the possibility of selling Suarez but set their price high at €9.5 million. Desperate to make the move happen, Suarez and his agent took matters into their own hands and lodged a case with the arbitration committee of the KNVB, the Dutch football association, on the grounds that FC Groningen were blocking a move that would have great objective benefit for the player.

Suarez lost the case, but Ajax swooped in with a much-improved offer. Despite Nijland's initially insistence that it was not about the money but about trying to retain a talented squad, he made the deal for an €8 million fee.

Suarez in action for Ajax in February 2008
Suarez in action for Ajax in February 2008Getty

"Many fans were furious, indeed because he had promised [in an interview with Voetbal International] to stay for another year," says Masker. "What made it even worse was that he left for Ajax, a club that a large number of FC Groningen fans really dislike. Ajax tend to be more than a little bit arrogant. Modesty has never been a great asset of people from Amsterdam."

Sander Zeldenrijk, head editor of Ajax's official supporters newspaper, Ajax Life, asked Suarez in 2009 about his decision to press for a move. Suarez told Zeldenrijk that, at the time, he also had the opportunity to go to an unnamed Russian team for a lot more money, but "if I wanted a transfer just for financial motivations, I would have just done that earlier."

As he had with his U9 club, Suarez once again got his way. He was moving to Ajax. Nijland quipped then that he would be their best player since Johan Cruyff.

"Ajax weren't happy with that, eh?" Nijland laughs when I bring up the quote. The name of Johan Cruyff is understandably uttered with extraordinary reverence across most of the country, but it is veering close to sacrilege at Ajax to mention a young player—one who had only shone for one season yet—in the same breath as the great No. 14. Not to draw any conclusions from it, but interestingly, today, on the photo-montage walls of the Amsterdam ArenA, there is indeed a picture of Suarez next to Cruyff.

Despite the decline of Dutch football, Ajax remains somewhat a citadel: The manger who birthed the messiah of the sport; the institution that nurtured some of its most elegant proponents.


The training at Ajax helped to further the process that had been initiated at Groningen. The central tenet of Dutch football, as it has come to be defined by the likes of Rinus Michels and Cruyff, is the need for thinking—the cerebral aspect just as crucial as the visceral, if not even more.

Suarez was not renowned for being highly excited by the prospect of training. Nijland insists that he was a "super professional" but concedes that it was all about matchday: "Sunday, Sunday, Sunday. That's all that was important, not training on Tuesday or Wednesday. Only the game."

Suarez and his Barcelona teammate Neymar wore t-shirts in support of the late Johan Cruyff in October 2015, after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Suarez and his Barcelona teammate Neymar wore t-shirts in support of the late Johan Cruyff in October 2015, after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.Getty

John van 't Schip, who trained Suarez in the 2008-09 season as part of Marco van Basten's coaching team and later as interim manager of Ajax, found the same to be true. "I can certainly agree on that," he says with a laugh. "Luis hated everything without the ball and got his inspiration when games were on."

Van 't Schip, who most recently coached Melbourne City, does acknowledge a couple of exceptions. For one thing, while Suarez mostly found training a chore, his enthusiasm was rampant for attacking drills.

"For finishing on goal, you could even wake him up in the middle of the night," van 't Schip says. "At the end of sessions, he also loved to be the goalkeeper! He showed very good goalkeeping skills and it was no coincidence that he showed this in the 2010 World Cup against Ghana."

When Suarez arrived, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was the main man, having signed just 18 months previously and already notched 60 goals in 76 appearances.

Moreover, since Ajax played a 4-3-3, as opposed to Groningen's 4-4-2, Suarez was played out on the right. He was not expected to be a traditional winger who would bomb up and down the flanks because it was recognised right from the start that he required freedom and space to cut inside and storm toward goal.

Playing with Huntelaar, who was the better centre-forward at the time, and in a team who were defended fiercely against, Suarez was allowed to add depth to his attacking skills. The Uruguayan's mindset when he arrived had been to run with the ball toward goal once he received it, but at Ajax, he learned that moving the ball allowed the team to attack with more speed than moving with the ball, especially when there was a team-mate in a better position.

B/R

Huntelaar departed in 2009 for Real Madrid, but Suarez continued to play at right-forward, possibly because that allowed him a better view of the game and provided him the space to operate freely.

"We could already see he was more a striker, but at that moment in time he played winger," Van 't Schip says. "In some games, we told Luis to 'cheat' in his defensive role, and the team knew that he would be the first one to look for when we regained possession. Other times we made sure we pressed on the other side of Luis."


The process of becoming a holistically capable footballer was the key aspect of Suarez's evolution in the Netherlands. At Groningen and Ajax, he came to understand the process of thinking through the situation before running.

"I think the collective way of starting to defend from the front made him more complete as a player, and he certainly started to learn that at Ajax that year," says van 't Schip.

Suarez wrote in Crossing the Line that he didn't get along well with his Van Basten at Ajax.

He wasn't the same type of striker his coach had been. If Van Basten, a three-time Ballon d'Or winner with Milan who had also starred for Ajax, had been a swan, gliding along the pitch placidly and fully aware of his own elegance, then Suarez was more of a hyper-charged rooster in a cockfight, oozing emotion, easily provoked and racing down on goal.

But Suarez was exhibiting fantastic technical skills. He was getting quicker at anticipating movement, and he would never take more than a few touches to get himself into an effective position. Of course, he was scoring all kinds of goals, and many of them.

Suarez won the Golden Shoe for Dutch player of the year in 2010
Suarez won the Golden Shoe for Dutch player of the year in 2010Getty

Suarez's most clinical ability was—and is—his eye for space in attack and the instinctive way in which he knows where and how to approach the goal, both with and without the ball. Given that one of the foundations of Total Football is looking at the game in terms of space, the Dutch school turned out to be a perfect fit in fine-tuning this sense for space he already possessed.

In any educational process, the learning itself is heavily contingent on the willingness of the learner, and Suarez, despite his reservations in training, was more than willing to learn. His improvement at Ajax was as rapid as it was significant, and even as far back as 2009, the opinion that he was growing too big for the Eredivisie was surfacing.

Suarez and Amsterdam carried on a mutual love affair. He loved how the city's sophisticated fans left him alone on the streets, and he and his longtime girlfriend, Sofia Balbi, were married there. The fans appreciated his vigour, his passion to give everything to the team.

So much so, one could say he played like a fan let loose on pitch—an F-side faithful who had jumped down from the stands and landed himself a spot in the first 11, making the most of his chance to help his team win. This fan, of course, also happened to have elite footballing skills to go with it.

"Luis always wanted to play for Ajax," Zeldenrijk says. "Even if he returned from a match with the Uruguayan national team on a Saturday, he wanted to play on Sunday."

In 2009, Suarez further endeared himself to the locals in a Dutch TV advertisement for Beter Horen, a company that makes hearing devices

In the ad, Suarez walks into a shop and asks for something to help him stop hearing an "irritating whistling noise"—a joke on Suarez's constant run-ins with referees. The store manager offers to help him and invites him to take a seat on a bench, to which the Ajax forward exasperatedly replies, "Suarez never sits on the bench!"

At the end, when the store manager offers the store's business card—which is red—Suarez waves it away and says he has enough cards already.

A brilliant marketing strategy for the company but even more for Suarez; the video humanised him and made him more likeable (though admittedly this was from his relatively controversy-free days). Just the act of having a South American speak fluent Dutch on an advertisement was enough, but the ad also showed that he could take his own criticisms in jest. For all the controversy that would soon besmirch his name, those who had worked with him at Groningen and Ajax had very little negative to say about Suarez.

"He was a joy to be around," Nevland says. "He cracked a lot of jokes and was always smiling and laughing, so he was a very nice guy. There were never any problems like those you have seen in the last few years, when he had a few incidents on the pitch. There was never anything like that at Groningen."


 

In October 2016, as he picked up his European Golden Boot, Suarez looked back very fondly on his time at Ajax. "You know, I was lucky that I was able to play at a club like Ajax," he told De Telegraaf. "The Netherlands is the country where I learned the most. It is a kind of football school. There, I became physically and technically better and became more ambitious."

In a way, Suarez changed Ajax as much as Ajax helped him develop further. It was clear he was an effusive talent, and the system, especially under Martin Jol, who succeeded van Basten in 2009, became increasingly dependent on the qualities of individuals, as opposed to the interchangeability and interdependence of positions and players that Total Football had espoused.

Jol's team played as a 4-4-2 in essence, with Suarez and the striker (Dennis Rommedahl, Marko Pantelic or Mounir El Hamdaoui) spearheading the attack. It is perhaps no wonder that Suarez enjoyed playing the most under Jol and had a sensational return of 49 goals in 48 games in the 2009-10 season—his most prolific until last season with Barcelona.

Clubs were fighting over Suarez when he was still a child, but even among those who have worked with him personally, few expected him to reach the heights he has. He's picked up the Golden Boot in every European league he has played in and won the European Golden Shoe twice—an incredible feat given he has a certain contemporary duo who have broken or are out to break every goalscoring record standing.

"I was curious when he went to Ajax where he, of course, became a star," says Veldmate, who has keenly followed Suarez's evolution in Europe at every stage. "I was also curious about England because it's a totally different way of football; much higher tempo, much higher speed, which for him—not a problem. And I was also curious about Barcelona."

Indeed, on 11 July, 2014, one day short of the eighth-year anniversary of his signing for FC Groningen, Suarez made his move to Barcelona.

Getty

"Up front, I was very confident, from the way I know him as a player, that he would be a fantastic player for Barcelona, which he is," Veldmate says. "But I'm no longer curious about anything. This guy is a world-class player who is adapting himself and adjusting himself to every level."

The education he received at Groningen and Ajax allowed him to marry his explosive, raw attacking talent with the technical skills needed to operate in close spaces and at higher levels of football. This set the ball rolling for his further evolution at Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers, whose style was inspired by Dutch football, and now, at Barcelona.

It is a big deal, given the diminishing reputation of the Eredivisie, that one of the best players in the world calls moving to Holland the best footballing decision he has made in his life.

Ronald de Boer, who played for both Ajax and Barcelona himself, agrees that Suarez's time at Ajax helped him. "At Ajax, it was always about starting football with your brain, and then your feet," he says. "It's always quick thinking and ball control. Week in, week out, that's the main philosophy. So he is used to that, and then, it was easy to follow the same philosophy at Barcelona."

A great recent example of this can be seen in Barcelona's final La Liga game before the Christmas break, a 4-1 win over Espanyol. For the opening goal, Andres Iniesta played a peach of a pass over the top of the defence. Suarez bounded in from the right flank with pinpoint timing and, with his first touch, received the ball with perfect weight and directed it right where he wanted, such that he dribbled down toward the goal without ever breaking stride.

All the while holding off an Espanyol defender, naturally.

Iniesta got ample credit for the assist, but the thought and timing behind Suarez's run, as well as his first touch, made the goal. But sometimes, the best finishes are those where what the striker does seems so natural that one feels more obliged to credit the assist for having given us the opportunity to see what the striker does best.

Suarez has had a longer-winded, more eventful journey to the summit than either Lionel Messi or Neymar, but he is a better striker and footballer for having undergone the journey he has.


Johan Cruyff wrote in his De Telegraaf column on 14 July, 2014, that Suarez's signing may have indicated a big shift in Barcelona's style of play, that they were prioritising "individual genius over a team that plays great football."

It was an observation only made further true through retrospection, but it is undeniable that the collective brilliance of those three, along with Iniesta behind them, has produced football as captivating as the Pep Guardiola era, albeit in a different way.

Suarez, Neymar and Messi at Barcelona
Suarez, Neymar and Messi at BarcelonaGetty

Perhaps Diego Simeone, speaking to the Guardian in February 2016, best summarised the all-round potency of Suarez: "He's complete: He can turn with his back to goal, arrive from deeper, score from mid-distance, head it, 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."

In Crossing the Line, Suarez notes, "If my Uruguayan roots taught me to never stop fighting on the pitch, then my Dutch education taught me to never stop thinking."

Luis Suarez is a unique confluence of footballing cultures, the South American flair and spontaneity being refined and moulded with technical skills in the most influential footballing school in the history of the sport.

Ridiculous and brilliant, indeed.

 

All quotes and information obtained firsthand except as noted.