Barcelona vs. Ajax. Liverpool vs. Real Madrid. Real Madrid vs. Barcelona.
It is a week of titanic football matches that will be contested by some of the world’s best players, but one player in particular looms over them all—even though he can only figure in one of the three games, and even then it’ll probably only be for a few minutes.
On Tuesday night in Catalonia we’ll see the visit of the club that made Luis Suarez a star. On Wednesday in Merseyside we’ll witness Liverpool’s ultimate test of their unconvincing “Life after Luis.” Then on Saturday in Madrid comes the probable return of one of football’s most divisive characters. Forget Shark Week; Luis Suarez Week promises to captivate like few others.
The story of Suarez is a known one. He’s the kid from Salto, northwestern Uruguay, and the fourth of seven brothers.
Formative memories of life in the second-most populated city in Uruguay would still have been in their early stages when the Suarez family upped sticks and moved to Montevideo, the capital and largest city, on the other end of the country. Luis was seven.
If it was a move that was designed to help keep the family together then it didn’t work, with Suarez’s parents splitting up two years later, by which point little Luis had begun to spend his days out on the streets either playing football on them or cleaning them for little money.
It is at this point that you really should be reminded of the quite brilliant profile of Suarez written before the recent World Cup by ESPNFC.com’s Wright Thompson.
It is a staggering piece of writing that explores Suarez’s early years in Uruguay and establishes how they affected and moulded the player that we see today, one whose actions so often leave us scratching our heads either in acknowledgement of a piece of footballing genius, or in disbelief at an act of a bizarre and troubling nature.
Thompson sets out to try and find the truth behind a decade-old tale of Suarez head-butting a referee when he played for Nacional’s youth team at the age of 16.
As the writer discovers, it is difficult to find out the full story, as those in Uruguay remain fiercely loyal to a man who has become their country’s star player. You need only look at the reaction to his bite on Giorgio Chiellini in the summer for further evidence of that.
But it isn’t Suarez’s early days that we’re interested in here—more his career in Europe that began when he engineered a move to the Dutch club Groningen in 2006. His girlfriend and now-wife Sofia had moved to Barcelona with her family in 2003, and being kept away from her in Montevideo was beginning to depress the teenage Suarez. You can almost picture the mood swings.
In Holland he would get to see her more, and so his attitude and outlook improved with his football following suit.
One year at the Euroborg Stadium—which manages to maintain the nicknames of “The Green Cathedral” and “The Green Hell” without a nod to the irony—was all that anyone needed to see to prove that Suarez could cut it at a top club. Ajax swooped, after a legal battle, and so our story really begins.
It is a story that encompasses three football clubs with 13 European Cups and 73 domestic league titles between them, as well as one of only five nations to have won the World Cup more than once.
The only contribution Suarez made to those numbers—his role in the first half of what became a title-winning Ajax season before his move to Liverpool—is a tainted one, though, and it gives us the key theme that we’re looking to explore. Namely, can you want to win too much?
We’re not talking about the obsessive accumulation of trophies that we’ve seen from the very greatest figures in football but more just the act of winning one football match, of getting the better of the opponent in front of you, of getting one over on them or him.
It is this desire that drives Suarez throughout his evolution from Salto to Montevideo to Groningen to Ajax to Liverpool to Barcelona. He wants to beat you, and if he doesn’t or isn’t then a mind fog ensues. Things get hazy and then they get stupid.
The first such stupid thing occurred in what became Suarez’s final match for Ajax, the team he once scored 49 goals in 48 games in a single season for, the team in which he struck up a great partnership with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, the team he captained and the team that started him on the road to becoming the player he is today.
As you must know where we’re going with this now, it’s worth pointing out that the bite on PSV Eindhoven’s Otman Bakkal shares very little in common with the later ones whilst wearing the shirts of Liverpool and Uruguay.
Those two were broadly similar—which we’ll come to later—but this one merely amplifies the simple lunacy of the action. Play had stopped, there was an altercation between both sets of players and then Suarez did that.
This one was an aggressive act. The score was 0-0 and Suarez had missed some chances and was frustrated—though not as much as he would be in the later two bites—and so the whole unedifying thing was played out amid huge media attention. How much do you want to win, Luis? That much? Enough to bite a man?
Instantly, the incident was matched to the one in Johannesburg at the World Cup just months earlier, when fate conspired to paint Suarez as the villain for the first, but certainly not the last, time in his career.
Deliberate goal-line handballs aren’t as rare as everyone back then wanted to have you believe. You need only remember Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s effort at Chelsea in March when he apparently morphed into Kieran Gibbs, or Phil Neville's arm save in the last minute of a Merseyside derby in 2007. Indeed, look at Jorge Fucile’s elaborate attempt at a diving stop against Ghana in the milliseconds before Suarez makes his save.
But it was the fact that this one prevented an African team from reaching the semi-finals for the first time at the first ever African World Cup that really went against Suarez. That and the wild celebrations when Asamoah Gyan missed his kick meant that we could all have a bad guy.
Those celebrations were a bit tough to watch, but four years on the incident is somewhat glossed over when we talk about Suarez’s controversies. Looking back, though, it did give us an example of the will to win that exists within Suarez that isn’t matched by anyone else in world football.
The forward wears matches. You could not know the score of any game he’s playing in and then find it out just by looking at his expression, which will be pained and contorted if things aren’t going his team’s way.
Get in the way of Suarez winning a football match and prepare to feel his wrath. It is an approach that might start with an exaggerated fall to win a free-kick in the centre of the pitch but will then evolve into a blatant dive, an attempt to con, a bite, or even worse…
Ah yes, even worse.
After the Bakkal bite and his move to England, Suarez had taken to Liverpool life and Liverpool life had taken to him. He’d cast his spell over the Reds supporters already; here was the man that all hopes of a return to the elite would be pinned on, here was the man who was going to be backed to the hilt. Then Manchester United visited in October 2011, and all of that became even starker.
The Patrice Evra racism case has been discussed in much detail before, and this isn’t aimed at adding to that. The whys and wherefores of it are now ingrained in so many minds that anything written here won't change one's stance.
What it did to Liverpool as a club was pose a question that is the key to our discussion here, though. How important is winning, and how do you want to win? At all costs? At the cost of seeing your key forward labelled with one of society’s ugliest ills?
Timing wasn’t on Suarez’s mind when he opened his mouth in front of Evra and the Kop end, but he literally could barely have done it at a worse time for his football club. The Reds were still attempting to put the right people in the right places in the hierarchy following the takeover from Fenway Sports Group a year earlier. Nobody had a clue how to deal with this.
It became a football decision rather than a club, or public relations, one. Manager Kenny Dalglish was now in the firing line and has sadly seen his marvellous reputation somewhat scarred by it.
Suarez deserved a defence—everyone does, and it must be remembered that he was only found guilty on the balance of probabilities—but the manner of that defence made Liverpool look foolish. You all remember the T-shirts.
Here they were desperate to back their best player, but the argument that they’d have acted differently had this been a youth player or a less important squad member is a very real one. How much did they want to win? The club now shared Suarez’s attitude. A lot of the fans did, too. For some, their reputation has been tarnished forever.
But they wanted to win, and to do that they needed Suarez and an environment that would get the best out of him.
When he came back the Reds won the League Cup and lost in the FA Cup Final. It wasn’t enough for Dalglish to keep his job, and in came Brendan Rodgers with a new approach.
Liverpool’s 2012/13 season was all about laying the foundations for what was to come, and for the first eight months of it they did that with few dramas. Then Chelsea came to Anfield in April 2013 and the next chapter of the Suarez story was to come with them.
The Reds already had no chance of making the Champions League, in contrast to their opponents. They didn’t have a bottomless pit of cash, in contrast to their opponents, and they didn’t have an experienced manager at the helm, in contrast to their opponents who by now had Rafael Benitez, once famously of the Anfield parish.
Like the Bakkal bite, it is worth remembering the context of the game before you jump to the most memorable part of it.
Suarez had set up Daniel Sturridge for a fine equaliser before he needlessly gave away a penalty with another high-profile handball. When Eden Hazard scored it, you could see the rage building up inside.
It was just minutes later when Steven Gerrard teed up a cross from the right, and Suarez jostled with Branislav Ivanovic in the penalty area, turned his head toward the Chelsea defender’s shoulder and bit it. Right after, Suarez went down, indicating that he had been the one wronged.
The first replays of the incident were met with howls of disbelief, and some laughter. How could he? Why did he? What now? Well, nothing as it turned out. Suarez stayed on the pitch and scored a 96th-minute equaliser.
It was obvious that the concession of the penalty had played a part. Suarez was angry that he was the reason the team were losing, and that anger was about to manifest itself.
In his eyes, the nibble on the shoulder was meant to distract Ivanovic, who would then be unable to reach Gerrard’s cross and Suarez would be free to fire it into the net. Job done. Hero again.
There is something in that complicated mind that made him feel that this was okay to do. That the end justified the means. That winning is the be-all and end-all. How much do you want to win, Luis? Enough to bite a man? Again?
The 10-game ban was inevitable and correct, as correct as Liverpool’s stance was that summer when they refused to allow Suarez to leave the club, with the Uruguayan no doubt seeking shelter from the understandable abuse now coming his way.
How he responded when he was denied his move was down to the platform Liverpool had created for him. Like Ajax did years earlier, this was a managed moment in the development of one of the best players in the world. From the very moment he came back from his ban in a League Cup tie at—inevitably—Old Trafford and then in the Premier League at Sunderland, he was brilliant.
Not since Cristiano Ronaldo’s staggering 2007/08 season at Manchester United has one player cast such a spell over England’s top division. Ronaldo scored 31 goals in 34 league games in that campaign, but Suarez would get 31 in 33.
He was electric. There was a four-game spell in December when he scored 10 goals, four in a game against Norwich and then braces in successive matches against West Ham, Tottenham and Cardiff.
An injury to Gerrard meant that he wore the captain’s armband for two of those fixtures, but he didn’t need that to prove he was a leader. He was dragging performances out of the teammates around him. He was reaching a new level and inviting others to join him.
The likes of Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, Philippe Coutinho, Jon Flanagan and Daniel Sturridge—young players still susceptible to seeing their careers go the wrong way—all decided to follow him; they all suddenly wanted to win as much as Suarez.
These were to be the finest times of the Uruguayan’s stay at Liverpool, and it was the greatest football that the Reds have played in the Premier League era. It just didn’t get a golden ending.
No one thought it was ever going to end in a first league title since 1990, but that dream was becoming a reality with each passing week. Liverpool had gone from no hopers to title favourites. Beat a formidable Chelsea at home and that would have been pretty much it. How much did they want to win? Too much, it turned out.
Emotion was injected into every Reds performance in the closing weeks, most notably the win over Manchester City in the week of the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough. From 2-0 up they were pegged back to 2-2 by a brilliant City fightback, then Coutinho fired in the winner. Spines tingled.
There wasn’t the usual cold, calculated way that Manchester United went about their title pursuits under Sir Alex Ferguson, or Chelsea did under Jose Mourinho. That isn’t to say that it was Rodgers’ fault. Everyone just got a bit carried away.
After the loss to Chelsea, the visit to Crystal Palace wasn’t the “everything on the line” game that it could have been, but the meltdown in which the Reds conceded three late goals to throw away a 3-0 lead led to a season’s worth of emotion leaving the body at the full-time whistle. Suarez was notably distraught.
He’d scored that night, and it proved to be his final goal for the Reds.
Many had suggested that the new contract he’d signed the previous December included a get-out clause if one of La Liga’s big two were interested, and Barcelona had taken note of his performances. How could they not? There were periods over the season when no player in the world could match what he was doing.
However, there was now anxiety to throw into the mix. Liverpool had just come so close to the Premier League title, but could they “go again” the following season? Were they good enough to? As we’ve discovered, anxiety and Suarez don’t match.
In addition, a knee injury initially picked up during his final Liverpool appearance against Newcastle became worse in the lead-up to the World Cup, which Suarez was now in serious danger of missing.
Apprehension ruled. Would he make it? Perhaps more pertinently, what condition would he be in if he did? Would he be able to give his all in pursuit of a victory, something that, if he couldn’t do, was going to be likely to haunt him for life?
He missed Uruguay’s opening game against Costa Rica in Fortaleza, a shock 3-1 defeat. Lose to England in Sao Paulo and they’d probably be going out.
Everything was now on the line, a line Suarez would have been even more determined to cross when England manager Roy Hodgson seemingly challenged him to prove his quality pre-match. You don’t do that, Roy.
Suarez’s brace all but knocked England out, and after the game the emotion (shown in the video above) just poured out of a forward who had seemingly made it his personal mission to eliminate the English. Suarez wanted this so, so much, and whilst that has got him in trouble in the past it just served to motivate him here. The trouble was to come later.
And you all know what happened next because it is still happening now. Suarez is still banned from competitive football because of what occurred in Natal. And at Anfield. And in Amsterdam.
His third bite was almost a mirror image of his second. A cross, an attempt to put off a defender—Chiellini—and a tumble to the ground protesting that he was the one who was wronged.
Just minutes earlier Suarez had missed a glorious chance when Gianluigi Buffon kept out his effort from close range.
Just minutes later, Uruguay’s Diego Godin headed the only goal. You can be sure that had the goal come earlier, the bite wouldn’t happen. This was another example where stress had taken over.
How much do you want to win, Luis? Enough to bite a third time?
And so he was banned from all footballing activities that didn’t include a transfer. The switch to Barcelona could happen, with Liverpool seemingly more than willing to let him go.
On Saturday at the Bernabeu, Suarez is likely to wear the shirt of Barcelona competitively for the first time, but how sure can the Catalans be that another controversial incident won’t occur to a player who has courted controversy in each of the three shirts he’s worn for the past four years—Ajax, Liverpool and Uruguay?
After a poor season by their standards in 2013/14 was made worse by seeing Atletico Madrid lift the league title and Real Madrid their 10th Champions League, perhaps a little of this win-at-all-costs mentality is what Barca need? They’ll welcome Suarez—of course they will. He improves any team on the planet.
Will he want to win a little bit too much, though? Time will tell.
As we’ve seen throughout Suarez’s career, trying to predict what he’ll do next is a pointless task, but Barcelona fans are going to have an awful lot of fun attempting to do just that.