Luis Enrique walked into the Camp Nou press room, cleared his throat and sat down. Over 800 journalists had been accredited for Barcelona’s 2-1 win over Real Madrid, and most of them wanted to know about one man: Luis Suárez.
There is nothing unusual about that. Suárez is a man who fascinates the soccer world. From his Looney Tunes-like appearance, with front teeth which have bitten three fellow professionals always on show, through to his insatiable appetite for munching goals, he rarely steps out of the spotlight. On Sunday night his strike won the Clásico, and people were asking about him for all the right reasons.
Enrique looked up, contemplated Suárez’s performance and began to speak. “You notice Suárez now because he is scoring regularly, but it’s not just his goals which help us,” he explained. “He also helps the team with his attitude and his behavior – he really complements our ideas.”
Things haven’t been completely straight forward for the Uruguayan international since he swapped Liverpool for Barcelona last summer for 75 million pounds. His first few months in Catalonia were spent on the sidelines, banished from the land of soccer because of his bite on Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup in Brazil. At first he wasn’t even allowed to train with his new friends, but he was eventually granted that privilege. “I can feel like a soccer player again,” Suárez said at the time.
His debut just had to fall against Real Madrid, but his early games for Barça were marred with defeats and criticism. “Suárez has put on too much weight,” Madrid’s newspapers sneered, with the help of some very particular photo selection.
It took six games for him to score his first goal. By then, the knives were out.
As he’s done throughout his career, though, Suárez bit back (sorry, it had to be done). His winning goal against El Real was his seventh in as many games and his 14th since joining Barça. In 29 appearances, he’s scored or assisted 29 goals.
“There are very few players capable of scoring that goal,” Enrique continued, back in the Ricard Maxenchs press room. Even fewer would have been able to ruffle the feathers of a renowned tag team duo like Sergio Ramos and Pepe. But Suárez did.
That’s part of the reason the 28-year-old is beginning to do so well on the Mediterranean coast. Xavi and Andrés Iniesta are great and everything, but as success has waned they’ve been accused of being too nice. Their trophy cabinets would have that charge thrown out of court, but that doesn’t mean there is not something to be said about what Suárez has added to his new side.
On the pitch he’s a menace, constantly furrowing for space and breathing threateningly down the necks of ghost-white defenders. However, at crucial moments in the past, he’s been known to show a nasty streak in times of weakness. Before biting Chiellini last year, he’d already bitten Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanović and PSV’s Otman Bakkal. Then there was the race row with Patrice Evra — but we’ll leave the language nuances to the polyglots.
ESPN journalist Wright Thompson found his way to Uruguay last year to investigate that nasty streak. He’d heard the story about Suarez head butting a referee when he was 15 after he had been shown a red card in an important game.
Thompson couldn’t find much other than idle speculation online, though, and he didn’t have much more luck in Montevideo. He was unable to find the referee, Luis Larranaga; library files and federation records revealed nothing peculiar; and people seemed keen to hush up what had or had not happened.
Talent was supposedly the reason so many people were keen to cover it up. They were worried it could hamper the youngster’s huge potential. Ambition and blind love were suggested as the reasons for Suárez’s part in the episode, and subsequently for his continued misdemeanors on the pitch.
Sofia Balbi, who he eventually married in 2009, had left Uruguay for Europe just before the bust up with Larranaga, and Suárez felt his only chance to cross continents to be with her was through excelling at soccer. Now, whenever Suárez does anything wrong, Thompson’s article suggests, it’s because of a fear he has of losing everything, of everything he’s fought for being stripped from him.
It’s a romantic story in many ways, if possibly a little exaggerated, but it has to be said: Suárez probably isn’t the vicious animal some people would like to portray him as. He may come across as a bad guy in a cartoon, but his human qualities are equally on show. That is why the man from Salto kisses his wrist every time he scores, where he has the names of his children, Delfina and Benjamín, tattooed. It is why he’s been able to fit seamlessly into life at a club as big as Barça without rocking the applecart.
It helps that he shares the Spanish language with his new colleagues; it helps that he shares a fetish for mate, a caffeine-based drink, with his South American teammates; and it also helps that he’s always felt at home in the Barcelona, the city where his wife’s family lives.
But while it may be his personal side which has accelerated his adaption period at La Blaugrana, it’s his nasty streak which has helped give it the edge on the field. His restless display against Madrid was not his first big performance for Enrique’s men. He’s previously scored against Atlético Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City to dispel the myth he can’t score against the big clubs. Of his 31 goals in the Premier League last season, none came against City, Chelsea or Arsenal, and only one was against Manchester United.
Alongside Messi and Neymar, he looks at home. Three does not appear to be a crowd after all; in fact, it might just be the magic number. And with Suárez as its number nine, Barça continues to impress while adapting its style to a more direct approach.
“That is exactly why we signed him for so much money,” Enrique said as another journalist sought an opinion on the Clásico match-winner, before getting up and disappearing to congratulate his players for moving four points clear of Madrid at the top of La Liga.