EXCLUSIVE: Suarez – the mixed up kid who became a hero to millions
On a street corner in the town of Salto in Uruguay, someone has gone to the considerable effort of finding a ladder, climbing up it and Sellotaping the name 'Luis' over the first word of the street name. It used to read Joaquin Suarez.
Now it pays homage to the most famous man to hail from Salto, the man who steps out at Old Trafford on Saturday with the world watching his every move.
Just a week after returning from his eight-game ban for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, fate, chance — call it what you will — pits Luis Suarez back against the man he offended so badly. The reception he receives will be hot.
Doing what he does best: Suarez celebrates his goal against Everton in the Merseyside derby
Suarez is no stranger to controversy. His career has been punctuated by goals, trophies and accolades – but there has also been diving, biting an opponent, and a match-saving handball in a World Cup quarter-final.
But back home Suarez is no tainted hero. The 25-year-old is not considered a racist; he is thought of as a national legend with a toothy grin and absurd amounts of talent by his fans, a doting family man with a huge heart by those who know him best. In their eyes, he is worth climbing up ladders for.
Future star: A young Luis Suarez growing up in Uruguay
Suarez was one of seven children born to his father Rodolfo, a porter, and his mother Sandra, a housewife. Perched on the banks of the River Uruguay on the border with Argentina, Salto is a town of cobbled streets and parks. The locals often sip — a herbal drink similar to tea — in little clusters in the street.
But when Suarez was just six, Rodolfo’s work took the family to the capital Montevideo. The move saw him start playing the game that would turn him into a millionaire, national hero and hate figure.
‘When we came to live in Montevideo, we started to look for a team for him,’ says his mother.
‘I was told about Urreta, a club where there were a lot of people with money so I took him there. He was sub in a friendly match a few days later. They were losing 2-0 so they put Luis on, he scored three to make it 3-2.’
In 1998, Wilson Pirez, a scout for Uruguay’s most decorated club, Nacional, spotted Suarez’s talent. ‘I found him when he was nine playing kids’ football,’ says Pirez. ‘He had an incredible amount of ability for someone of that age. He was a wonderful boy, well behaved. You could always tell he was going to be a great player.’
It should have been the start of a brighter future as Luis settled into school in the La Comerical district of the city but, instead, the family was torn apart when Rodolfo walked out on his wife and kids. ‘Family life was very hard because of my parents breaking up,’ he recalls. ‘It was hard to concentrate and I quit football.’
International star: Suarez has played a key role for Uruguay
Eventually, though, he settled back into Nacional. ‘Life was difficult for him,’ says Pirez. ‘He wasn’t quite ready mentally to be a footballer. But that tough childhood made him so hungry for success.’
It was still a long time in coming. Suarez failed to hold down a starting place in the youth team in the aftermath of the divorce, showing just occasional glimpses of his real ability. As he became a teenager, distractions of partying and drinking led to threats of being chucked out of the club. He continued at Nacional though, playing football in the day and doing his school work at night, where he enjoyed maths.
While Suarez was close to his mother and grandmother, Sofia Balbi had the biggest influence on his life. She was a 13-year-old girl, a pretty blonde girl Suarez fell in love with when he was 15 and who, still now, is perhaps the only person who really understands him.
'At 15, I found a girlfriend and that sorted my head out,’ recounts Suarez. ‘It helped me realise how important football was for me.’
From the top: Suarez shakes hands with FIFA President Sepp Blatter
Pirez remembers Sofia being around the training ground a lot and Suarez being infatuated. ‘They didn’t pay him much when he was young so he used to pick up coins on the street and then take it back to his girlfriend so they could buy nice things to eat.’
That was until she left Uruguay to join her family in Barcelona in 2003. Suarez, like when his father departed, was crushed. ‘When Sofia went to live in Spain, I quit football again. But what matters is that I realised in time that I had to dedicate myself to this beautiful sport.’
Suarez knew his only way to get back to Sofia was to move to Europe and he took his chance in a match against San Eugenio, coming off the bench to score four goals.
From then on he was unstoppable. All of a sudden football mattered so much that despite beating 3-0 Tacuarembo in one game, Suarez cried in the showers afterwards because he hadn’t scored.
Club class: Suarez made his name in Europe while playing for Ajax
‘He always scored in the big games, so many in derbies,’ adds Pirez. ‘He always appeared when you most needed him.’
Suarez scored 10 goals in 27 games for Nacional before he got his dream move, signing for Groningen in Holland. ‘We were scouting another player in Uruguay,’ says Rob Jans, a former coach at Groningen and now manager of Heerenveen.
'Luis caught our attention though. We were crazy about him and sorted a deal as soon as we could. It was the most expensive signing we’d ever made. It was a gamble but it was a really good one.'
The gamble cost 800,000 euros (667,000), and took him closer to Sofia but left Nacional wanting more. ‘He didn’t play here long but he is an idol,’ says Gustavo Bueno, a coach at the club.
‘He’s an idol in the whole of Uruguay. It wouldn’t surprise me if they named a stadium after him one day. Whenever he comes back here, he comes to games and visits the youth teams to tell them all about Europe. It’s invaluable. We have all become Liverpool fans here because of him.’
Cannibal: Suarez is snapped trying to bite PSV Eindhoven midfielder Otman Bakkal
'The Cannibal of Ajax' read the headline in Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf on November 21, 2010.
During a tense match against PSV Eindhoven, Suarez snapped and bit PSV midfielder Otman Bakkal on the shoulderblade as players from both side argued over a red card.
It came just months after he made himself public enemy No 1 at the World Cup for handballing on the line in the quarter-final against Ghana.
He celebrated without a shred of restraint as Asamoah Gyan missed the following penalty, his joy angering many and introducing the striker to a wider audience even before he sank his incisors into Bakkal.
The seven-match ban for the bite was the worst of a series of problems which tarnished his otherwise scintillating spell in Holland for Groningen and then Ajax.
'You can imagine how difficult it was at first,’ says Jans. ‘He wasn’t happy and struggled to adapt. He just wanted to play but he was in the reserves.
Handball! Suarez denies Ghana a goal by using his hands in the World Cup
'He was so impatient. He had problems getting used to the referees, he was a little bit heavy and it took some time to get fit.
'But once he was fit, he was probably the best I’ve worked with. He’s a real winner, he cannot stand losing and sometimes he crosses the line.
'In one game I took him off and he was really unhappy, he didn’t shake hands and he wanted to go straight to the dressing room. I was angry with him. It was raining hard and I threw my umbrella at him.
Afterwards I told him he couldn’t act like that in Holland and that he had to control himself. In the next game, we were 3-1 down with 10 minutes to play and we won 4-3, with Luis scoring two goals. Afterwards I gave him my umbrella, and he paraded it around in front of the crowd.’
Former Fulham striker Erik Nevland, who was Suarez’s strike partner at Groningen, also remembers the Uruguayan taking some time to adapt. ‘It was a big fee for Groningen to pay for a player no-one knew anything about,’ says Nevland.
No remorse: Suarez celebrates beating Ghana despite his handball incident
‘He didn’t speak English or Dutch so we had to use our arms and bodies to communicate. He got a lot of stick for the way he went down and winning free-kicks and penalties but that is his type of play.
'It was a bit of a struggle but once he cracked the code, he played unbelievably every week. You always saw he had a lot of talent but he found it hard at first. Groningen is a quiet place with lots of farmers.
'It was a really friendly place but there wasn’t a lot to do and it was quite a long way to get anywhere else. He was good friends with the Spanish-speaking boys and his girlfriend moved across pretty soon after he arrived. She was around a lot.’
Being reunited with Sofia was a huge filip for Suarez. The long-distance relationship no longer necessary, he was happy again and it showed on the pitch. Ten goals in 29 appearances for mid-table Groningen soon caught Ajax’s attention but the proposed transfer was controversial.
Class: Former Groningen team-mate Erik Nevland was full of praise for Suarez
Suarez appealed to the Dutch League’s arbitration committee to force through a 3.5m euro bid, but his words fell on deaf ears. Ajax soon returned with a 7.5m euro offer, and he moved to Amsterdam.
Herman Pinkster, the team manager at Ajax, is charged with looking after new players and was instantly impressed by Suarez. ‘Off the pitch, he’s very well organised, which was odd for a South American player.
If you had an appointment at three, he’d be there at three. He was very strict about time.’ They remain close friends, with Pinkster attending Suarez’s wedding in Montevideo in 2009. ‘It was a big party,’ says Pinkster.
‘On the menu on the table it started with dinner, then dancing and went on to breakfast. I couldn’t believe it. Sofia is so important to him. She is probably the only one who can tell him to calm down sometimes.
Controversy: Suarez was found guilty of making racist remarks to Manchester United's Patrice Evra and banned for eight games
'His determination is the most impressive thing about him but it is also his biggest challenge. You can see it in the way he plays. He is a hero over here. He was top scorer, he was player of the year. Everyone loves him.
'When the biting incident happened, he was so provoked by PSV players. After the match, it was better not to say anything. I looked him in the eyes and said ‘we’ll speak tomorrow’ and that’s when we discussed it properly.
So he pleaded guilty but he didn’t mean it much. It’s important to win but you don’t have to kill people in the process. There’s a line. He crosses the line to win sometimes. But Luis was so determined to be one of the best in Europe.
Sitting it out: Suarez served his ban sitting in the stands
'When the incident with Evra happened, we all thought ‘oh no, Luis’. I really don’t think he is a racist person – he just crosses some lines when he’s competing sometimes. One of my worries was that he didn’t speak English very well. He says words but he doesn’t understand what they mean and the impact they can have.’
Nevland agrees that it is Suarez’s will to win that is his biggest attribute yet his greatest weakness. ‘He’s just so passionate about football that sometime the way he expresses himself is wrong.
'It’s obviously something he has to work on. His passion just makes him do crazy things sometimes. He will learn, especially because of the ban.’
Welcome back: Suarez makes his return against Tottenham
The biting, the handball, the diving and the transfer wrangles pale into insignificance when it comes to the trouble he has been in at Liverpool.
Found guilty of racism, Suarez was banned for eight matches, a punishment that kickstarted a staunch defence from Liverpool. There were angry statements, tasteless T-shirts and, only eventually, a reluctant apology. Yet the message is the same from everyone who knows him.
'The racism charge is totally ridiculous,’ says Jans. ‘I know for sure that Luis is not a racist. He gets provoked a lot and he likes to intimidate others during a game but he has a heart of gold. My son graduated and he went to Liverpool as a present.
Back in the action: Suarez gets straight back into the thick of it against Spurs
Luis helped us with tickets and then took him and his friend to the players’ lounge after and gave him his match shirt.’
'We know Luis is not a racist,’ adds Pirez. ‘He has black friends, played with lots of black players and the term ‘negro’ is just different here.
'It is used all the time and no-one takes any offence. I just think people have made an example of him because of who he is.’
'I think he’s found it very difficult,’ says Pinkster with a sigh. ‘But he will be at his strongest with everyone provoking him. He can achieve great things.’
Just don’t expect him to do it without plenty more controversy.