Before Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and company fired Uruguay into the semifinals of last year's World Cup, many people had forgotten (or never knew) that this little South American country with a population of under 3.5 million has an extraordinary soccer tradition.
Uruguay did not lose a World Cup match until going down in extra time to the great Hungarians in the 1954 semifinal -- an encounter that, when
These two triumphs were of immense importance. It is fair to date the birth of the modern global game in 1924. Very few people could find Uruguay on a map when the team arrived for the Paris games. But then Uruguay swept all before it, playing with a style, swagger and skill that the Europeans had never seen before. Its displays set off a fever for the game -- and made it clear that soccer had outgrown the Olympics. A new competition was needed where professionals could also compete.
A leading French soccer writer, Gabriel Hanot, was especially enthused by what he saw in 1924. Hanot would go on to be a key mover and shaker in the soccer world. The Uruguayans had lit the flame. "They have," he wrote, "pushed toward perfection the art of the feint and the swerve and the dodge, but they also know how to play directly and quickly ... They created a beautiful football, elegant but at the same time varied, rapid, powerful and effective."
What Hanot had witnessed was the reinterpretation of the game. The straight line running of soccer's English founders had been replaced by a more balletic style based on twisting and turning, a manner of play made to measure for those with a low center of gravity, the build of many Uruguayans.
Luis Suarez is a worthy heir to the tradition. Reading Hanot's description of the 1924 Uruguayans, it is striking, almost 87 years later, how many of the Frenchman's words apply to Liverpool's new acquisition. Well built, and with a low center of gravity, Suarez is a master of the feint, the swerve and the dodge. He is direct and quick, his game is indeed varied, rapid, powerful and effective -- and Liverpool fans have good reason to hope that all of these words, especially the latter, will continue to apply now that Suarez has stepped up a level and moved to England's Premier League.
There is something historically appropriate about a Uruguayan striker such as Suarez playing his soccer in England. Hanot made the comparison in 1924. The Uruguayans, he wrote "are to the English professionals like Arab thoroughbreds next to farm horses." All these decades later, with the English farm now playing host to creatures from all over the world, it is only right and fitting that space is found for a legitimate successor to the likes of Hector Scarone, Pedro Perone and Pedro Cea, who so enchanted Hanot and so many other spectators all those years ago.
Of course, Suarez's international strike partner Diego Forlan went to England a decade ago and was judged a resounding flop. He has gone on to prove that he is a very fine player -- chosen as the star of last years World Cup, no less. Even so, Forlan was unable to make a consistent impression in England. Will it be the same story with Luis Suarez?
I believe that it won't. Not that Suarez is necessarily a better player than Forlan, or even more naturally suited to English football. But because timing is everything. It worked against Forlan. It should work in favor of Suarez.
Diego Forlan was plucked by Manchester United straight from South American club soccer (Independiente in Argentina). When he moved across the Atlantic he had yet to represent his country at senior level. He had not even taken part in South America's Champions League equivalent, the Copa Libertadores. The move to a major (in reality, the biggest) English club was simply a bridge too far for him at such a tender stage in his career. He was not prepared for the step up. He had few opportunities, and without a consistent run of games his confidence inevitably suffered, making it more difficult for him to grab the rare chances that came his way.
Just turned 24, Suarez is only a couple of years older than Forlan when he went to England. But in career terms, he is miles further down the line.
Forlan was a late developer. Suarez has been branded as a big thing ever since he was pitched into the Nacional first team at the age of 17. He helped the Montevideo giants win yet another domestic title, but it was inevitable that he would soon be on the move. In today's globalized age it is simply impossible for a country of Uruguay's size to hold on to its best players. There was talk of a move to Flamengo in Brazil, but instead he was off to little Groningen in Holland in 2006, where after one highly promising season he was snapped up by the far bigger and more traditional Ajax.
Three and a half successful years later, the time had surely come for Suarez to test himself in one of the Europe's major leagues. He comes to Liverpool as a proven European goal scorer and a senior international, netting 16 times in his 39 games for Uruguay, including three excellent strikes in the World Cup. Manchester United took a gamble on Forlan -- if he failed, no problem. For Liverpool Suarez is something more important -- the size of the transfer fee ($36.7 million/£22.8 million) ensures that he must be. There should be no shortage of opportunities for the new boy to prove his worth.
Cutting in on the diagonal from the flanks, Suarez should give plenty of headaches to Premier League defenders. He is strong, quick and unpredictable, able to surge past his marker on either side. And he brings good news for Liverpool's other new recruit, strike partner Andy Carroll. For Uruguay, Suarez has used his wing play and crossing ability to set up goals for big center forward Sebastian Abreu. He could prove to be a useful supply line for Carroll.
With his old fashioned Uruguayan skill -- and no shortage of old fashioned Uruguayan fire as well -- Luis Suarez might turn out to be one of those players who opposing supporters hate, but Liverpool fans take to their hearts. If he plays to potential, he can send them away from Anfield raving about him in the same terms Gabriel Hanot used for his predecessors all the way back in 1924.