This story appears in the June 9, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe to Sports Illustrated, go here.
In Uruguay, which has somehow won two World Cups with a population the size of Connecticut’s, there is a word associated with passion for soccer: garra. The term has various definitions, but for most Uruguayans garra represents the unyielding grit and determination that lie deep within the national psyche.
The embodiment of garra, the world’s best soccer player over the past six months, has been talking for an hour now, pausing at times to sip yerba maté tea from the silver straw and wooden gourd that accompany him everywhere around Liverpool. Over the course of a lengthy conversation on the Big Themes—love, sacrifice, morality in sports—Luis Suárez has not attempted to bite anyone. He has not made like a fútbol Chevy Chase, tumbling to draw an imaginary penalty. He has not uttered anything that could be construed as incendiary. In fact, Suárez has been a perfect gentleman, hardly resembling the man demonized in tabloid headlines: Cannibal of Anfield (The Daily Telegraph), You Cheat! (The Sun) and Racist (The Mirror).
In soccer terms Suárez has been clean for a year, which is to say he’s had no new suspensions to add to his 18 games in Premier League bans. And his transcendent season with Liverpool (31 goals in 33 league matches, tying a league scoring record) has tiny Uruguay (pop. 3.5 million) dreaming of repeating its World Cup triumphs of 1930 and ’50 with a run to glory in Brazil. But the fallout from previous incidents—biting two opponents; diving to earn penalties; insulting an African-born player with references to his skin color—has had a deep impact on Suárez. Ask the guy who has every motivation to stick to safe talking points a soccer question—What do you hope to achieve in your career?—and you expect something about leading La Celeste further in the World Cup than their semifinal finish four years ago, or winning the Premier League title (Liverpool fell an agonizing two points short this season), or adding another domestic Player of the Year award to go with his trophy from 2013–14.
Instead, Suárez, 27, pauses, takes a pull on his straw and says in Spanish, “I want to change the bad boy image that has stuck for a bit because I don’t think I am at all how I have been portrayed. I would like that to change because it’s awful to hear and read what is said of you.”
Absolution is a tricky thing. Can it be achieved with one year of suspension-free behavior and utter brilliance on the field? Three years? Five? John Henry, the American owner of Liverpool and the Boston Red Sox, thinks Suárez has served his time in PR purgatory. “All of us at the club, including every player, know that one, Luis is a good person and a great teammate, and two, he is hypercompetitive and can overreact,” Henry told SI in an email. “He is a good person 99 percent of the time, and 1 percent of the time his desire to win overcomes everything else. So he had moments where he made very high-profile mistakes. But those mistakes were always in the heat of competition. [They have] caused him problems, but [they’re] also a reason he is one of the best players we’ve ever seen.”
Suárez is blessed with talent, the Promethean ability to create scoring chances out of nothing. His 0.94 goals-per-game average in the Premier League this season was the highest for a leading scorer in the English top flight since 1960–61, and it came without the aid of a single penalty kick. But to watch him battle for possession near the corner flag—burrowing into his defender, using a swim move as if he were an NFL defensive lineman—is to witness a player overflowing with garra.
"He is a good person 99 percent of the time," says Liverpool's owner, "and 1 percent of the time his desire to win overcomes everything else."
Suárez himself employs the word in a variety of ways. “It defines me in the sense that I will fight for every ball, want to win every game and get upset when I lose,” he says, “because it gives you a garra, a bad sensation, simply because you hate to lose. Not only for me, but I think for a lot of Uruguayans.” Last month, when Liverpool gave up three late goals to tie Crystal Palace 3–3 and squander its shot at the league title, the searing image was of Suárez crouched on the field with his head under his jersey, the better to hide his uncontrollable weeping. “I couldn’t stop,” he told reporters afterward.
Over the past year, at least, Suárez has maintained a healthier balance on the garra precipice. “On the field, sometimes passion overwhelms you and you do things you regret afterward,” he says. “At the same time, you have a chance to learn from those things. I think I [have] been a role model since last summer; I have been professional, and I have the desire to forge ahead and play well regardless of what is said to me.”
Yet Henry’s point—that Suárez’s garra is part of what makes him great—raises a question that applies to sports as a whole. Do some athletes at times need to push the limits of acceptable conduct, of the rules even, to be dangerous on the field?
Suárez considers the question. More thought. More yerba maté. “Players are always exposed to risk,” he finally says. “Every soccer player can be on the edge, at the limit, be the bad guy. We have to get used to it.” He smiles. “Sometimes I am one of those."
If you’re placing bets on the player who will etch his name in the history books at this World Cup, Suárez is at the top of the list, as long as he recovers as expected from a minor pre-tournament knee procedure. The tough part is knowing whether he will land in fame or in infamy.
No player today embodies soccer’s fundamental humanity, its darkness and light, quite like Suárez, often on the same day, in the same tournament. There’s a fine line between genius and madness; to demonstrate we’ve come up with a measure for the more memorable moments involving soccer’s most polarizing player. Call it the Suárez Spectrum.
The Curler That killed South Korea
“I’ve scored many goals that I’ve liked,” Suárez says, “but I think the best memory I have is the one against Korea in the 2010 World Cup.” It came in a round of 16 game, tied 1–1. After his opponents failed to clear an 80th-minute corner kick, Uruguay’s Nicolás Lodeiro headed the ball onto the feet of Suárez. Draped in the penalty box by two defenders, Suárez instantly started breaking ankles, cutting away from the net and across the goal. With his momentum moving back upfield, he spun an angry parabola with his right foot off the far post and in. Game over.
Suárez Spectrum value: Pure soccer genius
Slight of Hand
One round later in South Africa, Suárez found a creative (and controversial) way to carry his team past the quarterfinal match against Ghana. With the game tied 1–1 in the final seconds of extra time, the Ghanaians capped a wild goal-mouth scramble at Uruguay’s end with a close-range header that appeared certain to find the net. The only man standing in the way? Suárez, who spiked the ball on the goal line with his right hand like a volleyball player. Penalty! Red card! But then Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan slammed his spot kick off the crossbar, and Uruguay prevailed in the subsequent shootout.
"I didn't do anything wrong," Suarez says. "I sacrificed playing in a World Cup semifinal for my teammates to have a chance to."
Pundits the world over flamed Suárez as a cynical cheater, but what exactly was his mistake? This wasn’t Diego Maradona scoring a goal with his fist at World Cup 1986, acting as if he’d used his head and escaping punishment. (Maradona later admitted he’d intentionally used his fist.) Suárez got caught and paid the price: ejection, a one-game suspension and a penalty kick for Ghana. “For me, I didn’t do anything wrong,” he says. “I sacrificed playing in a World Cup semifinal for my teammates to have a chance to.”
Suárez didn’t cheat; he saved Uruguay’s World Cup, again. Teammates called him a hero and carried him off on their shoulders. Anyone who has a problem with what happened should blame the rule book, not the player.
Suárez Spectrum value: Game-theory brilliance
Falling Out of Favor
In England, diving and embellishing contact to draw penalties are viewed as cheating, more so than in Italy or Spain, for example, where such antics are part of the game. Like other top forwards imported into the Premier League, Suárez says he has adjusted his game to remain upright more often. (“I have changed,” he says. “You can tell.”) But he’s also adamant that he has never deserved a rep as a diver. “How many yellow cards do I have for diving?” he asks. “I have a lot of yellow cards in my career, but most are for arguing, for fighting, for giving a kicking—not for diving. Sometimes I fall, but it’s to get a penalty because I have been kicked.”
There’s some truth and some fiction here. Fact: Only two of Suárez’s 23 Premier League yellow cards have been for diving or embellishment. But even Henry admits Suárez could have remained upright more in previous seasons. “Last year he often wasn’t allowed to play his game,” says the owner. “He was shoved, kicked and harassed continually. He has adjusted. Probably the biggest difference [in 2013–14] is that he does everything he can now to stay on his feet, and that has made him even more dangerous.”
Suárez Spectrum value: Pragmatism with a dose of Eddie Haskell
Like Mike (Tyson)
When Suárez sank his teeth into Chelsea fullback Branislav Ivanovic in April 2013, earning a 10-game suspension, the question wasn’t just Why? It was, How could Suárez—who’d already been suspended seven games for biting an opponent while playing for Ajax in the Netherlands three years earlier—let this happen a second time?
He knows garra is no excuse. “First, it was a matter of frustration in the heat of the play,” he explains. “You feel frustrated because the play didn’t go well. [He was bodied off the ball in front of goal.] Second, you react in a fraction of a second. Something that may not seem like a big deal suddenly is, and you aren’t conscious of your reaction or the repercussions.” On this one Suárez is entirely apologetic.
Suárez Spectrum value: Pure madness
The Race Episode
Following a game between Liverpool and bitter rival Manchester United in October 2011, defender Patrice Evra charged that Suárez had insulted him racially during the match. While Suárez and his team argued that the Spanish noun negro doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation in Uruguay, an independent panel ruled in a 115-page report that Suárez was indeed at fault. After an extensive investigation Suárez was handed an eight-game suspension and a fine of $63,000. “The use by a footballer of insulting words, which include reference to another player’s colour, is wholly unacceptable,” the report concluded.
Here the player continues to defend himself. “My conscience is very clean,” says Suárez, whose grandfather was black. “First, I am not racist. There are a lot of people who could testify to that. Second, there are conversations that happen on the field where a lot gets said. I am at peace. Of all the video that was available, there was not one piece of evidence to prove I had said something racist.”
Suárez Spectrum value: A damaging episode for which he served a stiff penalty
Suárez hadn’t suffered any negative incidents involving race before Evra, nor has he in the 32 months since. In April he tweeted a photograph that showed him smiling and eating a banana with Liverpool teammate Philippe Coutinho. It was a gesture of support for a viral anti-racism campaign started by Brazilian forward Neymar (hashtag: #weareallmonkeys) after one of his Barcelona teammates was targeted by a banana-throwing fan in Spain. Some jeered Suárez for the post. Many cheered. Such is the state of tribalism in global soccer.
The coincidence is almost too much to believe: Two of the top 10 forwards in world soccer—a duo whose combined transfer-market value is north of $150 million—were born 21 days apart in the same town in a sleepy corner of Uruguay. The World Cup’s most feared strike tandem pairs Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, late of Salto, a city of 100,000 located 300 miles northwest of the capital, Montevideo. During South America’s 16-game World Cup qualifying tournament, the duo combined for 16 goals (11 for Suárez, five for Cavani). “It’s incredible,” says Suárez of their common origin. “We actually never played as kids together; we met for the first time when we were 20.”
Cavani, who plays for Paris Saint-Germain, was a late bloomer, while Suárez moved with his family to Montevideo at age 7. In a period of economic turmoil for their country, Suárez’s parents found work in the capital, Sandra on a cleaning crew at a shopping center and Rodolfo in a variety of jobs, including one as a security guard. “In Salto we were used to playing in the street and we were all friends,” says Suárez. “Suddenly landing in Montevideo, we had to watch when crossing the road. People laughed at your accent in school. Everything was a bit different.”
Suárez’s parents divorced when Luis was nine, a jarring blow for a family of five brothers and two sisters. He remembers having to meet his mother at noon each day to pick up the money she’d made cleaning and then deliver it to his older sisters, who would buy food and cook for the kids before school the next day. “My mom couldn’t join us because she had to work,” he says. “It was a way of growing, fighting adversity, getting ahead. I think [my] hunger comes from all the suffering since childhood.” As an 11-year-old, Suárez would walk 40 minutes by himself to practice, where he sometimes had to play in borrowed, ill-fitting cleats.
When he ponders the notion of sacrifice, Suárez thinks less of his goal line hand ball against Ghana than he does of his mother toiling away with a mop or of his wife, Sofía, dropping everything at age 16 to start a new life with him in the Dutch city of Groningen, home of Suárez’s first European club. The couple met in Uruguay—he was 15, she was 13—and, to hear Luis tell the story, Sofía saved his future by persuading him to stop partying when officials at the Uruguayan club Nacional wanted to drop him from the youth team. Sofía and her family moved to Spain during an economic crisis, but Luis scraped together enough money to visit her twice. When he made the move from Nacional to the Dutch league in 2006, at 19, she rejoined him.
“She sacrificed herself at 16 to live with me and move to a city like Groningen [the seventh largest in the Netherlands],” he says. “To leave her studies, leave her family, leave everything—just to be with me. . . . She didn’t imagine then that I would get to the level where I am now.”
The couple married in 2009 and have two children: Delfina, who’s nearly four, and eight-month-old Benjamín. When Liverpool purchased Suárez for $31.5 million in January ’11, just seven months after his first child arrived, it was almost as if the family’s move to northwest England was preordained. Delfina is an anagram of Liverpool’s legendary stadium, Anfield.
Luis Suárez is not an NBA fan, and as such he’s unfamiliar with the oeuvre of Charles Barkley. But when told of Barkley’s famous line about athletes not being role models, Suárez swats it down with the urgency of that goal line hand ball in South Africa. “Of course they should be,” he says. “Many times, [athletes’] attitudes are reflected in their performance on the field. I’ve had some attitudes on the field that weren’t very good for my image. But those weren’t really me—outside the field, I’m very shy. I realized I had to adjust my attitude on the field, to continue to play well but without the bad attitude.”
That much he has done for the past year, lighting up the Premier League, spearheading Liverpool’s return to the Champions League for the first time in five seasons, rarely causing a stir.
Now comes a new challenge: managing his emotions while steering Uruguay through a stacked World Cup group that includes two other previous world champions, Italy and England (whose media will not hesitate to pounce on another Suárez misstep). Who knows? Barkley, too, once drew near-universal wrath—for spitting on one fan and throwing another through a plate-glass window, among other indiscretions—and now he’s viewed as a public treasure.
Is there a chance Suárez could do the same? Some World Cup garra—and a trophy on July 13 in Rio de Janeiro—just might do the trick.