Feeling at home with Barcelona, Luis Suarez gets set to face two past demons, Juventus's Giorgio Chiellini and Patrice Evra, in the Champions League final.
Barcelona plays a pivotal role in the Luis Suárez creation myth.
When he was 15, the talented forward, something of a tear-away, met Sofia Balbi. He fell in love and found refuge with her family, which embraced him like a son. Happy off the pitch, he could not stop scoring on it.
Fate intervened, and in 2002, Argentina’s economic crisis hit Uruguay, forcing Sofia’s parents to lose their jobs. They cleared out their savings and went to find work in Spain. They moved to Barcelona. Suárez was heartbroken.
“When Sofia was in Spain, he was broken and crying all the time,” said Maxi Suárez, the player’s brother. “I think he thought he would never see her again. It is because of her that he kicked on.”
Suárez’s first coach was Alejandro Garay, who is now head of Uruguay’s Under-15 side. "50% of your career is down to the girl you choose,” he said.
Suárez knew what he had to do next: keep scoring so he could move to a European club.
“That was his motivation,” former teammate Mathias Cardacio told So Foot magazine. “His love for her can make him move mountains.”
And so it proved. It was a long and sometimes tortuous journey, via Groningen, Ajax and Liverpool, with three bites and plenty more controversy along the way. But Barcelona is where Suárez always wanted to be. And now he is on the verge of an extraordinary treble in his debut season, thanks to a partnership with Neymar and Lionel Messi that has yielded 120 goals between them.
Suárez told Fox Sports this week that the partnership works because none of the trio sees himself as better than any other. In fact, despite playing through the middle, Suárez accepted a secondary role behind Messi, and that has been decisive. Some great players have struggled to play second fiddle, among them Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa, while others, Neymar included, have made it work.
Suárez’s former Ajax teammate Ismael Urzaiz called him “anti-system with his feet, mouth, heart and mind” and praised his “anarchic side.” Suárez has said the front three works because of the freedom the coach allows them. Luis Enrique replied: “They have the freedom we consider opportune; if they all go to the same wing, then I'm not interested in freedom. But they are intelligent.” The anarchy has given way to game intelligence.
Saturday’s final against Juventus will be unique for Suárez for another reason: the first time he will face Giorgio Chiellini since biting him on the shoulder at the World Cup last summer.
To add extra spice, his old nemesis Patrice Evra will also be playing for the Italian champion. Suárez is still aggrieved by the charge of racist abuse, for which he was found guilty, fined £40,000 and given an eight-match ban after a clash with the defender, then at Manchester United, in 2011.
The Juventus pair has played down the significance of meeting Suárez. “It's not important,” said Evra. “I am proud of who I am and my color and I will shake his hand. It's not a problem.”
Chiellini added: “I’ll hug him happily, there’s no problem at all.”
Try telling that to fans in Uruguay, who see this game as Suárez’s chance for ultimate revenge.
“Playing against them will be an extra motivation for Suárez, as he has this opportunity to lift the trophy in their faces,” Paolo Montero, a Uruguayan defender who played for Juventus, told Sport 890. “I would be worried if I were Evra or Chiellini.”
Those two players are at the center of Suárez's most damaging headlines; now is his chance to have the final word.
Luis Roux, a Uruguayan journalist, could not even bring himself to mention Evra by name.
“The Frenchman has already got Suárez banned for something that he supposedly said,” he wrote in El Observador. “If I were Suárez, I would score a hat trick against Juventus now and forget the name of this French left back forever.”
This reaction explains the Uruguayan mentality: the little guys against the rest of the world. Remember former president Jose Mujica claiming that FIFA was against "the Uruguayan people" after it banned Suárez for his bite on Chiellini? Uruguayan FIFA vice president Eugenio Figueredo, arrested last week by Swiss police, was never forgiven in his homeland for his supposedly meek acceptance of FIFA’s punishment for Suárez, which extends to next week's Copa America, for which Suárez is suspended.
Anger has always driven Suárez. The Uruguayan is not as talented as Messi and not as pretty as Neymar: but he has anger in his game. He scored his first double for Barcelona away at Manchester City, in his first game back in England; he nutmegged David Luiz twice on his way to scoring two goals in the quarterfinal against Paris Saint-Germain.
In Barcelona they call it mala leche, bad milk. It’s an edge. A nastiness. A desire. Luis Enrique had it as a player, and now he has it in his team. The success of Suárez is not that he has it at all–of course he does–but that even though he is now where he wants to be, at Barcelona, that he still has it.
“Football allowed him to forget his present and build his future. This rage, he turned it into something positive on the pitch,” Cardacio explained. “His triumph is to have belief in himself. I do not know if he believes in God, but when you know where he came from and everything he has done, then you must think that God believes in Luis Suárez."