Ballet, Bites, Brazil
The year was 2014 and the FIFA World Cup in Brazil had already worked its magic and captivated the eyes and ears of the world. As had been the case for years, the choreography across the familiar stretch of green had begun its swift course, this time in the home of soccer and samba: the bodies twisting and turning in pirouettes, legs swinging in fouettes and men jostling against each other; each move a segment of one beautiful dance that flits about the length and breadth of the football pitch.
So it went for a while, until a harebrained Uruguayan came along and, in the middle of the ongoing ballet, bared his teeth and unleashed the fury of his incisors upon an Italian shoulder.
If, at that very moment, you had told the French that this was indeed the “ballet of the masses” as some Russian composer put it more than half a century ago, they would have struggled to find a name for the act despite their extensive terminology around the dance form, while the Renaissance folks in Italy would have turned in their graves. But FIFA, the governing body of football, called it “unacceptable” and slapped a four-month-long ban from all football-related activities on the perpetrator, who happened to be one of the best centre-forwards of the time.
Distress in Culer-land
The end of the 2013-14 footballing season was certainly not the best of times for FC Barcelona and its fans. Yes, they did win the Supercopa de España at the beginning of the season, beating Atletico Madrid on a solitary away goal (the two-legged ties ending 1-1 at the Vicente Calderón and 0-0 at the Camp Nou respectively), but that was it for the blaugrana, for then the remainder of the cules’ footballing year was haunted by wave after wave of little did they knows.
FC Barcelona won the Supercopa at the cost of Atletico Madrid, but little did they know that ‘Cholo’ Simeone’s rojiblancos would topple them in the two competitions that mattered the most: the domestic league and the Champions League. The Catalans also pipped arch-rivals Real Madrid in La Liga, both home (2-1) and away (3-4), but yet again little did they know that the blancos would have the last laugh as they would go on to win the Copa Del Rey, beating Barcelona 2-1, and then over a month later would claim La Decima – their tenth Champions League title, clobbering Atletico Madrid 4-1 in the final in Lisbon. It was also during the 2013-14 season—in January 2014 to be precise—that a certain Josep Maria Bartomeu assumed office as the President of FC Barcelona. Well, little did they know…
Anyway, when Diego Godin cancelled Alexis Sanchez’s goal at the Camp Nou in the 49th minute on La Liga’s final matchday, Barcelona were all but spent. Godin’s equaliser came as the final nail in the coffin, for it meant that the league title too had slipped out of their reach. The wound was deep and perhaps that is why the club decided to get their own Uruguayan.
El Chico Malo de Fútbol
When someone talks about Luis Suarez outside the context of his craftsmanship on the ball, they generally begin with the bites: the first one on Otman Bakkal during the Uruguayan’s time at Ajax, the second assault on Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic, and ultimately the gormandising of some fine Italian at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Then there’s the handball incident at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, for which Suarez became Ghana’s Public Enemy Numero Uno. Finally, the Q-tip reaches the deplorable incident with Patrice Evra and there you have it: an apodictic portrayal of football’s ultimate bad boy.
The age we live in, however, is one where surprisingly human backstories of comic book and manga supervillains have earned a place in what comprises our popular culture. In football, we speak of our heroes in terms of the hardships they faced as children: absent growth hormone, irregular heartbeat, poverty and war, among others. Why then should our judgment become parochial towards players who do not fit our definition of a role model?
Bear with me, therefore, as you shall learn that Luis Suarez, el chico malo de fútbol, the notorious biting, diving, playacting mayhem of a footballer, is in fact a hopeless romantic.
Walking in Suarez’s boots will take you to a troubled childhood with a single mother recently abandoned by her husband trying to provide for a family with seven boys by scrubbing floors in the Uruguayan capital city of Montevideo. Stroll a little further and you’ll find a fifteen year old who sweeps the streets of a South American capital when he isn’t doing what perhaps might be his only chance of redeeming himself from the decrepit hands of poverty in a country where the poor stay poor: playing football.
These troubles could take a toll on anyone, and a teenager is no exception to that. Walk further down the alleys of Montevideo and there’s our young boy wasting himself away: drinking, staying out late at night and missing football practice until his coach came hammering at his door to drag him off to training.
But then, there is love. In the dismal streets of the Uruguayan capital, our young man meets a girl. Her skin is fair and her hair golden. She holds the boy’s hand and takes him home, where they sit and enjoy meals with her family. He, on the other hand, is a ragamuffin, but he is also a gentleman, who picks up coins during his shifts sweeping the streets just so he can take her out.
Her name was Sofia Balbi and she was the closest Luis Suarez had come to having a safe place.
In 2003, the Balbi family moved to Spain, leaving behind a heartbroken young boy dangerously close to heading down the dark route again. This time, however, the boy had different plans for himself.
Luisito the Romantic
One of the many things Sofia Balbi had told Luis Suarez during their days as teenage sweethearts was to “work harder.” Which is why, when the love of his life moved more than six thousand miles away from him across the ocean, Suarez did exactly that. He worked harder. He dedicated himself to football, played the sport like a mad man and fought tooth and nail—quite literally—to seize even the most minuscule of possibilities that could take him an inch closer to where he wanted to be.
Being at a disadvantage against an opponent meant being closer to the darkness of Montevideo and moving further away from the girl he loved. And that is why, when Luis Suarez moved across the football pitch, he nullified everything that stood in his way. He took chunks out of his rivals’ flesh, thrice, served his sentence for those and each time emerged a better player than before: more ruthless, more complete. You see a mad man. I see a hopeless romantic who, for the most part of his early life, had lived in fear of giving in to the shadows of the past, but, instead, chose to cling to the absurdity of love and the hope that lies therein.
In 2009, just two years after his move to Ajax, Suarez married said childhood sweetheart. But he did not stop there. He got better, swifter, craftier with the ball, wilier off it, went on to become Liverpool’s main man, got even better, swifter, craftier and wilier, until Giorgio Chiellini came looking like fine Italian cuisine to the Uruguayan’s eyes and the jury put a four-month long restraining order between him and the sport that had brought him so far.
But things were meant to get better. Earlier on in this narrative, we left FC Barcelona reeling under the after-effects of Diego Godin’s header, so much so that the club decided to get their own Uruguayan.
Of all the people they could have had, I am glad they got Luisito.
There are times when I like to believe that the cules, including the ones who ran short of gratitude during their Number 9’s last days with the Catalans, still remember all those Luis Suarez goals that got them as joyous as bobolinks and won them silverware.
Along the edges of my memory is the winner against Real Madrid in the return fixture of the 2014-15 La Liga season at the Camp Nou. Ray Hudson screaming his lungs out at the sheer “genius” of the Uruguayan is an added bonus. It was also on that day that Luisito truly became one of us: the euphoric celebration with the notorious teeth showing was evident of the fact that he was here to stay.
Moreover, Luisito was setting up a lot of things positively. Lionel Messi, who had suffered a devastating heartbreak at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil for reasons very different from those that affected Suarez’s international campaign, was smiling again. With Neymar and Messi, the Uruguayan had set in motion things that defied any logic, and in the days that would follow, he stood at the centre of almost every operation that did not have either Lionel Messi’s or Neymar’s name written over it.
In his first Champions League knockout match in a Barcelona shirt, Suarez took thirty minutes to initiate the exit of Manchester City, scoring twice at the Etihad Stadium. Ivan Rakitic would later finish the job in the second leg at the Camp Nou. In the quarter-finals, the striker turned David Luiz’s legs loose as flying ribbons, tearing into the helpless Paris-Saint Germain defender. Twice. In the final against Juventus in Berlin, he scored one of the three goals that helped Barcelona lift their fifth Champions League title and complete the continental treble.
The 2014-15 season saw the South American trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar set up the record for the most goals scored (122) by an attacking-three in a single season in the history of Spanish football, a benchmark they surpassed the next season with 131 goals.
Individually, however, it was in the following season that Luis Suarez would do absolute justice to the nickname he had inherited at the Camp Nou from one Hristo Stoichkov. There had already been more than a few murmurs of that name, but eventually, that’s what the Uruguayan would be proudly referred to as. “El Pistolero”. The Gunman. I think Luisito would have liked it immediately. Better than The Cannibal, after all.
In the 2015-16 season, for the numerous questions asked on a football field involving FC Barcelona, Suarez was so often the answer. Everytime the ball would be in play, the full-backs would go looking for him, the midfielders would twist and turn and wriggle their way out of defences to find him, Neymar would employ all his glorious craft to beat the defenders and then pick out Luis Suarez with a neat pass.
All the men in blaugrana colours had to do was look for their Number 9, and there he would be, as certain as the answer to every question in dialectic art; the Es muss sein! (It must be!) to every Muss es sein? (Must it be?) within Barça’s footballing equivalent of Beethoven’s Fifth.
Surely, someone with that reputation at a club like Barcelona, who above all else value romanticism, art and music upon the football field, did not deserve to be unceremoniously wiped off the musical sheet as a rogue note, leaving behind nothing more than an ugly smudge?
Suarez’s detractors fail to see that here they have a man who rescued himself from the chasms of obscurity while he was still a teenager in Montevideo and thirteen years later found himself beating two of the world’s very best footballers on the goalscoring charts, claiming the Pichichi as well as the European Golden shoe in the 2015-16 season. They were quick to label him “finished” even as the 2017-18 season rolled on, and rallied to call for his head despite the lack of a replacement who could get the goals and assists Suarez did.
As his pace slackened even more in the years that followed, the forward himself called for a Plan B on multiple occasions, willing to take on a lesser role within the club. The rat-faced President of FC Barcelona got Antoine Griezzman from Atletico Madrid, who this season has seen more goalscoring chances fizzle out with his heavy touch than he has had shots on target. Perhaps the going will get easier for the Frenchman as the season progresses, but will he ever wield the potency that a 25-year-old Luis Suarez brought along with him when he first set foot on the Camp Nou grass? Is that not the motivation behind procuring a replacement? Was he even a like-for-like successor to Suarez’s position in the first place?
For now, Barcelona remain without an antistrophe and the dialectic is cleaved in half. The other half that completed it for so many years left in tears. These were not the same tears that Andres Iniesta shed as he left the club of his life two years ago. Luisito’s sorrow was that of a man who had wanted to stay, sacrificing his rank and wage, but was forced to leave without a strain of honour shown towards his legacy.
On 27th September at the Wanda Metropolitano, Luis Suarez came off the bench for Diego Costa in the 70th minute for his debut in an Atletico Madrid shirt. Two minutes into the game, he assisted Atletico’s fourth goal against rivals Granada and then went on to score a brace for his new club.
Post match, when Diego Costa was asked about the new guy in the Atletico dressing room, the striker simply replied, “It’s quite good, one of us bites and the other kicks.”
I had stopped myself from celebrating Suarez’s brace against Granada with the reminder that this was a rival club, not FC Barcelona, but Diego Costa’s response made me smile as I imagined a Luis Suarez who left Catalunya—and the many friends he had there, friends that were more like family—heartbroken and in tears, striking up a budding relationship with Diego Costa, a player who himself remains a notable exponent of football’s dark arts. I had to face the dilemma again when Suarez, starting alongside Costa, scored against Celta Vigo at the Balaidos on Matchday 6 of La Liga, with the Spanish forward involved in the buildup.
But I also couldn’t help notice how Costa, in the eleventh minute, selflessly laid the ball off for Suarez to shoot when he had the chance to turn and pull the trigger himself. Five days later, in his first Champions League appearance for Atletico, Suarez saw a repeat of the nightmare he had experienced with Barcelona not more than a couple of months ago as Bayern Munich made light work of the Spanish side, beating them 4-0 at the Allianz Arena.
That, however, did not keep Diego Simeone from retaining Suarez in his starting lineup for the next-in-line La Liga home game against Real Betis. The Uruguayan, on course for completing his first 90-minute shift in an Atletico shirt, rewarded Simeone’s faith as he latched on to a Renan Lodi pass to make it 2-0 in stoppage time.
Faith. The word would have echoed loud in Suarez’s ears. That was, above all, the last formality they ran out of in Catalunya when it came to him. But here, in his new team, he has found friends after all, and though not one among his new companions could ever replace a short, shy, mate-drinking Argentine, his present company is all he has to navigate his catharsis with.
Luis Suarez came to Barcelona for love, he stayed for the friendship he found there, but now that he is gone, I wonder if he will fight for what was taken away from him by an incompetent board, just like the teenage boy in Montevideo once fought for the love of his life. I also wonder if there’s anything left to fight for other than the point Luisito himself made in a recent interview: “I’d never have signed for Real Madrid. And I won’t celebrate if I score against Barca. But I would point to a section (of the stands).”