Tuesday 20 August 2019

The demon who 'didn't give a f***'

Suarez is a living contradiction but his exploits came to define a dramatic period for Liverpool, the club he faces in tonight’s semi-finals, writes Simon Hart

Luis Suarez celebrates during his time at Liverpool. Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images
Luis Suarez celebrates during his time at Liverpool. Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Simon Hart

The index in Steven Gerrard's latest autobiography reflects the impact made by Luis Suarez in his three-and-a-half seasons at Anfield. The Uruguayan is mentioned so often in the former Liverpool captain's story - an epic in itself - that his name fills more than half a page in the list, which is more than Jamie Carragher, Rafael Benitez, Gerard Houllier and Fernando Torres put together.

Suarez's exit from the club had been fresher than the rest and his exploits - both good and bad - had to a large extent come to define the period of the club. Yet when you read what Gerrard has to say about the Uruguayan the passages intensify, becoming faster, more complex and occasionally outrageous. The admiration leaps from the page.

Suarez's time at Liverpool is remembered by dismal incidents and special moments. Patrice Evra and Branislav Ivanovic would be able to describe the incidents better than Gerrard, who instead is positioned to detail the moments of which there were many more of.

This explained why Barcelona were so determined to sign him in July 2014, even though he was suspended for a second biting incident in 14 months.

Gerrard wrote: "Just as I had done with Barnes and Fowler, I saw something of myself in Suarez. Luis was a street footballer and the same obsession ran through him. Football ruled our lives."

He loved his passion but most of all he loved his skill. He believed that his presence gave Liverpool the chance to compete against the money and power of both Manchester teams and Chelsea.

Luis Suarez celebrates after Lionel Messi (L) scored the winning goal against Levante last weekend to secure another La Liga title for Barcelona. Photo: REUTERS/Albert Gea
Luis Suarez celebrates after Lionel Messi (L) scored the winning goal against Levante last weekend to secure another La Liga title for Barcelona. Photo: REUTERS/Albert Gea

Gerrard is regarded as Liverpool's greatest modern player. With Fernando Torres, Gerrard felt "invincible", but Suarez had more natural talent and willpower.

"In training, and in matches, Luis proved again and again that he was at a different level from everyone else. I tried harder than ever to match him - but Luis was a better footballer than me," writes Gerard.

It reflects how far Liverpool have travelled that the club no longer leans on figures like Gerrard or Carragher, who were more than players. They were sticking plasters when the times were bad: a reminder to fans there were at least some individuals involved at Liverpool who knew what it meant.

Had it not been for Gerrard's intervention, there's a chance Suarez could have left Liverpool 12 months earlier than he did. He was serving another ban then and, partly because of that, only Arsenal made an offer to sign him, triggering a release clause which they believed would allow him to leave.

When Liverpool rejected their offer of £40m plus a pound, John W Henry, Fenway's principal owner, took to social media, asking: "What are they smoking over there at the Emirates?"

It also led to a stand-off and a situation where Suarez was banished from the first-team environment. For nearly a fortnight, he trained on his own.

Gerrard and Suarez did not socialise, but they sat next to each other in the changing rooms and got along well in a transient sort of way. Suarez was desperate to play Champions League football and Liverpool could not offer that.

Suffer

Henry and Brendan Rodgers had supposedly given their word that if Liverpool did not finish in the top four at the end of the 2012/13 season, he could go. Liverpool came seventh, behind Everton.

Gerrard feared that without Suarez, Liverpool would suffer another mediocre campaign so he got involved, firing out a text: "Luis, what's going on here? We need to straighten this out."

When Suarez told him that he felt as though he'd been lied to, Gerrard suggested a meeting where he made him realise that he would have better options than Arsenal if he continued to give his all for Liverpool. Gerrard then contacted Rodgers and both Rodgers and Suarez insisted Gerrard sat in on the subsequent discussion. Though Rodgers should take some credit for Suarez's output in the campaign that followed, where he scored 31 league goals, it was Gerrard's diplomacy that made the story possible.

Suarez was described last week as a player who "did not give a f***" but this was said in an affectionate, reverent way.

There are former youth team players at Liverpool who regularly joined in first-team sessions who can remember Suarez giving the same level of commitment as he did in matches, even if he was being marked by a teenager.

There were no passengers, no concessions.

"His effort set the standard and showed everyone else how humble he was," one source said. "An opponent was there to be got no matter how old he was. His intensity was off the scale."

This was illustrated when he played a behind-closed-doors match against Burnley in September 2013, just as he was about to return to first-team action after his first biting ban.

The friendly finished in a 0-0 draw, but there was nothing friendly about it for Suarez, who took the game so seriously that he almost started fighting with the 19-year-old defender who he'd already "kicked all afternoon" anyway.

"After the final whistle Suarez was still furious and, having showered quickly, he returned to the pitch where he continued remonstrating with the defender before the pair were separated," said the source.

"For those teenagers representing Liverpool that day, it made them ask the question: Jesus Christ, how much does this guy care?"

He had arrived at Anfield in January 2011, signing on the day Torres left for Chelsea in a British record deal. There was a sliding doors moment at Melwood where Torres got the call to go to Chelsea, as Suarez came in.

The writer of this article was working for a magazine that afternoon, expecting to interview Torres and when he went, Suarez filled the space. Eighteen months later, he agreed to be the focus in a feature about free-kicks and was willing to explain what goes through his mind: what he focuses on and how he delivered the technique.

When Rodgers looked down at him training from the windows of his office, he tried to put an end to the session, fearing he might get injured.

Yet Suarez insisted he carried on until he'd sent a hat-trick of shots racing past the mannequins in front of him. I left with the impression he truly loved practicing and getting better. In our first meeting, he always maintained eye contact.

Social

I later thought of him as a living contradiction. Suarez was very close to Lucas Leiva and he played as much of a role as Gerrard in getting him to stay for another season.

There was an active social scene among the South Americans at Liverpool between the Spanish and Portuguese-speakers. The scene involved regular children's parties, where Suarez seemed to enjoy larking about with the kids on the dance floor more than making conversation with the adults sitting at the tables.

His daughter's first birthday was in the basement of a city centre hotel and at the end of the party, when everyone went to say goodbye, his shirt was saturated. He'd been twirling around on the dance floor the entire time - he just wanted to make sure the kids were enjoying themselves in the way he was not always able to after his parents split up when he was eight years old.

Listening to those who spent lots of time with him on Merseyside, a very different perception of Suarez develops. He would explain to them that football had toughened him, playing with older boys on the streets of Montevideo who could be twice his size or twice his age.

"He grew up in a hard environment and this came out of him at various stages," said one source. "Off the pitch he certainly wasn't a demon, but on it he had the capacity to turn into one."

Even though Liverpool were flying in his last season, Suarez was frustrated that the club was still in a rebuilding process, that so much relied on him. Though he now looks back at his years at Liverpool fondly and has a genuine affection for the club, wanting it to do well, at the time of his departure his frustrations were rising quickly.

The better he played and the more influential he became, the more he felt he could only really flourish if the whole story wasn't about him and by the end he was playing to leave.

Lots of South Americans dream of representing Barcelona, but Suarez's reasons were deeper than most. He was 15 years old when he met Sofí.

"Sofí saved me from myself," he wrote in his autobiography before explaining his torment after she moved to Barcelona when her father, who worked in a bank, transferred across continents. His career was defined by a vow of love.

Soon, he made good on his promise to visit her by persuading his agent to give him the money for the air fare.

That was when they went to the Camp Nou for the first time, though they managed to get into the stadium without paying via a side entrance while security staff looked the other way. Having made his debut for Nacional at 17, an offer came from Getafe and that excited him because it would have meant living in Madrid, just a few hours from Sofí by train.

Squeeze

He would instead arrive at the Camp Nou nearly nine years later via Groningen, Ajax and Liverpool. Going to Barcelona has made him think about the way he plays. He has since changed his game, recognising that he no longer has the acceleration to squeeze past so many defenders.

The old Suarez may have lashed out at this regression. That he has been able to make modifications suggests that the chaotic reactions of his Liverpool days are behind him. He now takes up positions where he can bring others into action more often and more quickly, namely Lionel Messi.

The presence and influence of Messi has been profound. Suarez realises every player at Barcelona serves Messi and Messi serves the team. That's how it works. Some aren't willing. Suarez was very willing from the beginning.

At Barcelona, he knew the club would not put up with some of his behaviour, though he found it easier to be himself because of the abilities around him, the language and the presence of Sofi's family.

The standards meant there was less chance of him overstepping the line, as he did sometimes at Liverpool, where, according to another source, "he tried to gain extra inches by doing something mad rather than practical - he does not have that problem at Barca".

Inside Barcelona there is an acceptance that he is slowly reaching the same point as Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Should a lucrative offer come from China, Barcelona would consider it, but their respect for the player is such that they would not force him out

He might not be a part of the original furniture like Xavi or Iniesta, but he'd be treated in the same way as he's done a lot for them, as he did on Merseyside. But how will he react if he was to score against the team he used to captain? At Anfield, you'd bet on him celebrating. (© Independent News Service)

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