Luis Suarez: Courteous, respectful, sensitive...
That's the real Luis Suarez, according to former team-mates and friends who dispute his image as an enfant terrible. They talk to Rory Smith
Referees, opponents, fans, foes: the whole world thinks they know Luis Suarez, and the whole world thinks they know what he is. He is the cannibal of Ajax, the unrepentant dasher of African dreams.
Most recently, he is a finger raised in apparent fury at Fulham's Putney End. Most seriously, he is accused of directing racist abuse at Patrice Evra. He has been called a cheat, a scoundrel, a scourge upon the game.
Speak to those who know him, though, those who grew up with him, who helped mould him, who played with him, who count him as a team-mate and as a friend, and that image begins to crumble. Indeed, the lexicon for describing a player who has spent the last two years collecting a variety of disparaging epithets is almost wholly inverted.
Mathias Cardacio, a peer from the youth teams at Nacional and still a friend, recalls a nascent superstar who "everyone warmed to". Alejandro Balbi, a director at the Montevideo club which recruited Suarez as a child, finds the reputation he has been afforded in Europe "incomprehensible". Both agree that Suarez was, he is, "humble, gracious, quiet".
"All of my memories of him are fond," says Erik Nevland, the former Manchester United prodigy who forged a prolific partnership with Suarez at the Dutch side Groningen, his first port of call in European football. "He did not speak the language at first, so he spent a lot of time with Bruno Silva, another Uruguayan, as he tried to settle in. It was difficult for him, but he was always laughing in the dressing room. He is not easy to forget, Luis, but in a very good way."
Martin Jol, manager of the club which provided the setting for Suarez's latest transgression, has offered a similar description. The Uruguayan was, according to the Fulham manager, "a real capitano" while under his aegis at Ajax.
Those who will line up alongside him when Kenny Dalglish's side face Queen's Park Rangers today would agree. Suarez is an enduringly popular figure among Liverpool's squad, not simply with the close cabal of Latin Americans who have eased his transition to life in England – he and his family spend much of their social time with Maxi Rodriguez and Lucas Leiva, as well as his recently arrived countryman, Sebastian Coates – but with Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina, too, Anfield's influential strongmen. Dalglish's affection for the striker the Scot calls "Louise" is genuine. The Liverpool manager recalls Suarez beaming with delight when he first arrived at Melwood, his gourd of the South American drink mate under one arm and his daughter, Delfina, on the other, and remains adamant that his effervescent forward has not stopped smiling since.
He was not smiling, though, as he bit his gloved hand in frustration at Craven Cottage on Monday night, his rage at his perceived lack of protection from referee Kevin Friend and his displeasure at 90 minutes of vitriol directed at him from the stands combining, amid the pain of defeat, to snap his patience and extend his finger.
He was not smiling during the ill-tempered clash with Manchester United at Anfield when he is alleged to have racially abused Evra, and he will most certainly not be smiling when he presents a case for his defence – believed to centre on the linguistic nuance of the Spanish term negrito – to the Football Association.
There is nothing surprising, of course, in a footballer being quite different on the pitch than he is in private. Suarez himself admits as much. "My wife [Sofia] says that if I was like I am when I'm playing when I'm at home, she wouldn't be my wife any more," he laughs. The contrast, though, is so stark that it warrants further investigation.
"It is strange to see the person that everyone talks about and think it is the same Luis I played with," admits Nevland. There is, though, one very obvious explanation. "All he wants," says the Norwegian, "is to win."
It is a theme that unites those who have encountered Suarez. "Uruguayans never accept defeat," says Cardacio, formerly of Milan. "But Luis is different to everyone. Even as a 14-year-old, he would never give up a ball for lost. In one game, we won 21-0, Luis scored 17 goals and yet he did not stop for a second. He never thinks he has won. He always wants more."
That, too, is hardly rare among elite sportsmen. It is the way the trait manifests in Suarez that stands out. One Dutch psychologist, examining the incident in November last year when Suarez bit PSV Eindhoven's Ottman Bakkal, suggested it could be attributed to the disappointment of defeat. Like his gesture at Fulham, Balbi attributes it to how seriously he takes his craft.
"He feels the game," he says. "Nothing like this ever happened in Uruguay. I don't even remember him being sent off. He was courteous, respectful. But what happened with Zinedine Zidane [at the 2006 World Cup final] shows that even the best players can sometimes lose their heads."
The Frenchman's headbutting of Marco Materazzi is not quite so abominable as the charge of racism that stands against Suarez. If he is found guilty, which he may not be, his image would be left in ruins; his career in England, too, could be under threat, with Liverpool's owners concerned by the effect such a verdict might have on the club's reputation.
"Ever since he was small he was very respectful, so I cannot believe he would insult Evra," says Cardacio. Balbi agrees, in the strongest possible terms: "This charge of racism, I can guarantee that this is not what Luis is like."
The concern, of course, is that a man who will do everything to win might perhaps resort even to that. Cardacio acknowledges that Suarez's relentless drive sometimes leads him to "do things he shouldn't", though he insists that applies more to simulation – Latin Americans prefer to call it picardia, cunning or guile – than the sort of abuse he cannot imagine his friend uttering.
For Suarez's English audience, gorged on a narrative in which he plays the pantomime villain, it is different. A man seen by his friends as humble and polite has been cast as the Premier League's enfant terrible; in such a context, it is not hard to imagine a congenital cheat, a man who so delighted in the schadenfreude of knocking Ghana out of the World Cup, being caught up in such a scandal.
Suarez is not the first to be afforded such status. Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba: all might be able to advise him on how to deal with his unique scrutiny. Mario Balotelli, his immediate predecessor, has eloquently stated his bafflement at the interest in his pastimes away from the game, and his belief that he is treated differently on the pitch as a result of it.
"It is different in England, and it can be really hard to get used to for the foreign players," says Nevland. Sufficiently hard, Balbi suggests, that it may eventually force Suarez to consider leaving. "He is sensitive," he says. "He will be concerned by the way people think of him."
Here, too, a split: no doubt those who see Suarez as a pestilence on the Premier League would say good riddance; if he is found guilty of racism, then it would be hard to disagree. Even if he is not, though, the lingering stain on his reputation may be enough to condemn him. There would be others, of course, who would be distraught to see him leave, and not just at his adoring Anfield.
And to his friends, it would be a matter of lasting regret. "I will never forget the eight years we played together," says Cardacio. "He is the most beloved, idolised player we have. He is a source of great pride for the whole country." In Uruguay, too, far from the pantomime, they think they know Suarez. The Suarez they know, though, is not the Suarez we have been taught to know.
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