The Uruguayan striker is a character of Jekyll and Hyde proportions, with antics that range from the sublime to borderline psychotic.
Few players have turned from magician to madman and back so effortlessly. To hear him mentioned in the same breath as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo by several of his Anfield peers this week is merely the latest installment of the 26-year-old’s remarkable career.
Born the fourth of seven brothers in Salto, a city on the border with Argentina and 500 kilometres northwest of Montevideo, in January 1987, Suarez’s talents were first witnessed on the dusty streets of the country’s capital. The breakup of his parents’ marriage at the age of nine took its toll on him and three years later, he turned his back on the game he loved.
“Family life was very hard because of my parents breaking up,” he recalled. “It was hard to concentrate and I quit football.”
A rebellious streak was never far away during his formative years but meeting his future wife Sofia Balbi around that time was a defining period; one which he claims “sorted my head out” and provided perspective on the importance of football in his life. In May 2005 he made his senior bow for Nacional and four months later recorded his first of 10 goals as they went on to win Uruguay’s Primera División title.
It wasn’t long before Europe came calling as Groningen paid €800,000 to lure him to the Eredivisie. But he stayed at the Euroborg for just one season before controversy called.
Groningen rejected Ajax’s initial €3.5 million offer for Suarez in 2007 which prompted him to take the case before the Dutch FA (KNVB) in a bid to force his then club’s hand. The arbitration committee rejected his claim but the tactic had the desired effect as both clubs eventually settled on a fee of €7.5 million.
At Ajax he blossomed alongside Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, winning the KNVB Cup in 2010 while his final half-season coincided with the end of the club’s seven-year wait to recapture the Eredivisie title. True to the narrative of his career, however, controversy continued to lurk.
His move to Liverpool in early 2011 played out during a seven-match suspension for biting Otman Bakkal during a goalless draw with PSV, just five months after he had infamously handled Stephen Appiah’s goal-bound shot during Uruguay’s World Cup quarter-final with Ghana.
Winning at all costs remains his raison d’etre. It has proved to be his detriment in England. But when he is in his element, as Norwich found out to their cost on Wednesday night, the comparisons with Messi and Ronaldo are justified. Even some of Liverpool’s decorated stars of yesteryear were at a loss recalling a player that has scaled his heights of individual brilliance.
Yet to witness Suarez away from the pitch, it would be difficult to envisage this unassuming figure was the man who headbutted a ref at 15, sunk his incisors into Bakkal’s neck and Branislav Ivanovic’s bicep, or the man found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra.
Either side of the 90-minute pressure cooker environment, he is a picture of serenity; regularly seen disembarking the team coach sipping mate, a traditional South American drink.
The arrogance and vocality he exudes on the pitch is substituted for a subdued demeanour away from it. Contrary to recent protestations, he is free from media intrusion when enjoying public outings, often accompanied by wife Sofia and children Delfina and Benjamin.
Supporters still lobby him for photos and autographs, and he remains happy to oblige. It speaks volumes of how miraculously his relationship with the Liverpool faithful has been restored following last summer’s very public agitation for a move to Arsenal.
They have never stopped chanting his name on the Kop and that affection was reciprocated when he introduced a nine-day-old Benjamin to the Anfield crowd — a South American tradition — before October’s defeat of Crystal Palace. There is an apprehension to laud a player that ‘gets’ the club, following Fernando Torres’ departure, but Suarez seems to share a genuine affinity.
Kenny Dalglish, the man who brought him to Merseyside, described him as ‘a smiley kind of guy’ following his £22.8 million arrival, but as the Premier League soon discovered, even assassins have a genial streak.