Pantomime villain Luis back on stage

There is never a dull moment with Luis Suarez.

There’s the diving and the red cards, including one for an intentional goal-line handball in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final —“the save of the tournament” — he modestly branded it. There’s the racist abuse of Patrice Evra in 2011, which Suarez disputes, and, of course, the biting. Lots of biting.

After the indiscretions and suspensions, there are the comebacks. The latest one gets underway today . It’s pure show business — a likely debut for his new club Barcelona against its clasico rival, Real Madrid in front of the guts of 500 million people watching live on television. The pressure couldn’t be greater.

But Suarez handles pressure well. Last June, he banged in two goals to help Uruguay defeat England 2-1 in the World Cup. Four weeks before the game, he’d been ambling around the place in a wheelchair while recuperating from surgery on his left knee. After the heroics against England came the biting of Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini five days later, an action that Uruguay’s president, José Mujica, excused as nothing more than a childish prank.

The kid retreated to the bosom of his family while commentators in the press and on social media beat their brows about why he repeatedly resorts to biting opponents, most laying the blame at the door of his father who abandoned him, his six brothers and their mother Sandra when Suarez was nine years of age.

Barcelona, however, were undeterred by his misbehaviour. The club’s sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta made a big play about how “humble” Suarez was in apologising to Chiellini on Twitter before the club agreed to buy him from Liverpool in mid-July for a fee Liverpool reported at €94 million.

Suarez was determined to play in La Liga. Barca suited above all — on leaving Liverpool, he moved into the house of his parents-in-law in Castelldefels, a seaside village about 15 miles outside Barcelona.

In a fine piece of investigative journalism published in May, the ESPN journalist Wright Thompson traipsed around Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital city, on the trail of the phantom referee who Suarez allegedly head-butted during a match when he was 16 years of age.

While trying to answer one question, Thompson inadvertently comes to the convincing conclusion that the blonde girl that Suarez would one day marry is the “key to decoding his mystery”.

Suarez was 15 when he met Sofia Balbi. She was 13. Suarez apparently used the coins he found while toiling as a street sweeper to treat her on dates. They fell in love. She welcomed him into her home, which became a surrogate family for the wayward youth.

When Balbi and her family moved to Spain in October 2003, Suarez was shattered but, argues the ESPN writer Thompson, he resolved to use professional football as his ticket to Europe. In 2006, a Dutch club picked him up. A year later he moved to Ajax, and ultimately to Liverpool in 2010. Allegedly, there was a two-word handwritten note among the documents sent to Anfield by Ajax officials along with their departing captain — it wished the club: “Good luck”.

As the goals for club and country clocked up, Suarez and Balbi had been reunited. They married in 2009. They have two children.

Whenever he scores a goal, he kisses first his ring finger and then his wrist where the names of his kids are tattooed.

The armchair psychologists argue that when the visceral competitor Suarez is threatened on the field — when his livelihood is at stake, having lifted himself from the grime of a broken home in the slums of Montevideo — that he resorts to inexplicable acts of biting and the likes.

At the unveiling of Suarez at Barca in August, the striker stressed he had “dealt with the appropriate professionals” and promised fans: “Don’t worry, I won’t do it again.”

Barcelona has experience of bringing bothersome players to the club, like all the top clubs.

As Arsene Wenger concedes: “All the best players are troublesome”. In the summer of 1990, Barca purchased Hristo Stoichkov. Like Suarez, the Bulgarian arrived at the club as a European Golden Boot winner. In December 1990, during his first clasico, Stoichkov received a three-month ban for violently stomping on the referee’s foot in a fit of rage, but went on to score over 100 goals for the club.

The question that’s exercising minds in Spain, however, is whether Suarez is fighting fit for the intensity of the biggest derby in world football. He is, after all, coming off the back of a 17-week ban.

Although he’s played in a few friendlies, since his ban from all “football-related activities” was softened on appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport in mid-August, he’s been forced to train on his own with a personal trainer in a 10-metre-squared gym. He only trained in full with the first team for the first time last Sunday.

After scoring two goals in his first full 90 minutes in a friendly match arranged between Barcelona’s B team and an U19 Indonesian XI at the end of September, he was dismissed by a Madrid-based television channel as being jowly and looking like an “overweight ex-footballer”. Luis Enrique, Barca’s new manager, came out counter-punching: “Suarez, fat? He is a naturally stocky player. He is at his ideal weight and he is ready to compete. If you want, we’ll give him liposuction but I don’t think he needs it.”

Lionel Messi has retreated to a No 10 position this season, leaving a space up front for Suarez to play alongside the team’s other star striker, Neymar.

Enrique will chose between the 19-year-old sensation, Munir, the out-of-sorts Pedro or Suarez to start.

Ominously for Real Madrid, though, who trail Barca by four points in the league table, Suarez, who scored two goals for Liverpool against Sunderland after coming back from a 10-match ban for biting last season, believes he has fate on his side: “Of all 19 teams in the league, it’s precisely against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu that I’ll make my comeback. There must be a reason.”

- Richard Fitzpatrick is the author of El Clásico: Barcelona v Real Madrid, Football’s Greatest Rivalry. It is published by Bloomsbury.


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