History has been littered with figures who inspire a testing cocktail of emotions. These divisive characters are normally bound to the confines of fiction given the delicate complexity of a personality required to illicit both disgust and admiration from the same onlooker.
Yet, while Holden Caulfield, Patrick Bateman and Bella Swan can certainly divide a room, Luis Suárez offers a real-world example who emphatically splits opinion.
The chapters of Suárez’s 2014 autobiography Crossing the Line neatly highlight the controversial career of the Uruguayan. The first focuses on biting, the third is called ‘The Hand of Suárez’ while another is simply titled ‘Racist’. However, he also discusses his loving relationship with Sofia – the pair are married with three children and met when they were teenagers.
After breaking through at Uruguay’s most successful club Nacional, Suárez jumped at the chance to join Dutch side Groningen as Sofia had moved to Barcelona beforehand. As Suárez told the Liverpool Echo: “The only thing I thought about was being by her side again. That’s how my European adventure started.”
At Groningen, Suárez shed seven kilos upon arrival, threw himself into learning Dutch and rapidly became a fan favourite. Yet, in a move that may be familiar to some Liverpool fans, Suárez became incensed when Groningen rejected an offer from Ajax after his debut campaign.
The ensuing transfer saga required the Dutch football association to intervene and ultimately saw Suárez make the switch to Amsterdam with the bridges he had built at Groningen well and truly burned – along with plenty of replica shirts. From adoration to incineration, this is the effect Suárez can have.
In three and a half seasons at Ajax, Suárez continued to both endear and infuriate. There has scarcely been a match throughout his career devoid of his trademark harrying and pestering. But in that famous red and white strip, the striker’s goalscoring enjoyed a healthy uptick – despite largely being deployed on the right-hand side of a classic Ajax 4-3-3.
Suárez hit triple digits during his time at the club, averaging more than a goal per game in his final full season. Yet, his last Eredivisie outing ended in ignominy as Suárez delivered the first of three bites in his footballing career during a 0-0 draw with title rivals PSV Eindhoven.
In his aforementioned autobiography, Suárez, while clearly expressing remorse, makes the rather dubious statement: “I know biting appals a lot of people, but it’s relatively harmless.”
Intriguingly, Suárez drew a parallel between the ‘unconscious’ state he was in to his instinctive finishing, explaining: “The problem is that this switching off also happens when I do something brilliant on the pitch…I’ve scored goals and later struggled to understand how exactly I managed to scored them.”
Yet, immediately following his £22.8m move to Liverpool in January 2011, Suárez struggled to find the net, subconsciously or not. Just nine league goals in his first year on Merseyside was partly down to his peripheral positioning with Andy Carroll the side’s focal point, although that soon changed.
After an impressive campaign in his first season under the incoming manager Brendan Rodgers (and more lengthy bans), Liverpool’s number seven exploded on the pitch in 2013/14. 31 goals in 33 Premier League games – not one a penalty kick – took a free-scoring Liverpool to the brink of the title.
An abiding image from that season is of a crestfallen Suárez, sobbing into his shirt at Selhurst Park as Kolo Touré leads him off the field once Liverpool’s title challenge has been all but quashed. However, one less memorable tidbit from that campaign is the surprisingly high tally of 12 assists Suárez notched up.
This creativity became a larger facet of Suárez’s game once he made his long-awaited move to an elite side on the continent, joining Barcelona in the summer of 2014. Across his six seasons in La Liga, Suárez is shooting less and assisting more – he even marked his debut against Real Madrid with an assist.
Interestingly he has been creating fewer chances in the Spanish top flight but – given the calibre of player he is finding – these opportunities are being taken at a greater rate. If there is one player who Suárez finds more than anyone else, it is Lionel Messi.
When Suárez joined Barça he formed the final part of what would become an attacking trident fabled and feared in equal measure. The fact that Messi even entertained the idea of drifting out wide to accommodate Suárez – having forced previous teammates to the flanks – hinted at the Argentine’s respect for his fellow South American.
The next-door neighbours are also best friends off the pitch. Their kids go to the same school, their wives are business partners and when Suárez netted a hat-trick against Real Madrid in 2018, the injured Messi was babysitting his children.
With Messi to his right and Neymar his left, Suárez himself admitted that he would have to do ‘the dirty work’. But, for all the goals and assists, he has never lost that relentless work ethic. No cause is considered lost, no defender is exempt from a sharp rattle around the heels if they make the mistake of dilly-dallying in possession.
Again, Suárez has been keen to distance his personal character from this perpetual irritant on the field. As he said: ‘The Luis on the pitch is nothing like the Luis off the pitch.’
At 33, injuries and the passage of time have ensured there is a little less hustle in his bustle but ‘El Pistolero’s’ potency in front of goal persists. Over the past seven years, only Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo can better Suárez’s domestic goal return (excluding penalties). In the same time period, Barça’s number nine also ranks fourth for assists in Europe’s top leagues.
The Uruguayan may be entering the twilight of his career, but there is plenty of time left for Suárez to stagger and sicken and score and assist.