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The Biography of the World's Most Controversial Footballer
By Frank Worrall
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2014 Frank Worrall
All rights reserved.
Suarez's father would always shrug his shoulders and say, 'Well, he was born to be a footballer,' as little Luis carried on kicking a ball out onto the cobbled streets with his mates when friends came to visit. Rodolfo would eventually have to rush from the cramped house the family of nine shared in El Salto and forcibly bring his son home to say a swift 'hello' to their visitors before they headed off home. Long after they had gone, little Luis would continue to play in the dark, trying to win every match as the kids of the neighbourhood used bin lids for goalposts and ducked in and out as cars travelled up and down the road.
Every goal was the winner in the cup final – or in the World Cup – and was greeted with squeals of delight. Every goal lifted their spirits and encouraged them to dream. Luis might only have been four but, like all his playing pals, he was driven by a desire to make the big-time; often their games in the street would end in punches, such was the determination in their play.
They may have been young but they were determined to win. It wasn't unusual for Luis to scoop up his football and run for home with it under his arm if he was on the losing side. From his very humble beginnings, losing wasn't an option for Luis; he always wanted to win, to be the best, even in those early days on the streets of El Salto. The dream was simple and it came with a burning desire from within: that one day he would head to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay 300 miles away, and star for Nacional or Peñarol, the two teams all the boys had heard fabled stories about – the two teams which had long dominated the country's club football. And the ultimate dream for Luis was that one day he would represent his country in the World Cup and bring it home on a tidal wave of adulation.
It was a dream shared at the same time by another boy in another neighbourhood in El Salto: Edinson Cavani, who was also born there. His and Luis's paths would not cross as youngsters but they now make up their country's recognised strike force. Amazingly, Cavani was born only a fortnight after Luis and just down the road in El Salto. Serendipity, maybe, but it's quite remarkable that the two men who now carry the hopes of a nation would share such a humble start in life – at the same time and in the same place.
Yes, football was a beacon of hope for young Luis and his friends – and, no doubt, just a few blocks away, for Cavani too. It was the promised land, a land where they could escape the tough streets and become somebody; it offered a way out of the poverty and slums that blighted the neighbourhood in which they were growing up: the neighbourhood Luis would call home for the first six years of his life.
Luis Alberto Suarez Diaz was born in El Salto on 24 January 1987. It was in this deprived town in the north of the country that the story of the man who would become one of the world's most feared football strikers began. He was the fourth of seven brothers, born to Rodolfo and his wife Sandra. The family were poor; they just about got by on the slim wages Rodolfo brought home from his job as a porter. Sandra stayed at home to bring up and care for their children; a housewife and mother who would always encourage Luis to make the best of his natural talents with a football. Soon Luis was proving just how talented he was after his older brother Paolo invited him along for a game with his friends. Even among older boys, Luis was still the star, the boy who could dribble with the ball as if it were glued to his right foot and who would always score the most goals.
El Salto is near to the border with Argentina and Luis and his family lived close to the army garrison in the town. 'We were only about a hundred yards away from it,' Paolo said. 'We would meet up near the camp to play football. Our routine was to get up early and spend all day outside with the ball. We went home to eat when there was food at home, and there wasn't always.'
When Luis was six, the family moved 300 miles south to Montevideo. It should have been a moment of joy for the boy, who had long dreamed of playing for one of the big clubs in the capital. There was also the bonus that both his parents had now secured work – his father in a biscuit factory and his mother as a cleaner in the city's central bus station. But Luis found himself suddenly homesick for El Salto – he missed his friends and the football matches they would play at all hours of the day.
His father told him not to look back; that he would make new friends and that he would find him a junior football club where he could play the game more seriously, with a proper kit and competitive matches. But Luis would not be appeased and so Rodolfo allowed him to return to El Salto for a month to live with his grandmother, on the condition that he would come back to Montevideo with no arguing when the four-week spell was up.
Luis agreed and returned to play with his friends, reluctantly heading back to the new family home in the capital when the month ended. He would eventually settle in his new surroundings but still insisted on going back to his grandparents' house in El Salto every summer holiday for a couple of years. In his last full year in El Salto, he and his mates had swapped playing in the street for playing on a patch of land adjacent to the military base. He would now play barefoot on the grass – it would be another development in his footballing skills.
Without shoes he became even more adept at controlling the ball: now it would truly appear as if the ball were glued to his foot. He explained his homesickness for El Salto to journalist-cum-author Ana Laura Lissardy in this way: 'The change of city, the way of talking – because they talk differently there and of course they make fun of you. We came to a city where it was practically impossible to play barefoot on the grass. Of course I was going to miss it. But we had to get used to all of that as best we could.'
The point about being made fun of is a telling one. Luis would go to school like all his siblings but never felt at home. He would be teased about his protruding teeth and about being poor. It would be the start of his defiant streak: at first he would take the abuse and cry because his father had warned him not to get into any trouble. But soon he would lash out at his tormentors and get into scraps and scrapes. Luis the rebel was born; he had tried his best to keep schtum as his father had demanded but no more. No more would he be tormented and laughed at: now he would hit back and soon the bullying would end. His tormentors knew what they would get if they dared try it on with him.
But while Luis had put distance between himself and the bullies, he still found it hard to settle down to schoolwork. His educational achievements would be minimal but he consoled himself – and told his mother and father – that, no matter, he was going to be a world-famous footballer. Neither laughed at him and neither tried to talk him out of his dream. Rodolfo had been a fair footballer himself, even playing a few matches for El Salto, and his grandfather had played for Nacional. So those times when Rodolfo had told friends when they visited in El Salto, 'Well, he was born to be a footballer,' weren't as crazy as they may have initially sounded. No, Rodolfo knew something they didn't know: that football ran in the family's DNA.
At last, Luis started to settle down in his new life in Montevideo. He began to play for a junior football team – Urreta – and made new friends. It was a team with history: the current Uruguayan international centre-half, Diego Lugano, who played for West Bromwich Albion, also starred for the youngsters six years before Luis arrived on the scene.
'When we came to live in Montevideo, we started to look for a team for him,' explains Luis's mother. 'I was told about Urreta, a club where there were a lot of people with money, so I took him there. He was sub in a friendly match a few days later. They were losing 2–0 so they put Luis on and he scored three to make it 3–2!'
Luis Suarez had made his first statement of intent at a team that meant something in his native Uruguay – a boys' team maybe but a boys' team with a strong background; one that had already seen the aforementioned Lugano move swiftly up the ladder towards the pro game. And Luis knew all about Lugano and wanted to follow in his footsteps. All he had to do now was keep on delivering the goods. He had got off to a flier and more was to follow ... and quickly. The goals continued to flow and his reputation soared.
Luis would say later,
I had a really hard time when I was growing up. As you can imagine, coming from a large family, we did not have many resources at home, which meant we had to carry on with a very normal life, full of sacrifices. When I was six or seven I moved to Montevideo, where my football career began. That was the first big change in my life, and since then I have faced many other big changes. I started playing football when I was very young and by the age of four I would run faster with the ball than without it.
It was no real surprise when, within a couple of years of playing for Uretta, Luis was spotted by a scout from Nacional. Wilson Pirez was one of the most trusted scouts of the nation's most decorated club so, when he told his bosses that he had found a rare talent, they immediately arranged to watch him themselves. They would not be disappointed: Luis scored again for Uretta and was the best player on the pitch by a mile. 'I found him when he was nine, playing kids' football,' Pirez said. 'He had an incredible amount of ability for someone of that age. He was a wonderful boy, well behaved. You could always tell he was going to be a great player.'
Luis was now taken under the wing of Nacional; playing for them as a junior and having his progress monitored. It seemed he was on the brink of a big breakthrough – but, just as suddenly, his world fell apart when his parents split up. His father left the family home and his mother now had to bring him and his brothers up on little income. Luis said, 'They were tough times. My parents had split up and there was all the problem of us being a family that never had the possibility of choosing anything. I was never able to tell my mother, "I want these trainers," and have her buy me those trainers. It was the pure reality.'
By the age of eleven he was still progressing at Nacional but it was telling that he had to turn down an invite from the national club to attend a national youth training camp in Argentina because his mother could not afford to buy the boots he needed for the trip. 'All my dreams had come true but it was too expensive so I had to decline because I didn't even have enough money to buy a pair of shoes,' he said.
It was after this setback that the stark realisation that his parents had split for good now hit him hard. Luis started to go off the rails, missing training, missing school and preferring to go to dances with his mates. He would explain what happened in this way: 'Family life was very hard because of my parents breaking up. It was hard to concentrate and I quit football.'
His brother Paolo would eventually bring him to his senses and persuade him to go back to Nacional and knuckle down. 'I knew that he was a great player and I was so mad to see him waste his talent,' Paolo explained. Luis now appeared for the club at all youth levels, scoring goals whenever and wherever he played. He worked at his football whenever he wasn't at school and also did his best to achieve some educational success when he was in the classroom. At home at night, he would study his subjects and prove more than competent in one in particular: Mathematics.
By the age of fourteen he had earned a reputation as a goal-scorer with Nacional and was well on the way to a big future with the club. But then he veered off course for the second time, partying and underage drinking. One night he was seen out on the town by club officials and the next day he was called in to see the Nacional youth-team coach, Ricardo Perdomo.
Luis was stunned when the coach grabbed him and shook him. 'You start to train properly and focus on your football – or you are out of this club!' Perdomo is said to have told him. Luis would later tell Ana Laura Lissardy, 'I went through a phase in which the football wasn't going well for me and I didn't want to study. I didn't like to train. I only liked playing the games and that way it was going to be very difficult for me to achieve something. I got really angry. I was a rebel and that worked against me.'
He would later admit, 'There were many problems ... but I realised that soccer was my thing and, if I didn't give myself that chance at fourteen, I was not going to do it anymore.'
Soon it was time for Nacional to decide which youths they would keep on and groom for the future and which ones they would show the door to. Luis was one of the latter, much to his dismay. Daniel Enriquez, who was Nacional's technical director and in overall charge of the youth teams, felt the boy's attitude hadn't been good enough over the previous twelve months and told Luis's early mentor Wilson Pirez as much.
Pirez pleaded with Enriquez to give Suarez another chance. He explained that the boy had recently turned over a new leaf; that he was now buckling down to training and taking his chance very seriously indeed; that his days of late nights and partying were now over. He also pointed out that Luis was 'one of the best prospects I have ever seen' and arguably the best of all the youth players.
'Please give him one final chance,' Pirez asked. 'And if he messes up, fair enough, that's it.'
Enriquez looked at the scout who was now staking his reputation on this wayward boy Suarez, stroked his chin for a couple of minutes and then said simply, 'OK. But this is his final chance – his final warning.'
Pirez thanked him profusely and promised Enriquez he wouldn't regret the gamble he had taken. He predicted that Suarez would become a great footballer and would even represent his country one day. Enriquez nodded: he knew the boy must be something special if someone like Pirez was so willing to stick his neck out for him; to put his own reputation on the line. But Enriquez would keep an eye on the boy – and if he did step out of line, that was it: 'No mas.'
Pirez relayed the news to Luis but warned him that this was it – it was make-or-break time and, if he didn't show sufficient dedication, commitment and progress, he would be out on his backside. Luis realised he owed much to this man and thanked him sincerely. 'I promise I won't let you down,' he told Pirez. 'From now on, football will come first. I promise you that, Mr Pirez.'
Previously, Luis had been struggling to even make the youth team as he went off the rails, but now, armed with a new determination not to let Mr Pirez down and to make the best use of his God-given talent, he became a regular. Not just a regular, mind you: he also became the kingpin of the team – the key man who could always be relied upon to score goals when they were most needed. In one match, the Nacional youth team won 21–0 – and Luis scored 17 of the goals. His team-mates grew to love him and were willing to ignore his occasional rushes of blood. Conejito, as they nicknamed him – 'Bunny' because his protruding front teeth made them think of Bugs Bunny – would score the goals that made their team formidable. And that was what mattered after all is said and done.
But it wasn't all plain sailing. Luis did keep his promise to Pirez that he would do everything he could to become a top footballer but he would continue to have problems with his temper. He was becoming a brilliant player and a model trainer, but when he saw red, there was nothing anyone could do to stop him acting up. It would be a trait that would plague him throughout his career. At the time, of course, no one thought of anger management or therapy: he was simply viewed as a hothead.
And what a hothead he could be – even at fifteen. Daniel Enriquez apparently related the story of how Luis had butted a referee at that age when he disagreed with one of his decisions in a key match. In Uruguay, Enriquez was quoted as saying, 'The referee had a broken nose and was bleeding like a cow. We punished Luis heavily and told him it was the end.'
But once again Suarez would escape the axe: Nacional had come to realise that he was a one-off; a genius who would soon enough be competing for a first-team place. So they gave him one more 'final' warning. No way were they going to kick out a boy who could score goals with ease and who could well be the one who would lead them to the league title in a season or two. No, he was far too precious for that – and if, eventually, he did prove unmanageable, well, they could sell him off for a decent fee. Business, as always, played a part in football: money talked and Luis Suarez was clearly going to be a man who would eventually make Nacional a lot of money, whether he stayed or departed.
Excerpted from Luis Suarez by Frank Worrall. Copyright © 2014 Frank Worrall. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE STREET FIGHTER,
CHAPTER TWO OPENING SHOTS,
CHAPTER THREE THE KING OF AMSTERDAM,
CHAPTER FOUR WELCOME TO ANFIELD,
CHAPTER FIVE CANNY KENNY,
CHAPTER SIX THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN,
CHAPTER SEVEN GETTING SHIRTY,
CHAPTER EIGHT THE WHOLE WORLD IN HIS HAND,
CHAPTER NINE NATIONAL SERVICE,
CHAPTER TEN MEET THE NEW BOSS,
CHAPTER ELEVEN THE BITE,
CHAPTER TWELVE FOREIGN LEGION,
CHAPTER THIRTEEN A LEAGUE OF HIS OWN,
CHAPTER FOURTEEN IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF LEGENDS,
CHAPTER FIFTEEN THE GREATEST,