Luis Suarez signs a contract extension at Barcelona, a club he fits so well
Luis Suarez first decided that he had to go to Barcelona when he was 16. It took him longer than he would have liked -- back then, he was desperate to get there straight away -- but he finally arrived at 27, and yesterday it was announced that he has signed a new contract that means he will almost certainly be there until he is 34 or 35 if, the Uruguayan admits, he is fit enough to go on.
He will stay there well beyond that too. When he arrived, he rented a house by the beach in Castelldefels, previously occupied by Michael Reiziger; now he and his family live in a home built specially for them, farther up the hill.
"I am happy because I am where I want to be," Suarez said.
It is where he has wanted to be since 2003, when Sofia, now his wife, said she was leaving. Sofia is two years younger than Luis, but she guided him, rescued him, even. It is almost impossible to exaggerate her impact on his life. When she told him that her family were going to Barcelona because her father had lost his job in Montevideo, he was devastated. "My world [was] falling apart," he has written. He thought it was the end. Sofia gave him a notebook in which she had written the lyrics to songs, and he sobbed when he read it. Lent the money by his then-agent, he briefly visited her that Christmas and made up his mind: He had to play in Europe.
And so it began, in the university town of Groningen, with two kids who didn't know how to turn the cooker on: "McDonald's was our friend." From there to Amsterdam, Liverpool and eventually Barcelona -- Castelldefels, in fact, where Sofia had gone as a 14-year-old, and where her family still lives. On one visit, Suarez had seen an open door, and together they had sneaked into the Camp Nou, Suarez egging Sofia on, without paying; now Barcelona pay him to play there. They will do so until 2021. Only Lionel Messi and Neymar earn more.
Suarez's career has built steadily. This has been no sprint, yet the momentum has never let up. There's something about "momentum" that defines his path and his play.
Before Suarez reached Barcelona, the truth is that he had won little: a league title in Uruguay, another in Holland that he doesn't really consider his own (he had left midway through his fourth season at Ajax by the time they won the league), a Dutch Cup and the League Cup with Liverpool. Ten years as a professional, for that. His Golden Shoe at Anfield suggested that he could, and should, aspire to more.
In two years at Barcelona, he has won it all. Two league titles, two Copa del Reys, the Champions League, the European Super Cup, the Spanish Super Cup and the World Club Cup. Another Golden Shoe, too. His impact has been profound. Last season, Suarez was Europe's top scorer on 40 goals, the first winner of Spain's Pichichi award in seven years not to be called Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Only those two have ever scored more in the competition's history. The league began with him scoring and ended with him scoring too: a hat trick on the final day clinched the title.
When Suarez arrived, he still had the FIFA ban to serve; it was nine weeks before he could play. It took 500 minutes before he got a goal, and that was against APOEL, not enough to convince anyone. But then it started. He averages 0.83 goals a game, having got 97 in 117. There have been 48 assists too. He has pretty much been the perfect fit, and not because the numbers say so.
None of Barcelona's strikers have failed, exactly. Samuel Eto'o, David Villa, even Zlatan Ibrahimovic (whose on-field "failure" is at least partly false) were successful. Yet it is true that none has connected with Messi like he has. Suarez admitted that it was Messi who, during one game, suggested that he move inside, back to the No.9 position -- the beginning of a set-up that ultimately suited them all.
Their relationship is close too: The house that Suarez built in Castelldefels is next door to Messi's. When he collected the ESM Golden Shoe in the autumn, he was asked how his kids felt about the fact that their dad hadn't scored the night before. "They're happy because the next-door neighbour did," Suarez replied, looking across at Leo, sitting to one side. After the ceremony, Messi stayed behind well after Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta had gone. He sat with Sofia, Benjamin and Delfina as Suarez gave an interview across the room.
Benjamín and Delfina go to the same school as Messi's son. Luis and Leo often collect them together and drink mate together -- Argentine he may be, but it is a new discovery for Messi. Suarez even brought Messi some cartoon pyjamas, with Grumpy on them. And all of that matters, it seems. It is facile, sure -- and there have been plenty of players who have played well together without liking each other at all -- but that shows on the pitch. They say it does, anyway.
On any other team, Suarez might be the star, and last season, a case could be made for declaring him the best player in La Liga. But at Barcelona he is a facilitator as well as a footballer in his own right. He's a No. 9 who is not only measured in goals, even if they are the most significant measurement of all. There's something about Suarez's time at Barcelona that means he is not only judged by what he does -- and it is a lot -- but by what it means to Messi. And even yesterday's announcement was the same.
"Suárez renews ... now for Messi," run the headlines. What, everyone wondered, does this mean to Messi? Neymar has renewed. Suarez has renewed. What about him? There was a touch of desperation about it.
The concern is inescapable and understandable: Messi has just a year and a half left on his current deal (Suarez, by way of contrast, still had two and a half years left when he re-signed), which is leaving it very late, especially for Leo. The meeting with his father has not happened yet, and it seems as though everyone is waiting. Who wouldn't want Messi? Rumours never really recede; there's more talk on Friday, this time of a mind-blowing offer from China.
What, many are asking, can Barcelona do to convince him to stay? Part of the answer, they hope, came yesterday. Is Suarez's staying a first step? It can't hurt, that's for sure. And there were no qualms about asking the Uruguayan just that. He didn't seem to mind, either. It was his day, but there was Messi too.
"I would love him to continue, but it is his decision. I don't think my renewal is a message to him from the club," Suarez said. "My happiness would be complete if Messi renewed too."
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.