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Jun 10, 2014

Suarez seeks World Cup redemption

Every World Cup needs heroes, villains and clowns. The chief villains -- for neutral viewers -- used to be West Germany and Diego Maradona; the role of clown has long been England's, forever slipping on banana skins. But the man prospectively cast as lead villain of the coming World Cup is Uruguay striker Luis Suarez.

That's unfair.

If he can recover from his cartilage operation in time to play in Brazil -- reports suggest that he will -- Suarez has a good case for appearing as a hero: the villain who came good.

Twenty-seven years ago, two boys were born within three weeks of each other in Salto, a nowhere town in the Uruguayan interior. Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani had little in common. Cavani's family was well-off; Suarez's wasn't. Suarez was the middle child of seven. After his parents' divorce, the children and their mother moved in with their grandmother in Uruguay's capital, Montevideo.

Suarez grew up dreaming of earning enough from soccer to support his family. He wasn't the most talented brother -- he was just the most driven. As he told Sid Lowe: "I have sacrificed so much to be where I am. ... I can't conceive of anyone wasting even five minutes in a game."

He likes to say poverty gave him that drive. However, there are many poorer countries than Uruguay. More probably, Suarez adopted the specifically Uruguayan attitude toward soccer. This country of 3.5 million people is crammed between Argentina (41 million) and Brazil (200 million). To win, Uruguayans have always needed fighting spirit, or, as they call it, "la garra charrua," after the Charrua tribe that once inhabited this land and fought foreign occupiers. Suarez embodies la garra charrua.

That drive took him to the Netherlands at age 19 to play for little FC Groningen. He barely spoke a word of Dutch or English, and wasn't brilliant at soccer, either. His shot was weak, his touch mediocre, he dribbled with his head down, he dived obviously to win free kicks and he once protested so wildly at being substituted that Groningen's coach threw an umbrella at him.

Yet Suarez's improbable balance recalled Lionel Messi or an American football half-back. It allowed him to stumble through defenders' challenges. Rebounds -- often off his own shins -- would usually fall to him. He didn't even have a particular feint; he'd just bull his way through. Better, he never stopped moving. Suarez is possibly the world's busiest player.

- Wright Thompson: Portrait of a serial winner
- No. 4: Luis Suarez
- #WorldCupRank: See our full countdown

After a year at Groningen, Suarez moved up to Ajax Amsterdam. David Endt, an Ajax official for more than 30 years, recalls Suarez as a "half player." The Uruguayan couldn't see team-mates unmarked in front of goal and didn't like passing to them anyway, in case they scored. Ajax's then-coach, Marco van Basten, once a decent striker himself, used to lament within the club: "He can't really play soccer."

Nor could Suarez behave well. He ignored most of the clubhouse, except the Spanish-speaking players. His favorite companion was his silver pot of South American mate tea, which he took everywhere and cradled like a baby. The security people at Amsterdam airport would always tell him to empty it; every time, without fail, he'd get angry. Van Basten's successor as coach, Martin Jol, learned to give Suarez his way. Frequently, Suarez would be allowed to skip training. "He's the son of Jol," teammates grumbled.

Unsurprisingly, Suarez entered global consciousness as a villain. In the Ghana-Uruguay quarterfinal at the 2010 World Cup, he saved a last-minute would-be winning Ghanaian shot with his hands. He was sent off, but when Asamoah Gyan's ensuing penalty hit the crossbar, the cameras caught him cheering. Uruguay won the shootout.

His handball in 2010 helped Uruguay to the semifinals at Ghana's expense.
His handball in 2010 helped Uruguay to the semifinals at Ghana's expense.

Most Uruguayans loved Suarez for it. He had sacrificed himself for his country, said Eduardo Galeano, the great Uruguayan writer. Most foreigners were appalled.

In January 2011, Suarez joined Liverpool. Within months, he led the team in fouls, yellow cards, offsides, goals, shots, dribbles and assists, according to the data provider Opta. He'd fly back from Uruguay after an international game, doze off in training and then dominate the match.

Unfortunately, he soon led Liverpool in scandals, too: the bite he took out of Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic, the racist abuse of Manchester United's Patrice Evra, his dives (and smiles when they were rewarded), his de facto strike when he was trying to leave Liverpool last summer. Even UK Prime Minister David Cameron has deplored his behavior.

Yet Suarez has also shown a rare ability to grow both on and off the pitch. His teammate Steven Gerrard; Liverpool's coach, Brendan Rodgers; and Uruguay's coach, Oscar Tabarez, all keep telling him to calm down, shut up and just play soccer. Endt notes that nowadays Suarez looks happy when teammates score and rarely loses self-control. You can still see his personality in his play, but fans love that.

His stats tell the story of the past season, and not just his 31 goals in 33 league games: He had 81 shots on goal, 36 more than the second man on the list (Everton's Romelu Lukaku), and was also in the league's top three for chances created. Nobody else was going to be the Premier League's player of the year.

Suarez is one of the world's best players despite a mean streak that has made him one of the most reviled.
Suarez is one of the world's best players despite a mean streak that has made him one of the most reviled.

When the English season ended, Suarez was probably the most in-form striker anywhere. He and lost twin Cavani looked like just the men to lead the counterattacks for Uruguay's aging team. At the 2010 World Cup, you'd still often see Suarez's teammate Diego Forlan berating him after a blind run; since then, Suarez has replaced Forlan at the top of Uruguay's hierarchy. And for Uruguayans, a World Cup in Brazil has special meaning: This is where Uruguay shocked the hosts in winning the title in 1950, a tale Suarez (like every Uruguayan) knows by heart.

But then the man who is almost never injured got injured. Paul Dummett of Newcastle kicked him in the closing minutes of Liverpool's last game (a dastardly English plot, many Uruguayans believe, as England are in Uruguay's group -- no matter that Dummett is Welsh). Soon after, in a Uruguay training session, Suarez's knee went. The next day he had a cartilage operation. He left the hospital in a wheelchair.

He has already reportedly texted England players to say he'll be ready for Uruguay-England, a claim he later refuted. Either way he's unlikely to be at his best -- not for the group games, at least.

It's a shame. This is his prime, and Brazil the perfect stage. He shouldn't go down in World Cup history as just a cheat.

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