Liverpool: Luis Suarez could see the No 24 coming. The final whistle had just gone on the opening day of the season and the West Brom striker Peter Odemwingie was heading straight for him. Liverpool had lost 3-0, Suarez had missed a couple of good chances, he was wound up, tense, and now this. But this time there was no confrontation. Instead there was comfort, counsel.
“He came over to me and told me that I should forget about all that other stuff,” Suarez says. “He said that I’m a great player and that I should just worry about playing.”
Odemwingie is not the first person to tell him so. As Suarez talks it is a recurring theme. There is a succession of men who have sought to shift his focus, going back a long way; men who have sought to channel his intensity, that competitive edge. “If you had seen me before “ he says. There is a pause. He leans forward a little, elbows on the table, the sleeves of his training top pulled up high. His fingers move slowly as he talks, twisting the thin wedding ring on his right hand. Outside, through the glass doors that look across Liverpool’s Melwood training ground, the rain hammers down. “If you had seen me before,” he continues, “you’d realise that I used to be even worse.”
Luis Suarez is not laughing. This is not a joke. Nor is it a plea for sympathy. And he is not fishing for compliments. It is just a statement, delivered evenly, like the majority of what he says. Yet this is not the self-congratulation of the reformed character. It is not the self-loathing either. He walks past the European Cup, past the rows and rows of boots and trainers, and up the stairs, taking a seat in an office overlooking the fields, still in his kit. He talks well; occasionally with eloquence and always with a self-awareness that is striking, even a little disarming. He says he wants to change, but doesn’t want to entirely.
The contradictions are many. Suarez feels misunderstood, but this is no sob-story he does not excuse, nor blame. He says he does not care what people say about him, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, somewhere inside, he does. He recognises himself, even as he does not. He says he is changing, because at times he has done himself and his team no favours, but he is not trying to be anything else. That, after all, is what got him this far. Without that competitiveness, without that edge, he would not be sitting here.
Listening to him talk it is clear that while the image does not stand up, off the pitch at least, the way he plays is ultra-competitive, confrontational, win-at-all-costs. That brings a price.
“There are people who criticise me and that’s normal because of the way I am on the pitch,” he concedes. “I get angry, I get tense. My wife says that if people reach conclusions as to what I am like based on what they see from me on the pitch they would say I am a guy who is always annoyed, always in a bad mood, they’d say what must it be like to live with me. There are two of me, two different people.”
Liverpool’s new manager, Brendan Rodgers, insists that Suarez is a good guy. Staff at the club describe him as quiet and professional. By his own admission, he first came to the Netherlands at 19 for “love”: his then girlfriend, now his wife, lived in Europe and it was a way of starting a new life together. He talks proudly of how his daughter has been going to his games from the age of 15 days. On the pitch, though, he is transformed. Pressure and personality play their part in making him the player he is. So does the past.
“I have sacrificed so much to be where I am and fought so hard for it. I can’t conceive of anyone wasting even five minutes in a game. I can’t bear the idea of not trying to make the most of every single second. There are only three million people in Uruguay but there is such hunger for glory: you’ll do anything to make it, you have that extra desire to run, to suffer. I can’t explain our success but I think that’s a reason.
“I played in the streets with my friends, barefooted. That was the way we lived. I never had the chance to say to my mother or father: ‘I want these boots.’ It’s different in Europe. They have it easier. I saw that already in Holland. Kids of 17 or 18 years old were given cars already. Audis. Big cars. In Uruguay you don’t have that. That can be an advantage: you don’t give everything on the pitch if you have it all.”
Now Suarez does. It makes no difference. He could have become comfortable but has not. The lessons are learned, the character forged. “People say to me: ‘How can you run so much, how can you suffer so much, how can a defeat hurt you so much?’ Because there is so much effort and sacrifice behind it. I think Latin Americans value their position more than other players.
“And the pressure is greater than people realise. It makes you do things that you never imagined: eat more, eat less, act differently,” he says. “It does something to you. There have been games when I’ve said to myself: ‘Why was I so stressed, why did I feel under such pressure when all I ever wanted was to play football?’ As time passes, you realise you have to be more mature, that you have to take the games as just another game. Still give everything, still care, but not live it beforehand. Just play it. Don’t get tense and wound up before the game.
“Coaches have told me I can help the team much more if I don’t talk, if I don’t moan. You reflect. Oscar Tabarez [Uruguay’s manager], in a game against Peru in the qualification for the World Cup, told me I had let him down because he had placed a lot of trust in me, but he gave me another chance. I remember a game against Argentina too when he said to me: ‘Luis, either you calm down or I take you off.’ I could not carry on playing so crazily. In the second half, I focused better, I scored, I played better. Coaches who are intelligent see that. They warn you and that helps. Advice coming from the right people is always welcome.
“At Liverpool too. Steven [Gerrard] said to me during the game against United: ‘Prove you’re one of the best players in the world, that’s what matters.’” Talk turns to United; inevitably, it turns too to Patrice Evra and the eight-match ban that Suarez received for racially abusing the Manchester United full-back in a game at Anfield last year. It is not something Suarez particularly wants to dwell upon but it remains unresolved. He insists that he wants to move on, just as Odemwingie advised, but there are scars, a sense of injustice. He admits to feeling like a marked man, that he has felt singled out for criticism from the start. “People spoke for the sake of speaking and didn’t know what they were talking about,” he says. “Some people said what suited them. But that’s in the past now.”
The word negro in Spanish does not mean “negro”, and certainly does not mean the other n-word. In Uruguay, it is a word so widely used as to often be little more than mate. “In Spanish, in Latin America, there’s a way of speaking that is totally different. There are words you can say here that you could not say there and vice-versa. They would be taken in a totally different way,” says Suarez. But perhaps that is not even the point given that after three days of video evidence at a three-man Independent Regulatory Commission, lip readers produced no hard evidence that he said what he was accused of saying.
But what is done is done. Move on as Odemwingie said. “They punished me, I shut up and I forget it, I want to leave it now,” he says. “It’s in the past. I’d prefer not to keep talking about it, otherwise it will never end.”
Easier said than done. For all the talk of Olympic spirit, he was booed by opposing supporters. “What hurt me most was not that they whistled me but that they whistled the national anthem. I think that’s a lack of respect. There’s a clear example: the other day they were doing an interview with Usain Bolt and they started playing the American national anthem in the background, so he went silent. That’s respect. That’s what any normal person would do. But if they whistle me on the pitch when I have the ball that doesn’t worry me.
“They are opponents and they want to have a go, that’s it. They’re not people who know me. It’s just another stadium whistling. What Odemwingie said matters a thousand times more than some whistling.” And yet, would he prefer it if fans were not on his back? “Of course.”
He adds: “What matters is the people I know and Liverpool always supported me. Whenever my wife or I came across people at the club or out in the street, they were good to us. That made us feel wanted and comfortable. That was important in deciding to continue. Last year good things happened as well as bad ones. The manager [Kenny Dalglish] always supported me, he kept putting me in the team, he kept faith in me always, the players defended me as well. The press might have talked but I always felt entirely backed by the people around me.”
Support was repaid with a contract renewal. Now Suarez wants to leave all that behind and channel his energy, that intensity, into the football. He says he is determined to play in the Champions League. “There were,” he says, “clubs that wanted me but my priority was always to stay and sign for Liverpool. I’m happy here and the manager said he wanted me. It is a dream. This has always been a big club in Uruguay. They were on television a lot and I used to play with Liverpool on the PlayStation: my team would have Gerrard and Torres.”
This is not just a new season, it feels like a new beginning. For the whole club and for Suarez. Now, though, the responsibility is greater and for the first time there are questions being raised about his footballing contribution.
He began his career as a winger and still does not refer to himself as a No9. That, though, is his job now. Eighty-one goals in 110 games for Ajax was an extraordinary return. For Liverpool he has scored 15 league goals since his 22m transfer.
Last season Suarez hit the post eight times in the league more than any other player. Bad luck? Over-thinking? Rodgers has told him there is no excuse; he just has to score. Shades of Bill Shankly: “If you’re in the penalty area and you’re not sure what to do, stick it in the net and we can discuss the options afterwards.”
Suarez prefers to think in terms of scoring bursts. “In Holland I was lucky. It felt like everything went in. I could shoot with my shoulder or my tummy and it would go in. Now it’s different. I understand that I have to score more goals than I am scoring. Maybe you try to be so precise to make sure that the keeper doesn’t reach it that you end up hitting the post. Sometimes you hit it badly and it goes in. This year, maybe I’ll try to hit it badly.”
If the responsibility is great, so is the optimism under Rodgers. Suarez must score goals but he should not have to carry the team he refers two or three times to feeling backed up by his team-mates. The new style is more his style. “It suits me,” he says. “[Rodgers] knows I never stand still, that I am always moving, not a static, fixed striker, and he thinks that in the way we are going to play now I can do a lot of damage. He’s a great coach. He has talent and you can see that he has studied in the way he plans his sessions. He talks constantly during training sessions and even speaks a bit of Spanish.”
Rodgers’s approach sets him apart in England, Suarez says. “There are lots of teams here that aren’t very well set up tactically. He’s a coach that can see that if you can work tactically you can derive a lot of benefit from that; you can be different. If you’re well organised, and you can play the ball, you can be successful.”
What does he mean by tactically poor? “Well,” he says, starting to signal positions on the table with his fingers. “If I am playing centre forward here and I drop off the front into this area, both centre backs might come with me in England. And then a team-mate can go into the space and be one on one with the goalkeeper.”
Signalling to the right-back position, he says: “Or, if you look at their line of four at the back and this guy always goes up the pitch and never comes back, then you can exploit that. Or if both full-backs go up, then you isolate the two centre-backs. When one full-back goes the other should stay and a midfielder drops in, but there are teams where that doesn’t happen and you can take advantage. There are coaches who see that and coaches who don’t. He sees it.”
Then there is Liverpool’s commitment to possession. “It is as the manager says: if all your defenders are very open and the goalkeeper is able to play a bit, it is impossible for the other team to get the ball off you. Then you have the midfielders who come in to get the ball off the back four and you play. His way of looking at the game is very intelligent and I think he’s right. It’s impossible for the other team to get the ball off you unless you make a simple mistake, a bad pass, an individual error.”
Against West Brom that was exactly what happened. But contrary to some critics, coaches such as Rodgers would argue that does not mean the model should be thrown out. Confidence is needed to play this way, and that takes time. The temptation when under pressure is just to hoof it; you need nerve to keep playing and you learn that and are better for it. As Suarez points out, the hoof solves nothing either. “For me, playing in England where all the centre-backs are tall and strong, the long punt up the pitch is no good to me. I need the ball on the floor.
“It is always a difficult thing to start with a new manager and a new team system but I think we played fairly well against West Brom. We knew it would be difficult. It’s OK because we trust in the new manager and we are all very happy with him.
“We now press higher up the pitch and it has to be collective, organised. If I go to pressure the man, I lead the pressure but I need to be backed by Steven and by, if we go by the first game, [Fabio] Borini or Stewart [Downing]. And if we all pressure together, then it works. But it’s not easy. You need to be clear in the idea, you need to work at it and try to adapt to it bit by bit. Then, with time, you will be able to impose it.
“Obviously, we’re not going to play like Barcelona but the aim is similar. The manager has been studying in Spain, in Barcelona itself, and he was in Holland too, where they play good football. The idea is nice, my team-mates are very happy with it. The idea is to have the ball all the time, to pressure to get it back. Keep the ball, don’t panic, look for the spaces at the right time, not play so fast, so desperately, as we did last season.
“It is a new season, we have a new coach, a new idea, a new style that is different to the one we had before and that’s difficult. It will work, but it will take time.”