Belfast Telegraph

Friends stick up for Liverpool star Suarez

By Simon Stone

Referees, opponents, fans, foes: the whole world thinks they know Luis Suarez, and the whole world thinks they know what he is.

He is the cannibal of Ajax, the unrepentant dasher of African dreams. Most recently, he is a finger raised in apparent fury at Fulham's Putney End.

Most seriously, he is accused of racially abusing Patrice Evra. He has been called a cheat, a scoundrel, a scourge upon the game.

Speak to those who know him, though, who count him as a team-mate and as a friend, and that image begins to crumble.

Mathias Cardacio, a peer from the youth teams at Nacional and still a friend, recalls a nascent superstar who “everyone warmed to”. Alejandro Balbi, a director at the Montevideo club which recruited Suarez as a child, finds the reputation he has been afforded in Europe “incomprehensible”. Both agree that Suarez was, he is, “humble, gracious, quiet”.

“All of my memories of him are fond,” says Erik Nevland, the former Manchester United prodigy who forged a partnership with Suarez at Dutch side Groningen.

“He did not speak the language at first, so he spent a lot of time with Bruno Silva, another Uruguayan, as he tried to settle in. It was difficult for him, but he was always laughing in the dressing room. He is not easy to forget, Luis, but in a very good way.”

Those who will line up alongside him when Kenny Dalglish's side face QPR today would agree.

Dalglish's affection for the striker the Scot calls “Louise” is genuine. The Liverpool manager recalls Suarez beaming with delight when he first arrived at Melwood and remains adamant that his effervescent forward has not stopped smiling since.

There is nothing surprising, of course, in a footballer being quite different on the pitch than he is in private. Suarez himself admits as much. “My wife [Sofia] says that if I was like I am when I'm playing when I'm at home, she wouldn't be my wife any more.”

“It is strange to see the person that everyone talks about and think it is the same Luis I played with,” admits Nevland. There is, though, one very obvious explanation. “All he wants,” says the Norwegian, “is to win.”

“Ever since he was small he was very respectful, so I cannot believe he would insult Evra,” says Cardacio. Balbi agrees: “This charge of racism, I can guarantee that this is not what Luis is like.”

The concern, of course, is that a man who will do everything to win might perhaps resort even to that. Cardacio acknowledges that Suarez's relentless drive sometimes leads him to “do things he shouldn't”, though he insists that applies more to simulation.

For Suarez's English audience a man seen by his friends as humble and polite has been cast as the Premier League's enfant terrible.

No doubt those who see Suarez as a pestilence on the Premier League would say good riddance; if he is found guilty of racism, then it would be hard to disagree. Even if he is not, though, the lingering stain on his reputation may be enough to condemn him. There would be others, of course, who would be distraught to see him leave, and not just at Anfield.

In Uruguay they think they know him. That though, is not the Suarez we have been taught to know.

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