In his first UK interview since that World Cup ban, Luis Suarez talks exclusively to ShortList about Lionel Messi, missing Liverpool and dreaming about scoring against England (Words: DS Jokas, Ben Isaacs)
It was the bite heard round the world. When Luis Suarez – just 14 months on from sinking his teeth into Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic in a Premier League match – bit Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini during a World Cup group game in June, the football world almost spun off its axis. This was the striker’s third such incident in under four years, dating back to his time at Ajax, but now the whole planet was watching. Twitter went into meltdown, ‘Suarez bite’ memes spread like wildfire and sports psychologists were frantically bundled on to morning news sofas.
He initially denied having done anything wrong, before Fifa handed down a four-month ban that prevented him from even entering any football stadiums. Suarez turned contrite while the Uruguayan president called Fifa “sons of bitches”, and his club Liverpool became anxious.
Barcelona pounced and there was only one club in Suarez’s sights. For £64m they appear to have got a bargain. Suarez scored 31 league goals last season, one of only seven players to ever surpass 30 in the Premier League era (joining the likes of Alan Shearer, Cristiano Ronaldo and, um, Kevin Phillips) and it would take a brave man to bet against the 27-year-old scoring on a regular basis with the support of Lionel Messi and Neymar.
Having quietly trained since the summer, he’s set to make his debut for his new club on Saturday 25 October. Their opponents that day? Bitter rivals Real Madrid. It will no doubt be another unmissable chapter in the career of the most compelling, controversial footballer on the planet.
Let’s talk first about what could be your first game back next week. Do you think your enforced break has actually helped you in any way?
I want to be playing, so I cannot say it has helped me. Of course I am fresh now, though, and I feel ready, so whenever the coach wants to play me I am ready.
How have you been spending your extra time?
It has not been a vacation; I have been training hard and making sure that I am sharp. Even though I have not been playing, it’s important that I have been establishing a relationship with my teammates during training.
So, what, if anything, have the past few months taught you?
That I do not want to miss any more football, and I will make sure that will not be happening.
Do you think there’s any way you can use the negative experiences at the World Cup to make you a better player?
It is wrong to say it has made me a better player, but I am more in control now. I know what is expected of me.
Sticking with the World Cup, what was running through your mind when you scored the second goal against England – and all but eliminated them?
Their coach [Roy Hodgson] did not want to acknowledge that I was a top player, so I did feel like I had something to prove. I was not even close to being fully fit when I played against England, but I was still able to answer the critics.
How surprised were you that England finished bottom of the group? Having played alongside people such as Steven Gerrard, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, did you expect them to progress further?
It was a tough group and there was always going to be one very good team that didn’t qualify. In the end, Costa Rica were the surprise team of the tournament, and England and Italy both ended up going out, which I don’t think anybody had predicted.
Did you watch any more of the World Cup after Uruguay were eliminated?
Of course, but it was with frustration. Frustration that I could not be there to help the team, just as I was feeling like I was getting back to fitness.
What did you make of Germany thrashing Brazil in the semis? Are there wider lessons to be learned from that game?
There is not much I think to learn, it is just clear that Germany are setting the standard in international football. Spain did for six years, and maybe now it’s Germany’s time. They deserved to win the tournament, and I am sure they will carry on being a strong team.
Looking to the future, what do you think will be the main differences between La Liga and the Premier League for you as a striker?
I need to play in Spain first, but I don’t think there is a major league more physical than England. Spain is more technical, which is good because it suits the style of player we have here at Barcelona.
Lionel Messi has an incredible goal record. Do you think you can out-score him?
I have no interest in competing with my teammates. I am here to help the team and to be part of a team that wins trophies, not to compete against them.
Of all the players you’ve played with, do you think any come close to Messi?
Messi has been the best player in the world over the past five years. What he has contributed to Barcelona, and to football, makes him a contender for the best ever. Nobody comes near him.
So is there one Liverpool player that you wish you could have taken with you to Barcelona?
I don’t think the fans would have been happy if I had taken their players, but every team could use Steven Gerrard. He is such a leader, such an inspiration – Liverpool are very fortunate to have had him for his entire career.
Who is the toughest defensive opponent you’ve faced at international level, and the toughest in the Premier League?
Thiago Silva [of Brazil and Paris St-Germain] is the best defender I have ever played against. He is technical and quick, but also has the strength to complement it. He is very hard to beat. I trained with Martin Skrtel every day at Liverpool, and I think he is brilliant; he doesn’t get enough credit in England.
Have you been watching La Liga on TV over the past few years, and will you still watch Premier League games now?
I have always been a fan of Barcelona and of their players, so, yes, I watched them whenever I could. I have said Liverpool will always be in my heart, so now I will watch them.
How does life in Barcelona compare to life in Liverpool?
I already knew Barcelona well as a city – my wife has family over here, and that was a factor in our decision. Liverpool will always be a city in my heart, there is great unity and passion in the people there.
Has training at Barcelona been different from what you were used to in Liverpool?
They are different. Everybody knows that Barcelona’s style of play is very technical, and that is reflected in training. But also, Brendan Rodgers has great ideas. I said when I left the club that I was leaving them in good hands, and I am sure he will be even more successful than he has been.
What’s it like to be in a squad with so many world-class players?
That is one of the big reasons I joined, to be with players like this. A few years ago I was desperate to swap jerseys with Andres Iniesta, and now he is my teammate. It’s a great feeling to have.
There’s been plenty of talk about how you, Messi and Neymar will fit into the same Barcelona starting XI. How do you think you’ll connect?
Every relationship gets better with time, but already from training I can see that we will have a good connection. They are two of the best players in the world, and I am excited to see what we can produce for Barcelona.
How much will you miss playing for Uruguay and what should we expect from the team at the Copa América in 2015?
We can be excited by the Copa América. We beat Italy and England, and went out to a very good Colombian team. It is a strong time for South American football, and I believe Uruguay have the players to compete.
You seem to be a natural finisher. Is scoring goals more about instinct or training?
Both. You see the best strikers – Gabriel Batistuta, the Brazilian Ronaldo – and it was clear the natural instinct they had around the box. But the harder you train, the sharper you are going to be.
What’s the best goal you’ve ever scored?
The third goal that I scored against Norwich City from a long way out [in 2012 in a 3-0 win at Carrow Road]. It was a great goal for me, but also it was my first hat-trick for Liverpool, so it was a great occasion as well.
Do you have dreams about scoring goals?
I dreamed about scoring the goals that beat England in the World Cup, but mainly I dream about winning the biggest trophies in football, which is something I know I can do at Barcelona.
Your media image is pretty vicious but you’re quite a family man, aren’t you?
Family is the most important thing to me. It was a dream to join Barcelona and to be with this amazing group of players and have the chance to achieve big things. It was a family decision, though. It was the right time as a family for the move.
What music are you into?
I got to understand the great history of music in Liverpool with bands like The Beatles, but my favourite music will always be Latin.
Who is your football idol?
Growing up it was always Batistuta. He was a great character on and off the field, but also a scorer of some great goals.
And your non-football idol?
My wife Sofia is everything to me. She is a great mother, a great wife, and the rock of our family.
What do you most want to achieve in the season ahead?
The ambition is everything, to try to win every single thing that we are competing in. That is the level of ambition there is here at Barcelona, and I am very happy to be a part of it.
Finally, what won’t you miss about life in Britain? The weather? The media?
The Liverpool fans and the city itself will both always be with me in my heart. But no, I won’t miss the media.