Those closest to the opinion-splitting Barca frontman – his wife (Sofia Balbi), brother (Paolo Suarez), agent (Pere Guardiola) and friend (Diego Forlan) – reveal the reality of his public image...
Interviews: Martin Mazur, Andy Mitten, Andrew Murray.
Paolo Suarez I’m six years older than Luis, and when I was playing street football with my friends, he wanted to play, too, without caring about being younger. To begin with, my friends would go easy on him, since he was so young, but as soon as he’d started dribbling past everyone, they weren’t so nice!
"To begin with my friends would go easy on him, since he was so young, but as soon as he’d started dribbling past everyone, they weren’t so nice!"
Sofia Balbi The truth is, his personality hasn’t changed since the first time I met him when I was 12 and he was 15. The only difference is that he’s now on the TV! He’s exactly the same. Perhaps he’s now a little bit more shy than before, but really he’s not changed. It’s for this reason that I love him.
Diego Forlan I first played against him in a warm-up game when he was in Uruguay's under-20s as they prepared for their World Cup in Canada. I could see his talent, he was outstanding, but then I didn't properly speak to him until he made his full Uruguay debut.
"Ultimately, our relationship is one of friendship. We talk daily. Apart from representing him in negotiations, we deal with his image, sponsorships and any interviews"
Pere Guardiola I’ve been working with Luis since he was at Ajax, so that’s just over four-and-a-half years. Ultimately, our relationship is one of friendship. We talk daily. Apart from representing him in negotiations, we deal with his image, sponsorships and any interviews. As close as possible, it’s friendship, to give him the best we can.
SB Those early days and months back in Uruguay were very special. We spent some wonderful moments together when you know that this person is right for you. We used to go to the cinema or go to concerts when we could afford it. I love watching films with him and we’ve started going to the cinema now in Barcelona. Luis doesn’t really like watching a film more than once, so it’s difficult to say what our favourite would be!
PS We broke the bunk beds where we all slept a couple of times [while attempting spectacular bicycle kicks], but other than that, we always behaved very nicely.
DF From very early in his time in the national team he would come to my room to talk about everything. That never changed; we're close friends. He always asked for advice and I was happy to tell him what I knew. He was a little shy as players are when they join a new team, but I could see that he was a nice guy. When I first started speaking to him I could see that he was polite, respectful and keen to learn.
PS We’re both big fans of Nacional, and it was a dream come true to see him play and win the championship with them. My dad and most of my brothers and sisters – we are seven in total – are Nacional fans; only my mom and one brother, Maxi, support Peñarol.
"He always asked for advice. He was a little shy as players are when they join a new team, but I could see that he was a nice guy"
Balbi family’s emigration to Barcelona
SB This was such a difficult time for me and Luis. We honestly thought we wouldn’t see each other again. My family arrived in Barcelona in October 2003 and in the December he came out to see me, which was amazing. He told me he couldn’t survive without me. It was clear to both of us that we would carry on our relationship, despite the long distance. He’s always said that the reason he left Nacional for Groningen in was to be closer to me! [Laughs] As soon as he moved to Holland, that was it, I went with him. It didn’t take long to convince my family to let me go with him because we’d been apart for two years. My mum was back in Uruguay for a little while, and Luis went to see her. She understood.
Actually, knowing Luis, he probably just told her and didn’t even ask! “This is what’s going to happen, and that’s it.” We’ve been inseparable ever since.
"He told me he couldn’t survive without me. It was clear to both of us that we would carry on our relationship, despite the long distance"
Nearly joining Arsenal
PG This was my most uncomfortable time with Luis. Especially for me and our relationship. [FFT: Because of the confusion over the precise detail of his contract’s buyout clause?] Because of the confusion, because of what we’d already agreed with the club, because situations change and force you to do things that make you uncomfortable. It was complicated, and Luis had to train separately from the team. Everything was played out in the press.