I met the real Luis Suarez... and he was a thoroughly nice chap
Luis Suarez sits down at his desk. He looks to his right and gives his work colleague a nudge on the shoulder. Then, Suarez flicks his bearded companion’s keyboard out of reach, returning to bash out a few words on his own computer with impish glee. Seconds later, he repeats the trick.
No, we haven’t stepped into some parallel universe where arguably the Premier League’s best player works for a bank – nothing wrong with that, of course, I hear the bonuses are excellent – this is an advert for Uruguayan company Abitab.
Suarez shouts at his co-workers for failing to refill the coffee machine, falls to the ground after being tapped on the shoulder and generally sends up his competitive nature for a minute’s tongue-in-cheek laughs. Released at the height of last summer’s ‘will-he-won’t-he’ transfer saga involving Arsenal, it was largely missed by the press at the time.
He comes across as a nice guy, self-aware, even, when it comes to his own character flaws. And this is the Luis Suarez that I meet at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground on a grey February morning, first spotting him signing autographs for excited fans at the front gate. By the time he’s sat in front of us for the first part of our interview a few minutes later – the second, and pictures for the cover, will be done after training – he’s still smiling and remarkably open.
I’d interviewed him once before for FFT, in early February 2011, just after he’d arrived on Merseyside. Mumbling in Uruguayan-inflected Spanish – certain consonants aren’t pronounced, others merge into one incomprehensible mesh – the 24-year-old had seemed tense, even shy.
Given the controversies that have surrounded Suarez in the three years since, I was worried he would be closed off, difficult to talk to and wouldn’t give us the cover story we wanted. That he was bright, open and searingly honest was the most welcome of surprises. He was contemplative on some topics – sipping on his pre-training mate, a herbal tea delicacy from Uruguay, as he paused for thought – but that only makes for a better piece. The more an interviewee has to think, the better the answer.
Evra, Ivanovic, diving, that transfer saga: no subject was off limits. Ultimately, when you ask Luis Suarez a question, he’ll answer it. It may not be what you expect him to say, but it’s the way he’s feeling in that moment. You also might not agree with what he says, but for the first time, you should understand his reaction to every controversy in which he’s become embroiled.
You should appreciate, too, his lighter side. The on-field scuttler, who openly admits to embarrassment at doing anything to get ahead on the pitch, is a completely different beast off it.
In the 25 minutes reserved for photos with FFT’s photographer extraordinaire Shamil Tanna, he refuses not a single pose, excitably enquiring “oh is this for the cover? When’s it out?” Finger on lips, hand over mouth, a beaming smile and gaze into the ether are all attempted. The latter involves Suarez looking sultrily at me, just to the left of camera to help him focus on a specific point, before we both dissolve into fits of laughter at what we’re doing. “This is ridiculous, mate, isn’t it?!” he chortles.
The cover we capture is a cracker. Luis shouts his lungs out for Sham over a series of five minutes, and he nails the shot that sits on this month’s issue, Suarez’s eyes staring straight at the camera, his face contorted with effort. Catching a quick glimpse of the pic on the laptop that sits to the side of our setup in Liverpool’s indoor training pitch, he likes what he sees. “That was a good one!”
During the training session sandwiched between that shoot and our pair of interviews with the Premier League’s leading scorer – his 24th of the season coming last Saturday evening at Southampton to end a run of five games without a goal – Suarez had delivered a free-kick masterclass.
In the main session, he’d been only on the periphery, but in staying behind for extra practice he sparked into life. It’s only when you see Suarez in this natural habitat that you realise quite how good the best of the best are.
The free-kick is a closed skill, not dependant on any external factors. If you’re good enough, and can repeat the same action, then you can score with virtually every shot. That’s what Suarez did. Witnessing a professional athlete, seemingly at the peak of his powers, in such close proximity is a rarity.
“Nobody in England knows the real Luis Suarez,” he had said to end our first of two chats. Well, if you want to know him, then don’t just take my word that this is a self-aware family man who’s a different beast off the pitch - pick up this month’s FFT. You won’t regret it.
Portraits by Shamil Tanna