London – Luis Suarez never directly expresses his exasperation. He is polite, engaging and thoughtful. But he sits with arms folded for most of the interview, as though he fears that judgment has already been made and that nothing he can say will change the verdict.
The controversies are well recorded: his abuse of the Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, which the FA deemed a racial slur, a verdict Suarez still disputes; his reputation for too readily going to ground in the penalty area; his handball on the line that prevented Ghana from progressing to the 2010 World Cup semi-finals; and his general aggression on the pitch.
Suarez, 25, gives the impression that the insults which come his way as a result of his reputation are of no consequence and that the support of his family and his football club, Liverpool, are all he needs. Indeed, he is dismissive of the suggestion that, as a result of the Evra affair – for which Suarez served an eight-match ban – many would now regard him as racist, even though the FA Disciplinary Commission made it clear in their judgment that they did not.
“I still sleep soundly every night,” insists Suarez. ‘I’m not worried about everything people say. I don’t care what people outside Liverpool think.’
Suarez has always maintained that the Spanish word he admits using in his infamous clash with Evra, ‘negrito’, can, at times, be acceptable in his native Uruguay. Suarez now knows that it is not acceptable in England to refer to somebody’s race in this way, but he claims that he remains perplexed by the response to the incident.
“I don’t understand, but that’s football,” he says. “It’s in the past now. I fought hard to get where I am and now all I care about is playing football for Liverpool.”
He even remains outwardly unmoved by the fact that Chelsea’s former England captain, John Terry, received a four-match ban for racial abuse, half the punishment meted out to Suarez. “They’re different situations,” he says. “Terry is Terry and Suarez is Suarez – they’re different issues, and I never cared about the Terry case.”
Yet, tellingly, when it comes to other aspects of the way he is perceived, Suarez does want to explain. On the diving, he wants people to know what it is like to have muscular 6ft 2in centre-halves bearing down on you as you run towards goal or attempt a cute turn.
“Sometimes you’re standing there and someone comes flying in, so you move your leg out of the way or you go to ground because you’re scared of getting hit,” he says. “If I leave my leg there so the referee can see it’s a foul, I risk suffering a big injury. That’s why sometimes your instinct tells you to go to ground. It’s a split-second instinct, not a conscious decision you make on the pitch. Of course, I don’t want people to go around saying ‘this guy just dives’.”
The swallow-dive celebration Suarez performed in front of David Moyes after his goal in the Merseyside derby in October was the Uruguayan’s response to pre-match accusations of diving from the Everton manager, a riposte made even more pleasing when Everton captain Phil Neville was booked for simulation in the same game.
“Everton was a special case, because the Everton manager came out and spoke about me before the match, saying that people like me are going to turn supporters off going to matches,” says Suarez.
“And then, in the match, the Everton captain dived. So that’s why sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut. Moyes can talk about me if he knows me, or at least after the match, but before the match it’s not right.”
Suarez’s default position is a defensive one. “What matters most to me is my family, playing for Liverpool, the Liverpool fans and the team. Anything else that goes on is not my problem. I don’t read the papers or watch TV. Every time they boo me or chant something about me, it just gives me more confidence to keep playing. I’ve been booed in Holland and in Uruguay – as a professional footballer you need to have thick skin and just get used to it. But right now I’m at the club I wanted to play for, I’m really enjoying myself out on the pitch, because I fought for a long time to get here and I’m happy the club acknowledge what I’ve done, which is the only thing that matters to me.
“If we’re playing away from home, I know I’m going to get booed. But I also know that if they boo me, it’s not only because of anything I’ve supposedly done, but also because they’re afraid, because they know I’m a player who is a threat to their team. And that’s why they try to unsettle me and keep me quiet in the game … almost. But I never let that happen.”
And he is a potent threat. The skill and the inventiveness were never in doubt but the finishing that seemed awry last year is now much improved, as 11 Premier League goals – including one in the 4-0 victory over Fulham yesterday – and three in cup competitions testifies. For some, he is the player of the season so far.
Intriguingly, though, he says he does want to change. Regarding diving, he says: “Yes, of course. I’m trying to change and to avoid doing it because I know that football is different here, and it’s helping me at the same time. I’ve discussed it with both managers I’ve played under here, Kenny Dalglish and Brendan Rodgers. Kenny also used to tell me not to protest so much, that I should focus more on playing football, that I have a lot of qualities and so should forget about referees. And Brendan has also told me a few things to help me improve.”
There is a familiar contradiction in sportsmen like Suarez, those who carry a reputation. The image they bear on the pitch is so far removed from their demeanour in everyday life that it is often difficult to reconcile the two. Suarez himself says so.
“My wife always says that people must think I act crazy at home, too, but that’s not the case,” he says. “Off the pitch I am nothing like the way I am on it. The passion I have for football, it’s very different, I’ve always expressed it like that, that’s the way I play, but I also understand that I need to change. Because it’s not nice to be constantly shouting and back-chatting, it’s not nice for the crowd and for children to see, and it’s not nice for me either. I understand that and I think I’ve made the effort to change a little over the last few months.”
There will not be an immediate transformation, he says, as he tries to strike the balance between retaining legitimate aggression and curbing what is unacceptable. “That’s why it’s really hard to change overnight, because of the passion you feel on the pitch. And I don’t like losing, I don’t like giving up a lost ball – say if the ball is going out and I know I can reach it, then I chase it down … that’s the passion you feel on the pitch.”
He draws a direct link between his upbringing and the way he plays now. “When you’re a kid, you play in the street, you need to have lots of ambition, drive and strength to play, and that’s what makes you act like that on the pitch.”
For his is that well-told story of the South American boy playing street football, first in Salto and later in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. His father left the family when he was nine years old and he was raised by his mother and grandmother, who provided financial help. He has two sisters and four brothers, one of whom, Paolo, plays for Isidro Metapan, the champions of El Salvador, while two others play professionally at a lower level.
In Suarez’s mind, he has had to battle constantly to be where he is now, playing football for Liverpool. “Some kids have things very easy here. They don’t go wanting for anything, their parents help them, and by 18 they already have their own cars. It’s not like that in Uruguay: you have to work really hard and for a lot of years. Even if your parents help you to have a car, you have to work and fight really hard, and show a lot of ambition and hunger to go far, which isn’t the case here.
“In Holland (where he played for Groningen and Ajax) and it’s happened to me here, too, I would look at players who were moving up to the first team, and they already had expensive cars at the age of 18, which I found amazing. Back when I was in Uruguay, the club used to loan me a car, and it wasn’t until I moved to Holland when I was 20, and then when I moved to Ajax, that I could buy one myself.”
He was signed to Nacional, the Uruguayan champions, as a child but looked like missing the cut at 14. “I wasn’t on the path I wanted to be on. I was going out at night, I didn’t enjoy studying and I wasn’t dedicating myself to football. When I was a kid, there were some people around me who were a bad influence. When I met my girlfriend Sofia, who is now my wife, I think it all changed. She was very important for me, because she steered me back on to the path I wanted to be on.
“When I was single, I would go out at night, but then when I had a girlfriend, I would always go to her house at the end of the night, so I had more peace of mind. So it’s about that, the everyday routine. She would also tell me to study and to focus on my ability to play football, and to forget about everything else.
“I’m the one out on the pitch, but I think if she hadn’t helped me change my life, I probably wouldn’t have made it. Also, I wasn’t playing at Nacional, I was on the bench, some people told me to look for another club, but there were two people who told me to stay and helped me to get another chance. And then I met my wife and that’s when it all changed.”
At times he seems a throwback to the world of Diego Maradona, the street kid with the ball at his feet made good. In Uruguay they use the word ‘botija’ to describe a player like Suarez, the one with the skill, guile and what locals would call cheekiness. “Being crafty, a bit more streetwise than the rest,” says Suarez, attempting an explanation. “That’s very common in Uruguay, just like in Argentina, I think because of the way you grow up as a kid.”
But does the phrase accurately describe Suarez? “I think I am sometimes [that kind of player] but not always. I think maybe the example you’re trying to get at is my handball at the World Cup?”
Indeed, it is. That was the day Suarez took a red card for the team and stopped Ghana scoring in the last minute of the quarter-final by blocking a goalbound shot with his hand on the line. The penalty was missed and Uruguay progressed to the semi-finals in the subsequent penalty shoot-out. “I think any player in the world would have done that,” says Suarez. ‘It’s all part of being a little bit crafty, getting the upper hand.”
While his actions would not be universally condemned in England – what wouldn’t we do to be in a World Cup semi-final? – it is pointed out that there would be a strong body of opinion here that would consider such an unsporting act as plain wrong. “But if a player is running towards an open goal, you can haul him down and injure him, and that’s acceptable?” argues Suarez. “I think that if they were doing it for their country …” he begins. Maybe, it is suggested, a cultural difference. “Right,” he says. “The culture is very different.”
At Liverpool, the fear must be that he will soon outgrow them, now that they have ceased to become a regular Champions League club, but in August he signed a new five-year contract with the club. “All I can say is that my head is here now and for many years to come. My dream and desire is to play in the Champions League and achieve big things with Liverpool, because they’re the club I wanted to play for, and now that I’m here, I want to stay for a long time.” He cites the club’s tradition and “amazing fans” as the reason ”we hope that over time, we can take Liverpool back to where they belong”.
He may need some patience for that. “Just like I waited to play in the Champions League with Ajax and I had that chance, now I hope the same thing happens with Liverpool,” he says.
And his enthusiasm for the manager, the club, the city and its people seems genuine. His wife and two-year-old daughter, Delfina, are happy here. He even claims to understand Scouse accents: well, Steven Gerrard’s anyway. Jamie Carragher, he says, is still impenetrable. Some cultural chasms, it seems, are too wide to bridge. – Mail On Sunday