Pitchside

Why Barcelona fans will welcome flawed genius Suarez

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An unemployed man called Luis walks along the Mediterranean seafront near his home south of Barcelona. He points out the palatial homes of Barcelona players who live nearby.

Goalkeeper Victor Valdes' is the most impressive, looking like a super yacht marooned on the beach. It is the opulent purchase of a top-level sportsman in his prime. He was fortunate to buy one of the best houses in the area where he did most of his growing up.

Luis smiles and says hello to people as he goes. He has time on his hands to talk and reminisce about a magnificent career as a professional footballer.

A year on, May 2014, and another man called Luis comes to Barcelona and he's the best player in England's Premier League. He's in Catalonia to promote a personal sponsorship deal with a poker company. The event is staged in an auditorium which seats 300, but only 40 or so journalists are present.

Luis Suarez is guarded. He offers insights such as “Yes, I like to play poker” before questions are opened to the journalists. Locals only want to know one thing: whether he's leaving Liverpool to come to Spain.

His answers in Spanish would have raised eyebrows among Liverpool fans seeking assurances that he wanted to stay in England. In a cover interview with FourFourTwo magazine two months earlier, he'd given the firm impression that he was going nowhere.

A question is asked in English by a man from SKY TV: "When the transfer window opens, is there any chance you’ll go to play in Spain?"

Suarez reads from a mentally prepared script.

"My head now is focused on the World Cup. I know I had a very good season with Liverpool but now I am focused on the World Cup and I have forgotten that. Everyone knows that there is always too much media speculation."

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Ah, that old chestnut. Conceal your intentions from the naughty media speculating. Two things become apparent that day: how much he likes the city of Barcelona, where his partner's parents have long lived. And how his future at Liverpool isn't secure. Suarez's bland quotes make for the most read story in that day's Guardian as transfer junkies get a little hit.

Over the following weeks, more information will trickle down. The friends in Liverpool who've already said goodbye to the Suarez family, the interest from a Barcelona side who will make major changes over the summer.

When Suarez bites Giorgio Chiellini, he not only loses the poker contract but the impetus shifts markedly. In Belo Horizonte, Steven Gerrard walks through the mixed zone following England's snore draw with Costa Rica. He stops to let on to a mate and asks: "Is that true about Suarez?" It is. He really has bitten someone. Again. Gerrard walks off alone with his thoughts.

In England, Suarez is met by another wave of often justified criticism. Few doubt that he was the best player in the league last season, the warrior who would run into three defenders and somehow exit beyond them with the ball before getting a shot on goal.

Yet his catalogue of misconduct causes more angst. Even Liverpool fans who'd defended him after he was found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra shook their heads and wondered whether it was for the best that their star player stayed at Anfield.

In truth, the decision had already been made. The bite made his departure easier - easier for Liverpool to justify his exit, especially as they'd raised his buy out clause and made his contract watertight after last summer's flirtations with Arsenal.

Barcelona know he's one of the best players in the world and negotiations didn't take too long. They want them to be clean after the scandal of Neymar signing last year and broke their record transfer fee to sign Suarez. He'll hope to do better than the man whose record he broke, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

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Barca fans, who'd ended last season booing their team off, can now talk about a potential front three of Messi, Neymar and Suarez - a triumvirate of the world's best players from neighbouring South American countries. The sales of Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez alone will cover the cost of the huge Suarez transfer fee.

Barça fans know that Suarez is a flawed genius, but protests are few. They had Hristo Stoickov in the 90s. Stoichkov’s place in Catalan folklore is assured not only because of his contribution to Barça’s all-conquering early 90s ‘Dream Team’ but for his frequent anti-Madrid sentiments.

Against Real Madrid in 1990 (sample Stoichkov quote: “I will always hate Madrid. There’s just something about them that gets up my nose. Speaking about them makes me want to vomit. I would rather the ground opened up and swallowed me than accept a job with them”), the referee was concerned by the tetchy number 8’s aggression and said, “Please tell the bull to cool down or I will send him to the cattle-pen,” to Barça’s coach, Johan Cruyff. Stoichkov reacted by stamping on the referee’s foot, which duly led to a two-month ban.

Football fans are also incredibly fickle. An enemy who plays for a rival can be a hero who is one of you with the final flourish of a signature. They know that Suarez has the capabilities to be a match winner, something they'd relied too much on Lionel Messi for last season.

They suspect that he'll be at fault again in the future, that something is amiss with his wiring, but consider that a price worth paying if he scores the winner in the Bernabéu. That he shares the name of a Barcelona legend does his case no harm either, nor does the fact he was linked to Real Madrid.

Luis Suarez arrived in Barcelona on Monday and went to the same beachside neighbourhood as the Luis who'd been unemployed last April. That Luis - Enrique - is now Suarez's coach and will have plenty of time to get to know his new neighbour as he serves his four month ban from football-related activity.

Does that include talking about football in the bar by Victor Valdes' house? Probably not, but the street-smart Enrique knows he has to tread carefully and merely remarked: "Luis Suarez’s ban? I don't want to comment on that now, it's a delicate issue."

And Victor, who was at the peak of his career a year ago with admirers aplenty? He didn't accept the new contract from Barça as he thought there would be a new challenge (and greater riches) elsewhere. Then he got injured and his suitors along the coast in Monaco pulled out. He's now injured and as unemployed as Enrique was. He'll have time to join in the chat, too. It's a funny old world, football. Not that they can talk about it.

Andy Mitten

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