Used to be the best way to control Luis Suarez was with a well-organized defense and a tetanus shot. Because on his way to devouring opponents, becoming soccer’s fourth-leading active scorer with more than 400 career goals for club and country, he also bit opponents.
Suarez hasn’t completely shed his bad-boy reputation — one well-earned through sanctions for diving, racial abuse, stomping on players and criticizing referees, in addition to the mid-game snacking — but he’s been much better behaved since moving to Barcelona and ceding the spotlight to Lionel Messi five seasons ago.
“What you want is to be with the best. And if the best ones are your teammates, you feel more comfortable,” Suarez said before a recent practice at the team’s sprawling training center outside Barcelona. “When I came to Barcelona, I knew that I was not going to be the best player or anything like that. Leo was there. Ney[mar] was there.
“You have to understand. I know what my role is on the field and outside as well.”
Dressed in jeans and a bright-red hoodie and sitting in a faux leather chair in a dark, chilly meeting room behind the complex’s news conference salon, Suarez leaned forward as he spoke softly in Spanish. Moving from the starring role to one as best supporting actor isn’t easy, he conceded, and it’s a transition Neymar, Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, among others, all had varying degrees of trouble with during aborted stays at Camp Nou.
“It's difficult. It's complicated,” he said. “It depends on the mentality of the player. My mentality was obviously to be one of the best players in the world. But getting prizes in a group, winning Champions [League], winning leagues, that's what I wanted to achieve.”
What’s helped, Suarez says, is the fact he and Messi have become friends as well as teammates. And there’s no room for jealousy in that friendship.
“If you have a very good relationship like the one I have with Leo off the field, that is reflected later on the field,” he said. “We’ve been playing together for many years. So even if one is better, if one scores more goals than the other, we’re friends.”
“There are players who prefer more individual things,” he continued. “That is the difference.”
Before joining Barcelona, Suarez had won more than his share of individual things. He came to Europe from Uruguay as a teenager and quickly made his mark, first with Ajax in the Dutch Eredivisie and then with Liverpool in the English Premier League, winning three league scoring titles and twice being named the league player of the year.
“To me, the passage through Ajax was the best thing that happened to me in my career as a young player,” he said. “You are in Europe, but it is a step, an apprenticeship, and I learned a lot from Ajax and Liverpool.”
But those teams combined for just one league title and two domestic cup championships in seven seasons and Suarez wanted more. He wanted what Barcelona — and Messi — could offer.
“After Ajax, [I] wanted to move up a step, to try to be an elite player, to be in a great team like I was in Liverpool,” he said. “And in Liverpool, you aspire to everything, you try to get all the titles that are possible, but knowing that the best football is at Barcelona.”
Career goals aside, Suarez and Barcelona were aware that Ajax and Liverpool had both sold the player while he was serving suspensions for biting incidents that threatened to derail his career. If he hoped to remain in Spain, it was plain he’d have to refrain from that kind of stain.
And for the most part, he has done that while retaining the grit and passion on the field that have made him popular in the dressing room.
The club, meanwhile, has kept its part of the bargain by providing Suarez with the kind of important titles he was seeking. In his first season in Spain, Barcelona became the first club to capture the European treble — winning league, domestic cup and continental titles in the same year — for a second time.
Suarez is hungry to it again this season: Barcelona has a comfortable lead atop the La Liga table, is a win away from a sixth consecutive Copa del Rey final and is unbeaten in Champions League play heading into Tuesday’s round-of-16 match in Lyon, France.
“The soccer player is ambitious. There’s no ceiling, we say,” Suarez muses. “He always wants to get more things, get important things, and I think I'm still young enough to continue getting those prizes.”
Whether it’s a product of maturity, wisdom or the chance to play for big titles, Suarez’s individual play has improved with the move to Barcelona. The Uruguayan set a career high with 59 goals in all competition in 2015-16, the first of three consecutive seasons in which he topped 30 goals. Messi, predictably, led the team in scoring in two of those seasons, wresting the spotlight away.
Suarez’s contributions have been tougher to measure this season. Although his 15 goals rank second in La Liga — again to Messi, who has 21 — he is on pace for his lowest total in seven years. He’s been a workhorse though, missing just one league game this season. And since Jan. 6, he’s played in 11 of Barcelona’s 12 matches in all competition, scoring five times.
Suarez has two seasons left on his contract, but at 32, he’s playing as if this could be his last chance at a championship. He might be right. The core of Barcelona’s lineup — Messi, Gerard Pique, Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets — are all at least 30, and the crop of young reinforcements the club had been planning on have been slow to arrive.
Suarez, however, has every intention of staying until the end.
“I’m comfortable here because this is the club I wanted to be with,” he said. “My family is very happy here. Two of my three children were born here. My wife’s family is here.
“This is the club I wanted to be with, and it took me 15, 16 years to get here. So I am content and happy here.”