After learning his craft with a ball of rags on the streets of La Coruna, Luis Suarez went on to become one of Spain's greatest players of all time and in 1960 became the first and to date only Spaniard ever to win France Football's coveted Ballon d'Or.
Born in 1935, Suarez currently works in the technical secretary's office at his former club Inter Milan, where his elegance, skill on the ball, vision and crucial goals were highly appreciated during I Nerazzurris's trophy-laden 1960s. The young Suarez had first caught the eye at hometown club Deportivo La Coruna before making the switch to Barcelona in 1954, where he went on to win two league titles, two Spanish Cups and two Inter-Cities Fairs Cups during his seven-season stay.
Yet his glorious spell at the Catalan giants ended with the disappointment of a 3-2 defeat against Benfica in the final of the 1960/61 European Cup. "That's the only black mark on my time at Barcelona," said Suarez, who will have taken some consolation from helping Barça become the first team ever to knock Real Madrid out of the elite competition. "But it was the only one I lost out of so many finals, though given the way the game went it was one we should have won. It left me with a point to prove because it's such a huge competition."
It was then time for the Galician genius to head to Italian football, this during a period when it was highly unusual for Spanish players to ply their trade abroad. "There have been a lot of Spanish players who have deserved that award," said Suarez on the Ballon d'Or win which had done much to raise his international profile. "So much depends on the era you find yourself living in. You need the slice of luck that comes when another great player of your time doesn't perform quite so well. There have been truly great players who have never won that award. It's not that big a deal."
"I wanted the challenge of proving that I could succeed outside my home country," Suarez told FIFA.com, when quizzed about the move to Inter which yielded three league titles, two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups in nine seasons. "I left a big club in Barça to join an Inter side that at that point were not very well-known on the European stage. It was hugely satisfying because we won loads of titles during those years and made Inter great."
Suarez's silky skills were key to a Nerazzurri side crowned European champions in 1963/64 and 1964/65 under legendary strategist Helenio Herrera, who had coached him for a spell at Barcelona. "The Italian league had a reputation for being more defensive than it really was. Even so, teams' first priority was not to concede any goals and I came from a place with a different mindset," said the 74-year-old, on the contrast between Spanish and Italian football. "At Barcelona I played as a goalscoring midfielder but (at Inter) I had to change for the good of the team and to win titles. At the end of the day, I think I was so successful because I made so many sacrifices for a sport I loved."
One of Suarez's proudest achievements came at the 1964 European Championship in Spain, where he was part of the host nation team that claimed a first international title for La Selección. "We had a great tournament and were deserving winners. We had a young team with plenty of determination and ambition. I was the most experienced but the others all had great potential, as they went on to prove, There was [Feliciano] Rivilla, [Fernando] Olivella, [Isacio] Calleja, [Ignacio] Zoco, [Jose Maria] Fuste, Amancio [Amaro], [Jesus Maria] Pereda, Marcelino [Martinez], [Carlos] Lapetra and [Jose Angel] Iribar, who was a superb goalkeeper," he recalled, rapidly reeling off the names of his team-mates in the 2-1 final victory over the former USSR.
"We weren't the most gifted Spanish national side ever but we did play more as a team," continued Suarez, who also had words of praise for La Roja squad which triumphed at the UEFA EURO 2008. "The way it was achieved made it a great victory. Spain played really well and deserved the title. And the main reason for that success was Luis Aragones. He should get more credit than he does, he deserves it for a fantastic tournament, really impressive."
And Suarez knows what he is talking about, having tried his hand as a coach after hanging up his boots. "I didn't do that well as a coach, I was better suited to playing," he said modestly, though the fact remains that Suarez's coaching career included spells in charge at Inter, Deportivo and Spain. "I would have liked to have coached Barcelona though, and as a player it would have been great to win a World Cup," said Suarez, who appeared for Spain at the 1962 FIFA World Cup Chile™ and at the finals in England four years later.
"Nowadays, the players I most enjoy watching are [Lionel] Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. And I think that Barcelona's play will be improved by the signing of [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic. Those three will be the most spectacular players in La Liga," said Suarez, who ended the interview with his verdict on the greatest player he has ever seen. "That was Alfredo di Stefano," he added before a wry quip about the iconic duo's advancing years: "Maybe we'll bump into each other in the director's box at a Champions League game this year, both of us with our walking sticks!"
Luis Suarez Miramontes
Clubs: (as a player) Deportivo de la Coruna (1952-54), Barcelona (1954-61), Inter Milan (1961-1970), Sampdoria (1970-1973); (as a coach) Inter (1974-75), Cagliari (1975-1976), SPAL (1976-77), Como (1977-78), Cagliari (1977-78), Deportivo de la Coruna (1978-79), U21 Spanish national team (1980-88), Spanish national team (A) (1988-91), Inter (1991-92), Albacete (1994-95), Inter (1995-96).
National team: 32 matches (14 goals)
Honours: with FC Barcelona - 2 Spanish leagues (1959 and 1960), 2 Spanish cups (1957 and 1959) and 2 Fairs Cups (1958 and 1960); with Inter Milan - 2 Intercontinental Cups (1964 and 1965), 2 European Cups (1964 and 1965), 3 Scudetti (1963, 1965 and 1966). Ballon d'or (1960, 2nd in 1961 and 1964, 3rd in 1965); with Spain - UEFA European Championship 1964; as coach - UEFA U-21 European Championship 1986.