"It doesn't surprise me, because he has what it takes to be a success in La Liga and could easily follow me as a Golden Boot winner. He has to stay at Ajax until the end of the season, though. He's young and he still has some learning to do, and he knows my opinion about that."
That was the response of Atletico Madrid striker Diego Forlan to the rumours linking Luis Suarez with a move to Barcelona, an indication of the high regard in which he holds his young Uruguay team-mate.
The prolific 22-year-old has been doing his level best to justify such lofty expectations, scoring 15 goals in 11 games so far this season, including all his side's goals in a 4-0 win at VVV Venlo in September. Feats such as that have led to the former Nacional prodigy replacing the departed Klaas-Jan Huntelaar as the darling of the Amsterdam ArenA. And in Suarez's homeland, his stock is equally high.
"Nobody could understand it when Groningen picked him up for such a small fee [less than €1m]," a reporter from Uruguayan daily Diario Deportivo told FIFA.com. "The kid had just had a fantastic season, winning the championship at the age of 18 and scoring over ten goals. Over here he was seen as a star, as a player of immense promise. He handled his departure well, though. He has made some good choices since then and he's shown just what he can do."
Indeed, Suarez's Eredivisie performances have been so persuasive that Ajax have handed him the team captaincy. "If the bosses have turned to me to fill the skipper's role, then it must mean they think I can do the job," the player said following his close-season promotion. "There's no doubt it's a big responsibility to inherit the armband at such a prestigious club, but I'll try and do the best I can. I'm so happy about this."
The smiling bad boy
"Luis is the epitome of happiness out on the football pitch," said Ajax team-mate Urby Emanuelson last season, confirming Suarez's reputation as someone who likes to play the game with a smile on his face.
The only downside to his Dutch adventure has been a tendency to incur the wrath of officials. Last term, the Charrúa striker picked up 13 cards in all competitions - more than any other forward in the Netherlands - a record that had the country's many footballing purists shaking their heads in disapproval.
"He was the same when he was a young lad at Nacional," continued the Uruguayan correspondent. "He always defended like a madman, in a style you'd normally associate with Argentinian forwards, not Uruguayan ones. He could be a little clumsy in his tackling but the fact is he hates losing. He is much more of a team player than Forlan, though. He makes a lot more assists and he works really hard to close down the opposition's midfielders."
Athletically built, Suarez has channelled his distinctively Uruguayan grit and determination to great effect since arriving in the Dutch capital. Signed in the summer of 2007 for €8m, he hit 20 goals in 40 league and cup appearances in his first season and followed up with 22 goals in the Eredivisie alone in 2008/09.
Much questioned by the local media after signing on the dotted line for Ajax, Suarez soon won over the sceptics with his all-action displays. And since then his reputation has grown to such an extent that Atletico Madrid and AC Milan have reportedly joined Barcelona in the chase for his signature.
In a recent interview with Dutch national newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, Ajax general director Rik van den Boog said they would be willing to let the talented striker go in January if the right offer came in. "It's a decision that has to be made in conjunction with the coaching staff, but we are not ready to sit down and talk with clubs just yet. If the money's right, it could be very interesting for us."
Wherever he plays his club football next year, Suarez is determined to represent his country at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. To fulfil that boyhood dream, however, he and his international team-mates first have to dispose of play-off opponents Costa Rica, who boast Twente goal-getter Brian Ruiz in their ranks.
The men in sky blue have already had one bite of the cherry. Needing to beat Diego Maradona's Argentina in their final qualifier to claim an automatic spot at the world finals, Uruguay fell to a 1-0 defeat despite Suarez's pre-match prediction of victory. Having been given a second opportunity against Los Ticos, the Ajax predator will no doubt be keen to leave his talking for the pitch this time.