Luis Suarez has good cause to remember 25 June 2006, a day when his Nacional side took on Rocha in the second leg of their Uruguayan league championship decider.
He marked the occasion by scoring the opening goal, and it was no ordinary strike either. Haring towards the opposition box from the halfway line, he dribbled past a Rocha defender on the edge of the area and fired a low cross-shot into the back of the net to help seal Nacional’s second title in a row.
As he ran round the pitch, the trophy in his hands and a horde of fans around him, the fresh-faced Luisito, who was only 19 at the time, could hardly have imagined that another nine and a half years would go by before he lined up against another South American club in an official match.
That occasion will come on Sunday at the International Yokohama Stadium, where River Plate will provide the opposition and where the Uruguayan will run out as one of the most feared strikers on the planet, having spent the intervening years honing his skills at Groningen, Ajax and Liverpool before joining Barça. At stake is the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015, a competition whose predecessor, the Intercontinental Cup, so excited the young Suarez that he would get up at six in the morning to watch it.
“It was like a dream,” recalled El Pistolero. “Having the chance to go out and win it now only fills me with even more ambition.” He showed plenty of that in putting Guangzhou Evergrande to the sword in Thursday’s semi-final, seizing on a parry from goalkeeper Li Shuai to give his side the lead with a poacher’s finish, then hooking home with his left foot after a delicious combination with Andres Iniesta, before grabbing a third goal with a firmly struck penalty.
“I’m going to keep the ball in the museum,” joked the No9, who proved as electric as the blue Barça wore on a cool night in Yokohama, becoming the first player in the history of the FIFA Club World Cup to score a hat-trick, this on a day when Lionel Messi and Neymar were sidelined.
“I’m very pleased to have helped the team out with my goals,” said the matchwinner. “It’s important and what makes me even happier is that we’re now through to Sunday’s final, which is what we wanted.”
Suarez wary of South American threat
Though the 3-0 win was a team effort, the Uruguayan’s colleagues made a point of seeking him out at the final whistle to thank and hug him. “Luis has been playing superbly for many years but the way Barça plays suits him down to the ground,” said Jordi Alba.
On Sunday he will face one of the leading representatives of rioplatense football, a branch of the game where he learned his trade, on the other side of the River Plate to Buenos Aires.
Looking ahead to the final, he said: “We know that South American teams are very strong and very tough, and we’re very much aware that River are one of the biggest teams on the continent. They won the Copa Libertadores after all. We know they’ll be tougher opponents and that we’ll have to be at our very best to win the title we want."