The lesser-known side of Suarez’s route to the top
-Wilson, I’m going to play for Barcelona -Luis, you’re not even playing for Nacional seventh team, how do you expect to play for Barcelona?
Luis Suarez was 13 when he had that conversation with Wilson Pirez, one of the men who discovered him and, alongside Juan Pablo Sposito, the main reason why El Salta joined Nacional de Montevideo.
It was the year 2000 and Suarez was by no means finding things easy. Though he had begun to settle after the initial trauma of leaving his hometown Salta for the hustle and bustle of the Uruguayan capital, in addition to the hurt of his parents’ subsequent separation, all was not going to plan in footballing terms either.
Back then Pirez, whose video message to Suarez during the award ceremony for the ESM Golden Shoe so moved El Pistolero, was an official at Nacional and oversaw their youth ranks – in addition to being the gifted youngster’s main confidante and supporter within the club.
“I saw him for the first time when he was ten,” said Pirez, now a player agent, in conversation with FIFA.com. “It caught my eye that he had an unusual but effective way of playing. He wasn’t physical or skilful on the ball and he even looked almost ungainly. That said, he had real character, enormous drive and he scored goals!”
Suarez made impressive progress through the infantil (U-12) age levels, but his move into Nacional’s juvenil categories (12 and upwards) caused friction among Pirez’s colleagues. “He wasn’t one of those players who was easy on the eye. The stars and leading scorers of that team were Martin Cauteruccio – currently at San Lorenzo – and Bruno Fornaroli – who’s in Australia. But I stood firm: ‘He’s been here since he was a boy and there are other clubs after him, we can’t let him go,' I said. And I managed to convince them.”
Piecing the puzzle together That was just the start of the battle. “They didn’t play him very much and he became disheartened,” continued Pirez. “What’s more, like any young lad he liked to go out.” Suarez thus went from scoring goals by the hatful to, when handed game-time, missing chances in equal measure. Then, in early 2002, came the incident which made Pirez’s patience snap.
“One Sunday I arrived at Parque Central at 6:30 in the morning to set things up for the match in his division and I found him there, asleep on a bench. ‘You got here early’, I said to him, and he answered me that yes, he had. He didn’t play well, but he did ok,” Pirez recalled. “Later that evening back at home, my daughter said ‘I saw El Salta at the dance last night’. He’d gone straight from there to the match !” he added with a chuckle.
“The next day I dragged him into my office and said ‘Come on lad, I defended you before, now you’ve got to start defending me. And if they don’t put you on the pitch, then I will.’ We had to get him back on track in sporting terms because he was doing fine at school, he did his work… but football was his future.”
Aged 15, Suarez thus promised to commit himself to becoming a footballer, and a few months later his determination to forge a career in the game redoubled after meeting Sofia Balbi, now his wife. “At first nobody took it that seriously, given his age. But when he was 16 she was his girlfriend and he said she’d be the mother of his children, the love of his life. So, when Sofia and her parents emigrated to Barcelona in 2003 it was a huge blow. Luis wanted to go to Europe to be closer to her.”
Suarez had by now also reignited his love affair with scoring goals. An undisputed regular for the club’s sixth and fifth teams, he even managed to play in three different age categories in the same weekend, making his debut for Nacional’s third team (played on a Sunday in the build-up to a first-team match) and capping the appearance with two goals.
Brought up to the first-team squad in early 2005, he made his debut in May. “His first spell at Nacional was very tough,” said Pirez. “Not only was he missing Sofia, but he was missing lots of chances and was getting stick, as was the coach Martin Lasarte. The insults were flying at them both.
“‘Can’t you hear how they’re treating us for playing your boy?’ Lasarte said to me, but he stuck with him and he burst into form in the second half of the year. He started scoring goals once he stopped wearing the No13 shirt, passed on to him by El Loco Abreu, and took the No9. They’re good friends and still joke about that.”
Evolving as a player The rest of Suarez’s story is better-known, though Pirez’s privileged insight enriches the tale. “Some Honduran businessmen came to sign Elias Figueroa, who was playing for Liverpool,” he said, of Suarez’s move to Dutch side Groningen. “The next day they saw Luis play for Nacional and they just said: ‘We want him’.
“We’d have the same talks we’d had before, but over the phone or webchat instead,” continued Pirez on life after Suarez’s departure and the forward’s subsequent footballing evolution. “At Groningen they began smoothing off the rough edges and then it was clear that at Ajax he was only going to get better. The team attacked more, opposition defenders had more to deal with and he’s very cunning at exploiting that.”
Suarez still managed to surprise his mentor during his time at Liverpool, however, by adding free-kick mastery and regular assists to his game. “’You’ve come on so much ’ I said to him, and he told me it was ‘just down to practice’. And I’d known all about his goalscorer’s selfish streak, but that was a clear sign of his game evolving. That’s all ended up making him one of the world’s best strikers.”
And when the player was linked with a move to Real Madrid, Pirez again had the inside track. “He’d already told me that Barcelona was a done deal. I think that only his agent, Sofia and I knew about it. He’s like a son to me, so it was hugely satisfying to see him achieve his objective.”
Indeed, not even the infamous incident at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ could prevent Suarez making the prediction he had made at 13 come true. “That was a tough period and I’d prefer to keep to myself what we talked about then. But I never doubted that he’d come back from his ban even stronger.”
“He’s humble, thankful and has a really big heart,” continued Pirez, highlighting the striker’s qualities away from the glare of the spotlight. “He’s able to be himself when he’s having a barbecue with his friends or when he’s playing for Barcelona. He doesn’t just pretend to be friends with Messi and Neymar, he really is. That’s why he performs so well with them.”
Will that level of performance be enough to put him amongst The Best FIFA Men's Player finalists at The Best FIFA Football Awards™? “It should!” concluded Pirez. “For me he is, at least, one of the three most decisive players around today.”