July 5, 2018 / 8:32 AM / 4 months ago

Former villain Suarez is now Uruguay's elder statesman

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (Reuters) - It was mid-2006 when scouts for Dutch club Groningen traveled to Uruguay to check out a promising young striker called Elias Figueroa.

FILE PHOTO: World Cup - Round of 16 - Uruguay vs Portugal - Fisht Stadium, Sochi, Russia - June 30, 2018 Uruguay's Luis Suarez celebrates after the match. REUTERS/Murad Sezer/File Photo

Instead, they witnessed another teenage forward play like a man possessed and score a wonder goal. Groningen signed him up on an impulse and flew him to Europe. The name? Luis Suarez.

While those roots may be little known, including an impoverished upbringing and yearning for a girlfriend who moved to Spain, from there the Suarez story is familiar.

His relentless goal-scoring took him quickly to Ajax, then Liverpool, and now Barcelona, while along the way he also became Uruguay’s all-time top scorer.

Yet the same explosive style and win-at-all-costs character that turned him into one of the world’s elite strikers also made Suarez notorious for the wrong reasons.

Most infamously, he was sent home in shame from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil for biting an Italian defender - something he had done before in a seemingly impossible-to-control, bizarre impulse linked to his desperation to succeed.

Soccer Football - World Cup - Round of 16 - Uruguay vs Portugal - Fisht Stadium, Sochi, Russia - June 30, 2018 Uruguay's Diego Godin and Luis Suarez celebrate after the match REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Four years earlier, Suarez deliberately handled a goal-line header against Ghana - then further offended against sportsmanship by wildly celebrating the ensuing penalty miss - to deny them what would have been Africa’s first ever World Cup semi-final.

“Both of those instantly iconic scenes were examples of Luis Suarez’s well-established on-pitch insanity,” sentenced one sports writer of a man the world struggled to understand.

During a brilliant but tempestuous club career, Suarez also failed to control his inner demons, facing sanctions for biting, diving, and racially abusing an opponent.

Yet in recent times, the now 31-year-old has largely avoided controversy, while also netting more than 150 goals for Barcelona.

“I MUST LEAD BY EXAMPLE”

Indeed, Surez comes to Uruguay’s World Cup quarter-final against France on Friday an all-together wiser and maturer, albeit lacking a bit of the spark and speed of his earlier days.

“I have to be one of the calm ones, because there are a lot of youngsters here now in the squad, some for the first time. I must lead by example,” Suarez told reporters this week, relishing his transformation from wild child to elder statesman.

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“With so many games in the national squad, I’ve learnt a lot about how to handle this situation,” he added.

After the trauma in Brazil, coach Oscar Tabarez kept faith with Suarez, trusting he would learn, which is exactly what seems to have happened. Where once he looked up to Diego Forlan as a mentor in the Uruguay squad, now Suarez has that role.

In Russia, Uruguay have won all four games, with Suarez bagging two goals, avoiding controversy, and exuding experience.

He may not have scored in the exhilarating 2-1 defeat of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in the Round of 16, but it was his rasping, pinpoint cross that led to Edinson Cavani’s opener.

Suarez’s past sins on the field are in stark contrast with his friendly, family-man image off it.

In Europe, he did eventually catch up and marry his childhood sweetheart Sofia Balbi, and is often seen with her and their two children around matches.

In his youth, Suarez used to walk to training to save money and had to borrow boots. He has retained the down-to-earth manner of those early days - though coaches do recall his transformed nature and fiery temper during games.

Having now surpassed Forlan’s six World Cup goals, Suarez is just one behind Uruguay’s top scorer at the tournament and 1950s hero, Oscar Miguez, who had eight.

If he equals or surpasses that in Russia, surely Suarez’s redemption will be complete.

Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty

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