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Suarez had long planned Nacional return, yet homecoming is still surreal

Written by 
Published in Soccer
Saturday, 06 August 2022 08:10

Some time ago on a brick wall outside Parque Central, someone painted the Nacional badge and wrote a message in the club's red, white and blue. It's not a particularly polished effort, the letters uneven in size, hurriedly drawn and the badge wonky, the whole thing pretty rough, but somehow it is better for it. And there's something about the message, something meaningful in its simplicity. "I'll always come back to see you," it reads.

This week, Luis Suarez did.

Sixteen years after he departed as a heartbroken teenager desperately following his girlfriend across the Atlantic even if Groningen wasn't exactly Barcelona, Suarez has re-joined the club where his career began. He was 14 when he first walked in, 18 when he walked out. He is 35 now.

As he made his way to Parque Central for his presentation, a biplane flew past trailing a banner reading "Suarez to Nacional" -- the message that started as a request, one of those mad ideas that no one really thinks will happen, was now a reality. The video of it was recorded by Sofi, the girlfriend for whom he left home and the wife with whom he returned.

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Delfi, Benja and Lauti, their kids, were with them and so were many more, the impact huge. This kind of thing doesn't really happen anymore. Some 20,000 tickets had been sold to welcome back the kid who made his debut for them in May 2005 and left the following summer having won the league. Suarez was handed the No. 9 shirt by Emmanuel Gigliotti, the striker who said it was an "honour" to give it up. There was a message from Lionel Messi: "I know what it means for you to go home," he smiled. A video played with footage of Suarez from years ago at Nacional and beyond, accompanied by track from the Montevideo band No Te Va A Gustar. "Come home when you want," it ran.

"I'm here because of you and because I wanted to," Suarez told the fans in the stands. "My wonderful kids dreamed of me playing for Nacional."

He had, anyway. And of course that was the point this week, or at least part of it. Suarez left Salto when he was seven, his family moving to Montevideo and living in the neighbourhood of La Comercial. He didn't know it, not until many years later when a man walking a dog stopped to chat to his brother purely by chance and without even knowing who it was, but Obdulio Varela lived just across the way -- arguably the two most significant footballers in Uruguay's history within barely 50 meters. His mum worked as a cleaner in the bus station; his dad, with whom she had separated, worked where he could.

Right behind the house was a rough, narrow path of gravel where they played. The called it the callejon -- "the alley." At one end was a lemon tree and at the other was a women's prison. To the side of that was a children's home, encased in barbed wire. It wasn't always a great place to be, especially after dark, but it was a great place to be. All the way along were workshops, metal shutters drawn down to provide goals. Or else painted posts did the trick. There, Suarez crashed into everyone, chest out -- a bit like now, really. When he joined local club Urreta, it was no less fierce.

Suarez's older brother Paolo, six years his senior, played -- he would build a successful career in Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala as well as Uruguay. So did his younger brother Maxi. In fact, Luis claimed that although he didn't make it, Maxi was the better footballer. Luis wanted to play for Nacional, the team he supported.

He would go to their games, although he would have to go to Penarol games too because that was Maxi's team -- the family was split almost exactly down the middle when it came to Uruguay's great rivalry -- and his mum insisted that they had to go together. Even if that meant watching the "wrong" team some weeks, even though they wound each other up. Suarez recalled being confronted at one game by a Penarol fan in the stands wanting to know why he wasn't celebrating a goal. Under his trousers, he was wearing Nacional socks, a little act of rebellion.

In the end, both of them would end up in the youth system at Nacional. Suarez might not have stayed there for long. By his own admission, he wasn't always the most dedicated, but Wilson Pires, who worked at the club and who Suarez had often begged for the bus fare to go and see Sofi, helped guide him. Warned him, too. So did Paolo. And so did Sofi, a kind of salvation, his everything. Even more so, as it turned out, than he had expected.

When she was forced to leave with her family, everything changed: Suarez was taken by a desperation to make it, and to make it over there. As fast as possible, too. Her family had gone to Barcelona; it took him 10 years to get there, but Europe called.

So did home. He was a Bolso. He watched Nacional, followed them. Identified with them. He supported them, grew up with them, played for them. There's a nice photo in which the Panamanian striker "El Pistolero" -- the original Pistolero -- Jose Luis Garces is being paraded triumphantly round the pitch, and the kid on whose shoulders he rides is Suarez.

He was one of them.

Which is why the response to him coming home was so huge, but it was not the only reason. It is also because he became so huge, their man doing it over there, someone to follow, to celebrate, to claim as their own. When he first got into the team at Nacional, he missed a lot of chances and took a lot of abuse. They called him a donkey, wooden-legged, but he went on to become wildly successful: Groningen, Ajax Amsterdam, Liverpool, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, the national team. He has scored 520 professional goals. His are absurd figures; he is an absurd footballer.

And yet it can sometimes still feel like he is a little underrated. That's not to say he is not rated -- he is -- and there are good reasons for resistance; everyone knows that, him most of all. But still it is striking sometimes that more is not made of what he has done, the player he was. Outside Uruguay, anyway. And, actually here's a question: maybe outside of Atletico, too, where a brief stay made a big impact?

He won five LaLiga titles in seven years in Spain. He almost won the Premier League with Liverpool, and no it wasn't single handed, but ask what fans at Anfield think and they'll tell you that's not too wide of the mark, that they have not really seen anything quite like it. He was twice European Golden Shoe winner, with two very different teams. He was the only player to be Spain's top scorer, other than Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, in 11 years -- going back to his fellow Uruguayan Diego Forlan.

In 2015-16, he scored 40 goals. Only Messi and Ronaldo have ever scored more; no one has matched it since. Only two men ever scored more Barcelona goals. He ran at 20-plus league goals every season for four years and then had a terrible year in which he got 16. He didn't register fewer than 20 goals a season in all competitions for nine years. And did you ever see anyone volley a ball like him? The end at Barcelona came with a brief phone call, barely 30 seconds; if the time was right, the manner of it wasn't, which fueled him.

He went to Atletico. He was finished, they said; on the final day of the first season he sat there in tears, talking to his family on the phone, having scored the goal that won them the league. The goals, plural. There were 21 of them that year. Even last year, when they had decided he couldn't go on, when he watched from the side, there were as many as anyone else. Show him some posts, callejon or Camp Nou, and he'll put the ball between them. When he left, there were tears, applause, recognition at the Metropolitano: a banner offered him thanks for "making us champions."

At 35, his knees the way they are, it might have been time. But there's a World Cup coming, something to aim for, a final shot after 15 years and 68 goals with the national team. There was pride, too. An inclination initially to stay in Europe, prove a point. But then another idea started to emerge, take shape. What if? At Parque Central they embraced it, campaigned for it. It was good for them economically as well as emotionally: 4,000 new subscribers for Nacional TV, 5,000 shirts gone, in that first day alone. It turned out he embraced it, too.

There were good, practical reasons for that, professionally and personally. There were possibilities and even talks -- Sevilla, Borussia Dortmund, River Plate, clubs in Mexico, Brazil and Turkey -- that didn't come to be. Agreements couldn't always be reached economically or contractually. Some offers, like the handful from Turkey, posed issues in terms upheaval. Brazil brings long periods on the road. The U.S. season was already underway. The summer was moving on, nothing decided yet, the timing falling right for Nacional.

A six-month contract, trophies to challenge for in the short-term, the World Cup to prepare for, right there without having to fly a long way back for every get-together: it was an attractive proposition. Home was, too; the warmth, the feeling, being wanted. The family. Forget the money, let's do this. It didn't seem entirely believable at first, but then it happened. And then it still kind of didn't feel entirely believable, to judge by the reaction of supporters, the size of it all. Which is what makes the presentation feel special, almost implausible, while also making it feel somehow preordained. Like this homecoming was always going to happen, the circle closed.

As the video played clips of him from all those years ago, Suarez stood on a stage in the middle of Parque Central and watched the screen. In one video Delfi, almost the age now that he was when he joined the club, says: "Hey, Dad, I'm happy you're here where you wanted to be, where it all started when you very little." In another, he appears, still a kid, and said: "The time will come to return." And then there's the clip of him at Melwood, Liverpool's training ground. Older now. "I'd like to go back to Nacional one day," he said.

Now here he was again, that day having come.

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