The full Sunday Times fantastic interview with Luis Suarez - "I’ll be here next season, yes"
"Player of the year? I'm not even sure I'd vote for me"
Love or loathe him, Luis Suarez, the Premier League's leading scorer, can dazzle Anfield with special skills today
I WANT to be honest with Luis Suarez. I was not in his camp last season during the Patrice Evra affair and there are times you look at him on the pitch and think: “Amigo, why?”
But he is also one of the most gifted, get-you-out-of-your-seat footballers I’ve watched. The past and the persona Suarez occasionally adopts when his blood’s up and he’s trying almost anything to win a game would not stop me voting him player of the year.
“So who are you going to vote for?” he asks.
“You, Gareth Bale, Michael Carrick . . . probably you, if you start scoring again,” I reply.
Suarez laughs. It’s only been four games since he last scored and with 29 goals in 2012-13, rivals can’t match his record. “I think this year I’ve got more chance in the press vote than I have with the players,” he says. Why? “Because, yes, on the one hand the press can criticise you but on the other they give out praise. And from what they tell me — because I honestly don’t read the press here — I hear they’ve spoken about me pretty well. I’ve been criticised, but only on issues I knew myself I had to do something about, things I’ve taken on board. They’ve judged much more this season on what I’ve done on the field, which is positive in itself.”
The Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year award is announced on May 9, a week after the ballot ends. For the PFA Player of the Year, to be named next Sunday, voting is closed and he’s among six nominees alongside Robin Van Persie, Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Carrick and the hot favourite, Bale.
Suarez seems to be a test case for both awards. “Footballer of the Year” or “Football Personality of the Year”? Are they about what Suarez hopes they are decided on, simply “footballing issues”, or does charm also count? His wife tells him he should behave better on the pitch and one of the things you learn is that Suarez knows full well his abrasiveness there can put people off.
Not just last season but incidents this season — the dive celebration against Everton, the handball goal versus Mansfield, confrontations with Tottenham players — could count against him. He suspects, particularly in the PFA voting, they will. “Everybody’s got their own opinion about players. And everybody’s got their own way of doing things on the field. I understand defenders probably aren’t going to vote for me because I’ve got my particular style, which can be considered a bit niggly. The way I am and the way I carry myself is all part of how I play — almost to divert defenders’ attention, to put them off.”
When we meet at Melwood, Liverpool’s training ground, he sits in his shorts and sips mate (South American tea) from an old silver flask bearing a personal engraving. He’s informal, open and joking — mostly at the expense of Phil, our interpreter. Plainly, the hard-headed competitor is the public Suarez. There’s somebody else you could get to know. But, as mentioned, are personalities important? It’s a simple question: who has been the best footballer in England in 2012-13? Write the name. For me, there’s your player of the year.
Southampton’s Jos Hooiveld (who voted for Van Persie) said Suarez “divides opinion”. Phil Neville, Everton’s captain, didn’t even name Suarez in his PFA team of the year. Suarez smiles. “ I wouldn’t be putting Neville in my team either.”
He discusses the street football in Uruguay that shaped him, where picardia (hard-to-translate but an amalgam of cunning, naughtiness and feistiness) is essential. If he were an opponent, would he vote for Luis Suarez?
“If I played against a forward who winds me up every game, tries to get on my nerves and drive me mad . . . it’s difficult to vote for someone who does that. Think back to [Mousa] Dembele and think how he was in that game [v Tottenham].
“It’s hard to vote for a player who’s shouting at you all game and trying to wind you up. But I think you also have to look and evaluate from a footballing perspective. We’re voting about football issues here. Player of the year was never an aim at the start of the season or something I dream about. It’s something I’d always remember. But I’m not going mad to win it.”
The football issues that demand Suarez be crowned are significant. Break down those 29 goals: five direct free kicks, three headers, five with his weaker left foot, five with the outside of the foot, five involving dribbles, two after nutmegging a defender. And no penalties. What you have is a striker scoring all types of goals, almost never scoring cheaply, using improvisation, trickery and top technique. A goal to sum up Suarez: against Newcastle, when he controlled a long pass with an astonishingly deft and ingenious touch — stunning the dropping ball with his collar bone — before dummying Tim Krul and adjusting to poke in. All done at top speed, under physical pressure from Fabricio Coloccini.
Another way to divide the goals: 15 were scored at Anfield, 14 at away grounds. He doesn’t need the comforts of home. “That just goes to show that when I go to away grounds and they boo and whistle at me . . . it doesn’t do any good.”
Finally, though this is also true of Bale, Suarez has produced his goods for a side relying on him, at times solely, to make the difference. His total is not fattened by tap-ins for 5-0 after the rest of the team have done the work. Which prompts something revealing. “You could probably say this is my best season but it’s hard to explain,” he says. “I’m happy, personally. As a scorer your No 1 desire is goals. But I think I would have valued them more if Liverpool were higher up the league, if we’d competed for more.”
Would he have preferred fewer strikes but a trophy? “Yes, 1,000 times more. I’ve got very much a group mentality.”
Supporters worry Liverpool’s underperformance could drive Suarez away. Recently he was quoted saying he’d “welcome” approaches from clubs who will be in next season’s Champions League. His words came from an interview in Uruguay and he says the context was missing. He’d been asked: “What would he do if Liverpool decided to sell him?” Contracted until 2017, he’s happy to clarify. “What I said [in Uruguay] was I’m very happy here, so is my family, which for me is very important. I’m at a club any footballer would want to be playing at, who share my goal of playing in the Champions League. If it’s not this year then it will be the next. I want to see out my contract — but also in football you never quite know what’s ahead.”
Meaning? “Sometimes the club can decide they don’t want you, though you want to stay. Or a player could say he wanted to leave and still end up staying. In football things never turn out the way you plan them. The only thing I have in my head is I’m here and have a contract. I think I’ll be here next season, yes.”
He believes in Brendan Rodgers. “He has a philosophy the players really like. My game is benefiting by keeping the ball on the deck and encouraging movement. He’s a great person on and off the field and you can soon see what a great manager he is,” Suarez says.
This season Rodgers raised with Suarez the question of his number of bookings, pointing out he wasn’t much use suspended. The conversation has encouraged him to try to soften that persona a little, as has his wife, Sofia. “She’s my biggest critic, she always comes to watch me.” She asks what I’m doing, why am I arguing with the referee. ‘All you’ve done today is turn up to shout at people, why don’t you concentrate on playing football?’ If I don’t, they [Sofia and his daughter, Delfina] won’t come and watch me anymore. These are things my wife has picked up on and so has everyone else, so it has made me think.”
Suarez’s player of the year? Bale. On football terms. “I love watching him, his change of pace, his spectacular goals, his strength of shot. He even scores with his head. He’s a totally all-round player and I think that it’s a real shame for football he’s been out these last few weeks.”
Time for training. At Melwood you do well to end a session without being nutmegged by Suarez. “I’m getting infamous for that,” he grins. “One or two lads get angry but not because I’ve done it, because it’s no surprise. They know I’m going to do it. Some just keep their legs closed when I’m near but ones who leave them open . . . well, they’re inviting it.”
Picardia. I’ll vote for Suarez — if he starts scoring again.
Target in reach
Luis Suarez, the Premier League’s top scorer with 22 goals, needs one more to become the first Liverpool player to score 30 in a season in all competitions since Fernando Torres hit 33 in 2007-08.
The Uruguayan forward’s commitment cannot be doubted. He is Liverpool’s most fouled player (59 free kicks won) but is also the Liverpool player who has committed most fouls (44). He has scored the club’s quickest goal this season (67 seconds) and latest (91 minutes 33 seconds).