- How love and poverty shaped one of the most polarizing figures in modern football
Barcelona’s first-choice striker, Luis Suarez, is rightly regarded as one of the most relentless and even aggressive men in football. No stranger to controversy, Suarez has made a name for himself, combining the bad boy persona and every characteristic required from a goal machine.
Not many, however, know of a likely cause of Suarez’ temperament: his past.
The striker was born in Salto, Uruguay, a town of about 90,000 at the time. He was fourth of seven boys in a poor family that had to relocate to the nation’s capital when he was seven because there was no work for his parents in his hometown. Two years later, his parents split up.
Just how limited the family’s finances were? “The only shoes he had were for school, not for playing football,” Suarez’s mother, Sandra told Sport. “So he usually played without footwear so as to not miss games.”
Money and divorce were far from the only issues for Suarezes in Montevideo. The kids found it difficult to blend in with the locals, who mocked their accent. Luis, in spite of his outstanding talent, lost motivation to play. Yet the move to Montevideo ultimately proved to be a blessing for his career: only in the capital could he receive the proper development as a footballer.
Then he met Sofia Balbi, the girl three years his junior who eventually went on to become his wife. At the moment, Luis worked as a street sweeper and to take her out, he picked up the coins during his shift. Sofia instantly became the positive influence a rebellious teenager desperately needed to take the next step, demanding better work ethic, giving him confidence and helping him get better nutrition.
The turnaround was almost unbelievable: Suarez went from being on the brink of getting shown the door at Nacional academy to becoming one of the greatest goalscorers for the youth set-up of one of Uruguay’s greatest clubs.
Just a year later, Sofia’s family moved to Barcelona, and for most teenage relationships that would’ve been the end of story. But for Suarez, it was just another challenge to overcome as he began to plot a footballing career that would allow him to move to Europe, too.
“That was when I really realised that if I wanted to be close to her I’d have to work hard,” Suarez said of the time when the two were forced to separate. “I’d have to wake up. So I set to work much harder than I needed to. I wasn’t free to go there nor her to come here because of the money situation. So I had to train to the max to be able to succeed in Europe.”
The plan may have seemed unlikely at the time, but just three years later, there he was, signing for Dutch side Groningen. From there, his unbelievable rise continued and eight years later, he joined Barcelona.
It turns out Sofia Balbi was right all along: Luis Suarez can achieve everything he truly puts his mind to. And her presence helped him do just that, even though the odds were stacked against him.