(AP) — Few might remember his knee surgery just three weeks before the World Cup, or the two goals he scored in a 2-1 victory over England in his first match in the tournament.
The last and most memorable image of Luis Suarez is the striker biting Giorgio Chiellini in the shoulder in a group stage match against Italy, a play that earned him a four-month suspension.
Discipline problems have defined the career of one of the most talented and feared strikers in the world. Loved by teammates and loathed by opponents, Suarez has a knack for scoring and controversy.
He returns to the field on Saturday, when he makes his Barcelona debut against rival Real Madrid. All eyes will be on the 27-year old Uruguayan, even as his teammate Lionel Messi is one goal shy of the league’s career scoring record, and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo has already scored 15 goals in eight matches.
Less than a month after the suspension was announced, Barcelona paid a club-record $130 million transfer fee to Liverpool for Suarez, who was coming off his best season in the Premier League with 31 goals in all competitions. He scored 82 goals in 133 matches with the Reds, but his three years in England were marked by two suspensions for biting and racial abuse.
When he is on target, fans call him “The Gunslinger.” But after biting an opponent on the biggest stage, more people call him “The Cannibal.”
“I thought I had ruined my career and feared that Barsa would go back” on its intention to sign him, Suarez said in a recent TV interview. Suarez said he sought treatment to help him control his temper.
“The Chiellini incident was very negative for his career, because he’ll always be remembered for those things,” said Ajax coach Frank De Boer, who knows Suarez from the player’s years in the Dutch league. “He is a very good player and person, a very low-key person. On the pitch he’s a warrior, a natural born winner like (Lionel) Messi and Cristiano (Ronaldo).
“He will battle even in friendlies, and he can score nine goals, but if he misses one, he’ll be angry,” added De Boer, who arrived in Ajax in 2010 after the club sold Suarez to Liverpool, when the Uruguayan was banned for seven matches for biting PSV Eindhoven midfielder Otman Bakkal in the shoulder.
In 2011, during his second season with Liverpool, Suarez received an eight-match ban and was fined $62,000 for racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra. Two years later, he was slapped with a 10-match ban for biting the arm of Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic.
Suarez also made headlines during Uruguay’s semifinal run in the 2010 World Cup, where he was ejected in the last minute of overtime of the quarterfinals game against Ghana for using his hands to stop a goal. Uruguay advanced in a penalty shootout to face Netherlands in the semis, but lost 3-2 without the suspended Suarez.
The disciplinary issues didn’t scare Barcelona, which signed Suarez to combine him with Messi and Neymar in a star-studded attack.
The native of Salto, a small town 300 miles north of the Uruguay capital Montevideo, cried upon hearing the news of his signing. He would finally join his wife and sons, who lived in Spain while he played in England.
“I like that he is in Barcelona. He deserves it because he has battled and he has improved each year,” De Boer said. “They’ll have an incredible attack with Messi and Neymar, although they have to prove that they can play together.”
Gabri Garcia, a Suarez teammate in Ajax and now a coach in the Barcelona youth ranks, thinks the striker will have no problems getting along with Messi and Neymar, who have combined to score 15 goals for a Barcelona team that leads the Spanish league.
“He’ll be a success with the team,” Garcia said. “He’s very intelligent and sociable, and he’ll know how to get along with Messi and Neymar. There’ll be no problems.”
“Luis is a star, he loves football and it’s tough for him not being able to play,” he said. “It’s impressive seeing how he works every day to improve the team, how he helps us. We’ll do a lot of great things.”
Suarez will get his first chance Saturday to prove Barcelona made the right decision by signing him, if coach Luis Enrique considers he is ready to play against the team’s biggest rival. Suarez scored two goals on Oct. 13 in a 3-0 win with Uruguay in a friendly against Oman.
“He was the most expensive signing, and it’s nice to see that his hard work confirms what we thought of him,” Luis Enrique said. “He’s very intense, he improves each day, and he know his time is coming, but he’s relaxed. He always wanted to play here and now everything is ready for him to enjoy it.”