By ANDREW CAWTHORNE
Friday, July 6, 2018
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, RUSSIA -- It was mid-2006 when scouts for Dutch club Groningen travelled to Uruguay to check out a promising young striker named Elias Figueroa. Instead, another teenage forward grabbed their attention, playing like a man possessed and scoring 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 the 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 top career scorer.
Yet, the same explosive style and win-at-all-costs character that turned him into one of the world's elite strikers also earned Suarez notoriety. 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.
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 World Cup semi-final berth.
"Both of those instantly iconic scenes were examples of Suarez's well-established on-pitch insanity," one scribe wrote 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.
Indeed, Suarez comes to Uruguay's World Cup quarter-final against France on Friday a wiser and more mature man, 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.
"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 has won all four of its games, with Suarez bagging two goals, avoiding controversy and exuding experience.
He may not have scored in the 2-1 defeat of Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal in the round of 16, but it was his 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 - 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.
Luis Suarez celebrates victory at the final whistle after Uruguay defeated Portugal 2-1 in the round of 16 last Saturday at Fisht Stadium in Sochi, Russia. Suarez didn't score in the game, but his pinpoint cross set up Uruguay's first goal.
RICHARD HEATHCOTE/GETTY IMAGES