Even before the games were played out in Brazil, the reality of where many South American players’ priorities lie was being settled in Europe.
Luis Suárez, supposedly barred from going anywhere near a stadium for four months after biting an opponent during the World Cup, is on his way to Barcelona. The deal is done. Liverpool had no option but to sell the star player for about £75 million, or $128 million. Suárez’s wages will add another $17 million or so each season to that investment, and two players, Cesc Fàbregas (to Chelsea) and Alexis Sánchez (to Arsenal) have been sold to accommodate that outlay.
Suárez posted his fond farewell to Liverpool fans on the club’s website.
“It is with a heavy heart that I leave Liverpool,” he wrote. “Both me and my family have fallen in love with this club and the city. But most of all I have fallen in love with the incredible fans. You have always supported me and we, as a family, will never forget it, we will always be Liverpool supporters.” Take some of that as sincere. The main reason Suárez is joining his fifth club in eight years is family. He left Uruguay for Europe in the first place because the family of his then-sweetheart (and now his wife), Sofía Balbi, had moved to Barcelona. Now, he had a chance not only to move closer to her parents, but at the same time join one of the world’s iconic clubs.
While media speculation was centered on Real Madrid making Suárez its next target, Barça held the family card. And Suárez wielded the ultimate power in the modern game — player power. The question now is: Where does Suárez fit into Barcelona’s team?
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An attacking line of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Suárez is either the ultimate triumvirate, or a miasma of conflicting interests on a team that, every critic says, desperately needs defenders.
The answer will come on the field starting in November. Barcelona, in the meantime, will offer counseling to curb his inclination to bite opposing players. He has done that three times now, which has flawed his ability to strike audacious goals from seemingly impossible angles, year after year, in the Dutch and the English leagues.
Man in transition
Where to fit him in? Messi’s role is changing. His own transition into a family man came with the birth of his first son a year ago. His body has started to rebel against the workload that he took upon himself to score a goal a game while running mile after mile with a smile on his face and the ball under his command. Even as he has taken Argentina to the World Cup final, the critics are asking where the “old” Messi is. Where are the mesmerizing runs, the coruscating dribbles as he risks injuries from malevolent opponents when he tricks them one after the other?
Messi, I was assured by Barcelona’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, is not for sale at any price. He is Barça’s soul. Any player, be they the wonderfully promising Neymar or the now-maligned but supertalented Suárez, will fall in line with Messi’s pivotal role at the club.
However, the dependence — the overdependence — that Barcelona has on Messi is being challenged and changed.
The club’s new coach, the former Barcelona player Luis Enrique, faces the task of integrating and balancing out the talents the club is acquiring for him. We haven’t yet seen Enrique’s work there, but based on his record it will be dynamic, single-minded and more direct than the tiki-taka system that was seen to be running out of steam.
Suárez, playing in Sánchez’s place, will galvanize the attack because the Uruguayan has more self-confidence and more spirit to chase apparently lost causes and turn them into goals. I can see Messi doing what he has done at the World Cup, adding stealth to his repertoire, dropping deeper, exercising more patience.
As Xavi Hernández and even Andrés Iniesta fade, Messi might become the play-maker, conserving his bursts of thrilling runs as he instead prompts Neymar and Suárez to run until it hurts.
It sounds ridiculous that Messi is an elder statesman at 27. But remember, he has been at Barça since he was 13, and his record already is saturated with more goals and more thrilling runs than most great players achieve in a lifetime.
How does this relate to the World Cup? For Messi, leading Argentina was a mission, in a sense chasing a lost childhood. For Suárez (with Uruguay) and Sánchez (with Chile), it was a brief interlude.
The chance to represent their countries close to home passed fleetingly. The fans had yearned 36 years for the tournament to return to South America since it was last held there, in Argentina in 1978.