Within six blocks from each other, in Uruguay’s northwestern outpost of Salto, a nondescript town famous for its cattle and citrus fruits, lived a couple of amateur footballers. Luis Cavani was an under-firing striker of Salto FC, a second division club while Rodolfo Suarez was a gnarling defender of Deportivo Artigas. Luis, a second generation Italian migrant, drove pick-up trucks to meet ends. Rodolfo was in the national Army, and lived in the dingy barracks of Salto.
Both vaguely remember each other. Rodolfo remembers Luis as a “clumsy striker with a heavy first touch”. Luis calls him a “dirty defender who hacked down men without instigation.” They called “Little Dog” for biting at the heels of attackers. Both hardly shared a post-match drink or any camaraderie. “For us football was a just a weekly distraction. We had other things to do in life,” Luis once told El Pais. By the mid 80s, livelihood pangs had drowned football out of their lives. Then, three weeks into 1987, Rodolfo was blessed with his fourth child. He named him Luis. The same year, 21 days apart on St Valentine’s Day, Luis had a son too. He called him Edinson.
Four years later, Rodolfo’s brother Sergio would take young Luis to the club his father played for, where Sergio was the coach of the children’s coach. Edinson’s father enrolled him and his elder brother at the Nacional Academy. In Salto, there used to be matches between under-seven five-a-side matches, but Luis and Cavani hardly crossed their path. Sergio, who sells firewood, rattles out a reason.
“Luis was so tiny for his age that we thought it might be better to not play him. When he played he was the goalie and he disliked it so much that he used to flunk matches. Edinson was already a star in his age-group,” he narrated to El Pais. Three years later, the Suarezes left Salto. Rodolfo couldn’t manage the family with the meagre pension and hence moved to Montevideo, where he fetched a job at a biscuit factory and his wife as a maid in McDonald’s. Luis, meanwhile, had begun coaching the junior teams of Nacional, though he was still driving his pick-up truck, so ramshackle that the young Edinson used to console his father, “Papa, when I grow up, I’ll buy you a new truck.” Edinson was a calm boy, who had just one quibble—in school they called him El Baldy, for he had little hair.
Around 300 miles away, in Montevideo, Rodolfo would demand the local barber to give his son, an unmanageable bully, a ‘Beatles Cut’.
After another synchronised exhibition of supreme goal-poaching verve in a Copa America match, Edinson Cavani was asked to describe his strike-partner Luis Suarez’s game. “He has an incredible physicality, in a very positive way. No matter how tough you mark him, he finds a way through them. He has great first-touches and vision, but its physical game that has made him what he is,” he observes.
Suarez’s physicality is often referred with antagonistic anecdotes, from chewing Giorgio Chiellini’s ears to racially slurring Patrice Evra. But according to coach Oscar Tavarez, Suarez, like all sportsmen and men, is shaped by his childhood. For the Suarezes, life was rough in Montevideo, where class-disparity is pronounced. His parents split soon after, then his girlfriend Sofia, the “only light of his dark life” went to Spain (it’s a cute story that he kept the fire burning and eventually married). So on a football pitch was where he vented out all his pent-up emotions. He was so volatile from a young age that he left a referee with six stitches on his face, and was asked to consult a psychiatrist.”A lot of people feared he would go astray, and the place he lived in Montevideo was quite rough too,” uncle Sergio would tell Marca.
The upbringing made him street-wise and hardy. He has the stealth of a pick-pocket and the feistiness of a bull-fighter. Tabarez again produces the apt imagery: “He’s like a cabbie driving through a busy Montevideo street, looking for the quickest, shortest route to his destination.” Cavani, conversely, seemed so fragile in physique and reserved in demeanour that Napoli, while auditioning him, feared he wouldn’t withstand the intrinsically physical Serie A. But as they soon found out, he has a striker’s anticipation and a sniper’s precision. Suarez seems restless, all fizzling energy and bounding vigour, manipulation and mobility, but Cavani is all peace and patience, like he weaves a web of detachment around him.
He credits it to hours of fishing with his father in the Uruguay river. “Fishing gives me peace, tranquility. And also, as a forward player, it helps me, with my eyes, You prepare for that specific moment to attack. It’s not something I thought of as a boy but, as I grew up, it started to become something I associated with being a striker and in being successful in my career, scoring goals,” he told in an interview with The Telegraph. It’s this unreal calmness of Cavani that Suarez appreciates. “People tell me to learn those (patience and peace) from him. I’ve tried and now I’m at peace with myself that I can’t be like him,” he admitted.
While neither can be like either, Tabarez watches the alluring contrasts with the twinkling glad-eye of a voyeur. “They have a telepathic understanding of what they do with the ball and what they don’t, the areas they probe and the space they get into,” he observed. Cavani’s first goal against Portugal was a throwaway instance-Cavani cuffed a long ball to Suarez’s feet, the latter smarted past a couple of defenders before dishing out an inch-perfect pass for Cavani, who by then had to cut into the box and just had to nod the ball home. The pick pocket’s stealth and fisherman’s forbearance have reignited Uruguay’s dreams, the first time perhaps after the Maracanazo in a World Cup.
Cavani, though, still has one hairy quibble: Suarez, while celebrating, tends to pull his long hair hard. He’s no El Baldy, but more like his idol, Gabriel Batistuta. Suarez, meanwhile has long shed the Beatles Cut.
Since leaving Salto at seven, Suarez has never returned to the place of his birth. Nor does he keep in touch with his friends, and of the family only Sergio and his grandmother remains. His own recollections are flimsy: “I remember pillion-riding in uncle Sergio’s bike and playing in the barracks, but I’m in temperament more a Montevideano than a Salteno. It’s the way I’m,” he wrote in his autobiography Crossing the Line.
Cavani, on the other hand, is sentimental about Salto, and though his visits have decreased, whenever he’s in town, he drives around the city with his father’s truck, a new one, as he had promised, and inevitably goes for fishing. Besides, he keeps in touch with his school-friends and ex-teammates through Whatsapp groups. “He’s deeply emotional about the city, and carries a piece of it wherever he goes. He says once he retires, he’d return home,” his father told El Pais.
But, ironically, the only statue of a footballer in Salto is Suarez’s, which though was stolen twice by the same person, who calls himself Suarez. Once, he even left a note: “I went to Messi’s wedding. I’ll be back soon.” Saltenos wouldn’t mind the latter part happening literally. But it would matter less, if the sons of the “dirty defender” and “clumsy striker” inspire the country to something more historic than the Maracanazo.