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Luis Suarez’s path as Spain’s only male Ballon d’Or winner

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Luis Suarez had a nice line in gentle mischief, many a true word said in jest and with a little bit of edge.

Delivered with the Galician accent he never lost over 60 years living within a short stroll of Milan’s San Siro, that fit somehow. An understated dignity, a kind of reserved irony, supposedly defines people from the wet northwest of Spain which faces the Atlantic, a place apart, and he had a capacity to quietly cut through the rubbish. Every now and again, it came as a reminder. Often a necessary one, and not least of how good he was.

And Suarez, who died July 9 aged 88, was good. The best, in fact. Even if that, it sometimes felt, was forgotten. Sometimes it felt that way to him, too. Asked one day a decade or so ago what kind of player he was — back when that Barcelona team was, well, that Barcelona team — the name of Xavi Hernandez came up. The world’s best midfielder, the ideologue of the best team in the world at the time and perhaps even of any time, it was quite the comparison. Maybe, Suarez suggested. And then he added deadpan, having applied the perfect pause: “Only, I could shoot. And pass a ball 40 yards.” You could almost hear the glint in his eye, the hint of a smile. The flash of pride, too.

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He scored a lot of goals, it was true — 141 in 253 games at Barcelona — but that wasn’t what defined him. There was a finesse about him, timing and vision. In his early days at Barcelona he had been moved to tell Ferenc Plattko, his manager, that he had come to play football, not be a boxer. This week, after his passing, one paper in Italy, where he is an icon, referred to him as “part dancer, part bullfighter.” And Alfredo Di Stefano, who knew a thing or two about football and always wanted him at his side at Real Madrid, called him the architect.

In 1960, Suarez won the Ballon d’Or. Sixty-seven years on, he remains the only man born in Spain ever to have won it. Including Xavi or Andres Iniesta, who Suarez himself thought should have won it in 2010. Just a list of the men he finished ahead of tells you how special he was. Ferenc Puskas, Lev Yashin, and Bobby Charlton among them; Raymond Kopa, Uwe Seeler, John Charles and Di Stefano, too. He was handed the trophy before a game at the Camp Nou. He stood, briefly thanked them for their applause and handed it back to the physio to look after, no ceremony, no shouting.

He was on the podium for the Ballon d’Or four times — in 1960, 1961, 1964 and 1965 — and felt he should have had another one in 1964, when Denis Law won it. He, after all, had won the European Cup that season and the European Championships with Spain.

The following year Suarez won another European Cup. That Euros with Spain could have been his second as well: four years earlier, in May 1960, General Franco had prevented Spain from playing the Soviet Union in the semifinal, refusing to allow the Russians to come to Spain. The dictator was accused by Pravda of being “afraid of the proletariat,” although they had Suarez, Di Stefano, Puskas, Luis Del Sol and the rest; by 1964 he had been convinced of the propaganda value of beating the communists at Chamartin, the winning goal scored by Marcelino with six minutes left.

Propaganda is the word, and one that feels like it fits here, too. Somehow, it would play a part with Suarez, leaving a nagging sense that for all his talent, the story was being written without him. Or at least that it didn’t quite place him where it should have done, a story constructed around others, certainly in Spain. Denied a European Championship double, denied a European Cup with Barcelona, his greatest success coming across the Alps.

Last week, a photo of another Luis Suarez — the former Liverpool and Barca player who is now at Gremio — accompanied the report of his death offered by one news agency. The front page of the country’s best selling sports newspaper, meanwhile, led on the story of Jude Bellingham getting in a hotel lift, accompanied by 24 words from Madrid’s new signing, saying he is looking forward to it.

Mistakes can happen — a picture editor searches the archives for an image via the caption attached to it, and finds “former Barcelona” striker Luis Suarez — while a newspaper can feel the pull of a news cycle and a new signing. And inside, the first three pages were given over in homage to “eternal Luisito,” a man upon whom they had bestowed their own highest honour. Yet, it was hard to avoid the nagging feeling that it shouldn’t be that way, that with others it would not have been.

Suarez himself once noted that if he didn’t remind people about his Ballon d’Or, no one else would. Cadena Ser radio station ran a clip of line from him this week in which he says: “I wouldn’t say forgotten — let’s not exaggerate — but maybe if my place had been different, if instead of being born Galician, a player who had been at Barcelona for so many years, won a Ballon d’Or, and then seen so many years pass without anyone else doing so, I had been Catalan, maybe it would have been different. That thought has occurred to me a bit.”

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The station called him the great forgotten man of Spanish football. Maybe they would: right to the end he was a commentator there — sharp, clear, and beloved by everyone — and that was, to use his own word, an exaggeration. There was recognition, the Ballon d’Or itself provided a kind of quick, irrefutable proof of his status. For many there was a deep fondness too, not least for the way he told it. The response to his death underlined that. Forgotten? No, not exactly, and yet there was something in that claim. Somehow the story didn’t quite write him in as a central figure.

“History, has been unjust with us: but for Real Madrid we would have won it all,” he said once. He was part of a Barcelona team that were the second-best team in the world, and domestically as strong as Real Madrid: in the five years in which Madrid won the European Cup, they won as many leagues. But those continental triumphs eclipsed everything, a legend built. An entire identity and history. When Barcelona finally reached a final, becoming the first team to ever knock out Madrid en route, they were beaten by Benfica, in 1961.

The Square Posts final, they called it: desperately unlucky, Barcelona hit them four times; one shot even hit one post, ran along the line, hit the other post and came out again. A story of fatalism emerged instead; they wouldn’t be back until 1986 and wouldn’t win it at all until 1992. Suarez summed up that day simply: “it is impossible for something like that to happen again.”

It was the last game Suarez played for the club, and what happened next may feel a little familiar, another case study in self-destruction, the infamous “entorno,” that swirl of pressure, politics, noise and interest that surrounds the club. Heavily in debt, Barcelona was divided. Coach Helenio Herrera had been forced out after a defeat against Madrid; he had also struggled to manage Laszlo Kubala, Barcelona’s beloved but aging superstar, the man that legend says built the Camp Nou.

If Herrera was seen by supporters as the man forcing Kubala out, soon so too was Suarez, who was seven years younger and who the manager described as “an organiser who leads an exemplary life.” Suarez and Kubala were friends and didn’t play in the same position, but an easy narrative had been created, more entrenched by the day. Suarez played every game; Kubala was often left out. A rivalry was built up, as fierce as it was false, trenches dug, sides taken, becoming the battle ground for something deeper. There were even fights — literal fights — between Kubalistas and Suaristas.

“The fans saw me as Helenio’s golden child and every game that he left Kubala in the stands, they took it out on me. I took risks with the ball too and if I lost it, the whistling was tremendous. I would walk down the street, I would see someone and they would say: ‘I go to games but I’m not one of the ones who whistle you.’ The next one would say the same, and then the next and the next. No one whistled me, but in the ground, the noise was deafening. And I wondered: so if no one is whistling me, how come it’s so loud?’,” Suarez told El Pais years later.

“They whistled me every game. I won the Ballon d’Or and they still did it. I would have stayed but I couldn’t have 10,000 people whistle me every game. My own people. It was a strange situation. I went to the Spain team and Di Stefano would say: ‘Che, gallego, if they don’t want you, come to Madrid.'”

“And Helenio, who had gone to Inter the year before, said to [Angelo] Moratti: ‘Do you want to win? Then, bring me this player.'”

They did. Inter signed Suarez for 25m pesetas in 1961, the biggest fee in history. Although his role was a little different — he scored 54 in 328 games — Suarez was at the heart of the historic team that immediately won the league, the start of a run of three in four years. This was probably the best team they ever had: two European Cups followed, and two Intercontinental Cups. “If you don’t know what to do, give the ball to Luisito,” the line ran.

Barcelona did not win the title again until Johan Cruyff turned up, 14 years later. It was the biggest mistake they ever made, a forerunner of others that will be more familiar to you, all the money wasted. “The fans sold me,” Suarez later said and when he returned to face his former club in a friendly — part of the transfer fee — they whistled again. Not expecting it, not steeled for it, he responded this time with an “up yours”. He regretted it, but it had hurt.

He didn’t come back.

The Galician does not protest, he leaves. Another cliche, another legend from his land, a place of emigres that looks out across ocean: Morrina is the word. It is a kind of wistfulness, a longing, a nostalgia for home, for Galicia, and Suarez missed it, but he stayed in Milan. A joy to speak to, warm yet challenging with it, brilliant on the radio — funny and analytical and engaging way into his 80s — he was Spain coach at the 1990 World Cup, and briefly manager of his beloved Deportivo de La Coruna and of Albacete. But again, the story was written without him. In Spain, at least.

This week, the former Barcelona goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta, now a columnist, recalled being with him in Milan and standing, struck as he watched people line up respectfully for Suarez’s autograph, wanting to say hello to a true legend. On the pages of the same paper, a writer recalled him being asked for ID at the gate to Barcelona’s training ground.

“In Italy they see me as Spanish; in Spain as Italian,” he once said. In the country where he was born, there was a desire to address that this week, a little belated perhaps. In the country where he died, one of the greatest footballers of all time, there didn’t need to be. In Italy, they saw and embraced Suarez as theirs always, for ever associated with Inter, his coffin draped in blue and black.


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