There was a smattering of applause from the sixty or seventy people sitting in the shade of the stand and then someone started shouting: “Uruguayo! Uruguayo!” Luis Suárez’s number had been up a while, forced to wait a couple more minutes for his Atlético Madrid debut, but now his time had come. He stood pitchside with Thomas Partey and Marcos Llorente watching Diego Costa walk his way. Briefly they embraced and then he set off towards the sunshine, greeting João Félix as he went. It was 5.31pm on the first day of Atlético’s season and their new signing wasn’t going to get 90 minutes. He wasn’t going to need them either.
Ninety seconds would do for starters.
The clock said 70.07 when Suárez crossed the line and 71.37 when, with a single touch on the turn and on the bounce, he guided a pass into the path of Llorente to score. The ball had been in play 59 seconds and a debut as brilliant as it was brief was under way. That was Suárez’s third touch; when he got his 14th at the end of an extraordinary afternoon, he had been playing 22 minutes, 51 seconds, provided two assists – one scored, one not – won and lost a penalty, hit the post and got two goals. “Like a hurricane,” ran AS’s headline. He’d only been in town two days and already he had blown them away.
The last to appear before kick-off, emerging from the tunnel in a mask and carrying his shirt, Suárez passed Diego Simeone, turned through the tiny gate by the bench and went up into the stand. Going along the aisle past his new teammates, he settled in on the far right of the fifth row – from where, legs dangling over the seat in front, he watched his new team win without him. And then he came down and showed that they can win better with him.
From the empty stand he saw Costa score his fourth league goal in 2020, suggesting that the threat might prove an incentive, Simeone saying afterwards: “Suárez generates internal competition and that’s good.” He also saw João Félix produce a performance that suggests that, while he’s not Messi, the Uruguayan will enjoy playing with him. Above all, though, they saw him. When João Félix departed with Costa and Carrasco having just scored a lovely goal, leaving the field to Suárez, Thomas and Llorente, it was 3-0. By the time they departed again, they had scored three more, ending 6-1.
Suárez had been at the heart of all three and much more besides, barely time to take it all in. First came the assist. Less than four minutes later, Suárez reached a neat pass from Koke and hit a shot just beyond the far post. Less than three minutes after that, he found Kieran Trippier, arriving a fraction too late to connect with the return ball. And less than two minutes after that, he won a penalty, turning on Trippier’s cutback and tumbling under a challenge from Fede Vico just as he was pulling the trigger.
If that had been quick, the referee wasn’t. Trippier handed the ball to Suárez, who stood by the spot with it under his arm awaiting a moment that didn’t come. Two minutes later, the referee rightly decided Vico had got the ball first. The opportunity was gone, but not for long. Two and a half minutes later, Suárez guided Llorente’s looping cross into the net.
It was a brilliant header, the power and placement all his, and high in the top tier the radio commentators let rip at 350 gol-gol-gol-gols per minute before slowing to just one, deliriously drawn out. Sooo-waaaar-reeeth had scored, boomed Miguel Martín Talavera on Cadena Ser. Along the row, on Onda Cero they launched into a Pistones song: “El Pistolero ha llegado a la ciudad.” The gunslinger has arrived in town. When his second goal followed on 92.58, Suárez sweeping a first-time shot off the post and then putting away his own rebound, they just started laughing.
It had been that good.
As Suárez leapt to celebrate, kissing his wrist, Miguel-Ángel Román, the TV commentator, declared: “What a way to land.” There was just one problem: when he came down, there was no one there, just a sea of empty seats, although his teammates were on their way. A moment like this should have happened before 68,456 people, not barely 68, the place going wild, limbs everywhere, a collective madness, communion built and experienced. If football without fans is different, and much worse, Atlético definitely are. “I watched them from the outside and that makes you want to know how it feels on the inside,” Suárez had said. Now he knew, but only in part.
They knew too. And they could only have been happier if they had been here, the sole regret missing out, one headline declaring: “João and Suárez unleash Atlético.” It was just one day, sure, but suddenly Suárez seemed like everything they have ever wanted. Not just because of the goals – although no Atlético debutant had scored twice this century, last season it took six weeks to score as many goals as they now had in a single afternoon, and Suárez’s two strikes took him to 200 in Spain. Not because of the fight, either. But because of the football.
“He brings us goals and a warrior spirit,” Costa said, but while those characteristics tend to eclipse all else, this was another demonstration of Suárez’s other, more overlooked and more important qualities. As he waited to come on, Costa walking towards him, there was an air of two outlaws eying each other across the town square and when Costa was asked afterwards how they would get on, he replied: “Great: one bites, one hits.” But that wasn’t what defined this and shouldn’t be all that defines him. “It’s not the goals that stick with me,” Simeone said. “It’s his assists and movement.” Few seem to see Suárez in technical terms, including Suárez himself, but it was quality and cleverness, subtlety and simplicity, that stood out.
Suárez had four shots in 23 minutes, twice as many as anyone else. The technique in taking them was one thing, the cleanness of the contact; the technique in getting them was another. It is not only that he makes runs for passes; it is that his runs make passes. None of his five chances just fell his way. All were made by the movement, intelligence and timing: the spin for the first shot; the give-and-go for the Trippier pass he narrowly missed; the awareness for the penalty; the fading run for the header; the sharpness of the one-two for his second, alert to the rebound.
Then there was the pass from which Renan Lodi should have scored – an unconsummated assist – and the touch from which Llorente did. Beyond the Suárez-Costa-Simeone Bad Guy image, the focus on Atlético’s counterattacking and directness, beyond his 33 years and knee problems, those moments when he seems to be walking clunkily, only to shake it off and come to life again, that provides a portrait of why he may fit. Suárez can’t run beyond defences, it is said, perhaps rightly. But teammates can run beyond him, the Uruguayan a pivot off which they can play.
Simeone admitted he wanted Suárez even before Barcelona and, while six years is a long time, he still wanted him now. “When the possibility appeared, what am I going to say?” Atlético’s coach noted, “the numbers speak for themselves.” He averages 25 league goals a season in Spain and, overlooked alongside the 198 Barcelona goals, were 97 assists. “Suárez did what Suárez does: play for the team,” Simeone insisted.
There had already been excitement about Suárez before the game, shirt dominant in the club shop. Marca claimed no signing had got them going like this – not Bernd Schuster, Paulo Futre, or João Félix, not even Fernando Torres’s return. In El Mundo, Carlos Guisaola rejected suggestions that he was past it: “The Godfather Part II is better than Part I, George Clooney is more handsome than when he was half his age, and Julio Iglesias has fathered a child with a model at 89.” Jorge Valdano suggested, powered by anger, he might be an even more terrifying prospect.
Afterwards, that multiplied, the club’s Twitter feed dubbing him 007 and saying “I thought Christmas only comes once a year”. “His arrival’s going to be good for us,” João Félix said. “I can’t understand how Barcelona let him go,” Costa added. “Hurricane Suárez,” El Mundo’s headline declared. “A gunslinger on the loose in Madrid,” shot El Mundo Deportivo. “Suárez bites already,” ran AS’s front. “He’s a beast!!!” Marca shouted. There is still much to learn but it had been pretty well perfect. On his first day, he had not put a foot wrong.
Well, maybe one. At the final whistle, the new No 9 headed in a straight line towards the tunnel, still beaming. Seeing the danger, Vitolo took after him but, like everyone else, couldn’t stop him. He watched as the Uruguayan did one thing you don’t do: walked across the club badge. When Vitolo reached him, pulling him aside to explain, there was an oops, an embarrassed smile and another embrace, the pair laughing as they disappeared out of sight, confident that this time they’ll let Luis Suárez off and next time he’ll know.