After six years, four league titles, four cups, a Champions League and 198 goals, Luis Suárez is on the verge of leaving Barcelona to join Diego Simeone at Atlético Madrid.
The Barcelona president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, initially reneged on a deal to let him leave when his chosen destination became apparent but finally agreed to the move during a meeting with Suárez’s lawyers at the Camp Nou on Tuesday night. The 33-year-old will sign a two-year contract and Barcelona will not receive an initial transfer fee, although Atlético are understood to have agreed to make bonus payments based on objectives that are unlikely to be worth much more than €1m (£920,000).
Simeone, who had previously described the Uruguayan as a “hugely important player: tremendous, marvellous, extraordinary, strong, aggressive, intense”, phoned Suárez to convince him to join Atlético when, at last, he saw that an opportunity had opened up. Men of similar mindsets, it is a terrifying prospect for opponents, not least with Suárez potentially playing alongside Diego Costa. It has brought huge excitement among Atlético fans.
Suárez will replace Álvaro Morata, who on Tuesday completed his return to Juventus – the club Suárez had appeared set to join, only to be unable to secure Italian citizenship in time to complete the deal. For Barcelona, his departure represents a success but the way it has played out has been damaging.
Suárez was told he was not part of Barcelona’s plans by the new manager, Ronald Koeman, in a telephone conversation on 24 August that lasted less than a minute. Three days earlier he had publicly said that he wanted to continue, even as a substitute, despite rumours the club were determined to force him out. Bartomeu had previously left him off a public list of those footballers that were “untouchable”, safe from the sweeping changes that would be made.
“There is talk of names the president gave, changes that could be made, but nobody has told me that they want to get rid of me; if that’s the club’s desire, it would be good if the person who decides spoke directly to me,” Suárez told El País. “I have been here for six years, long enough for them to tell me what they think. That’s better than leaking that I am one of the ones they want to depart. I think I can still contribute a lot. As long as they want me, I want to give all I can.”
The third-highest scorer in the club’s history, Suárez had one year left on his contract but that would automatically be extended to 2022 in the event of his playing 60% of the games. When Koeman confirmed the club’s plans to move him out, Suárez’s accepted but on his terms. His lawyers began to negotiate an exit, initially with the intention of having his final season paid up in full and leaving as a free agent.
Barcelona, faced by an economic crisis, the desire to rejuvenate the squad and to remove Suárez from Lionel Messi’s side, agreed to let him go as a free agent. They said they would pay the difference between Suarez’s €14m salary and his wages at the club he joined. The agreement named a series of clubs he would not be allowed to join, including Real Madrid, Manchester City and Paris Saint-German. It did not include Atlético Madrid.
At first, his destination appeared set to be Juventus. Suárez travelled to Perugia for a language exam, a requirement for Italian citizenship, enabling him to not occupy a non-EU slot and thus facilitating the move. On Tuesday it emerged that Italian police are investigating the university after claims that the exam was rigged. The university has denied wrongdoing and there is no investigation into Suárez. In any event, time ran out to complete the process. Four days ago, the new Juventus coach, Andrea Pirló, admitted: “Passport times are long, it would be difficult for him to be a Juventus striker.”
In the meantime, Koeman had left him out of the squad for two friendlies, although he also said that if the Uruguayan stayed he would be treated like any other player.
By then, Suárez was talking to Atlético, eventually reaching an agreement on a deal worth €7.5m a year on the condition that Suárez arrived as free agent. That part was in place: the paperwork to rescind his contract at the Camp Nou was agreed and ready to be signed when the moment was right.
But when the news of Suárez’s destination leaked out late on Monday – a day too soon – Bartomeu backed down and tried to block the move, insisting he could not depart for free. No one had thought to include Atlético on the list of clubs he could not join.
In 2013, Atlético had signed a similar deal with the Barcelona striker David Villa. By the end of the season, Villa had won the league with Atlético, taking the title at the Camp Nou on the final day. Atlético had also knocked out Barcelona en route to the Champions League final. That prospect, suddenly real, was one that Bartomeu wished to avoid – even at the cost of breaking his word.
Suárez could not believe it. He was determined that if he did not join Atlético, he would stay at Barcelona, where he might well have ended up playing. He would also publicly explain exactly why he was staying, delivering another damaging blow to a president who stumbles from crisis to crisis, his grip on power slipping, and who faces a vote of no confidence in the next month. On Wednesday night, Suárez’s lawyers met Bartomeu, director Jordi Moix and CEO Óscar Grau and an agreement was reached that got Suárez off the books and enabled Barcelona to save a little face.
There were tears on Wednesday morning as Suárez was back in training with Barcelona for probably the last time, awaiting final confirmation of his departure once again.