“Madness,” Lionel Messi called it, but even he hadn’t imagined it being this mad.
One Friday in September Messi walked into the dressing room at Barcelona’s San Joan Despí training ground and it hit him. After six years his best friend wasn’t there, so he sent him a message. “It’ll be strange seeing you in another shirt,” it said, and two days on he discovered how strange when Luis Suárez made his Atlético Madrid debut. Introduced as a sub against Granada, 90 seconds later, Suárez had provided an assist. By the end of the 90 minutes, he had scored two.
Something had started. Suárez has scored 16 in 17 appearances, averaging a goal every 82 minutes. He has already got more than any Atlético player last season and is La Liga’s top scorer, three clear. He has scored in 11 different matches and has been directly responsible for 12 points, more than anyone in Spain: points that put Atlético five clear at the top with two games in hand. No debutant has had a better start this century.
Not bad for a free transfer who was finished, for a man they were so desperate to get rid of they paid for him to go.
“I can’t understand how Barcelona let him go,” Diego Costa said after the Granada game and with every passing week someone echoes his words. “Barcelona made a mistake: even if you know nothing about football you know he’s still got it,” said Diego Forlán. “He’s an incredible striker; give him half a chance and it’s in. It’s hard to understand how Barcelona let go of a No 9 like him,” insisted teammate Ángel Correa. “I was surprised Barcelona let him go and surprised they let him go to Atlético,” Jan Oblak said.
Nor was this just a release; it was a rejection. “You deserved to depart as one of the most important players in the club’s history, not for them to kick you out like they did,” Messi said. Suárez insisted that players have to accept it when their time is up, but the way his spell at the Camp Nou drew to a close brought anger and hurt. He felt that what he had done was forgotten fast and would use the word desprecio – contempt or dismissiveness – to describe the club’s treatment of him, and that drove him.
“It as a cock-up, but then they were suffocated by the wage bill,” Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas said this week, before facing his former Liverpool teammate, and watching him score two more. And yet the economic benefit was minimal, no salvation in the sale and on a sporting level it has been disastrous. Not necessarily because he has gone – that’s a different debate and many fans still consider his departure the right decision – but where he has gone. “What they did seemed like madness to me,” Messi said. “He went free, [with us] paying up his contract, and to a team that’s competing for the same things as us.”
Suárez joining Atlético had not been part of Barça’s plan but it is a decision that could cost a league title. He has scored more goals than Antoine Griezmann, Ansu Fati, Ousmane Dembélé, Martin Braithwaite and Francisco Trincão put together and his contribution has Atlético eight points clear of his former club, with a game in hand. It is not like they weren’t warned, either: David Villa left Barcelona for Atlético on a free in 2013 and immediately won the title, in the Camp Nou, against Barcelona.
Last summer, faced by an economic crisis an ageing squad and political pressure, defeated 8-2 by Bayern Munich, a game in which Suárez got his first “away” goal in four years in the Champions League, Barcelona had been keen to get rid of the third highest goalscorer in their history and the second highest earner in their squad, a man who had struggled with his knee, slowed and seen his level drop (last season he scored only 21 goals in 36 games); a man they wanted to distance from Messi. It was an open secret to which Suárez was not deaf, even calling publicly for the club to speak to him directly about their plans. When it finally came, the phone conversation in which he was actually told to leave was short and blunt.
The call lasted a minute, the regret rather longer.
The decision had been made by the club – “I’m not the bad guy in this film,” the new manager, Ronald Koeman, insisted – but he delivered the news, playing the role of executioner, and was seeking a new style with younger, more dynamic players. Suárez listened but didn’t say much. He didn’t ask for an explanation and didn’t get one. Fine, he replied, but they would have to fix his contractual situation. If he was to leave on their say so, he would do so on his terms – as a free agent.
Suárez didn’t speak to the president, Josep Maria Bartomeu. He was told he didn’t have to train, but reported for duty. There was nothing to stop him saying: ‘OK, I stay, you pay’. And it wasn’t impossible that he would end up playing. Koeman even hinted as much publicly one day. Yet Barcelona had been unequivocal: it was time, and Suárez suspected that whatever went wrong would be laid on him. Pride pushed him too. So his lawyers and Barcelona started to negotiate.
Clubs started to call, including Juventus. Via a mutual friend, contact was made with Andrea Berta, Atlético’s sporting director. Diego Simeone had long been an admirer. “I haven’t got a bad word to say about Suárez,” he had said years before. He had described the Uruguayan as “wonderful, tremendous, extraordinary, strong, aggressive and intense”. And called him “the best pure No 9 a team can have”.
Now perhaps that could be his team. If Suárez could get out of Barcelona fully paid off, half his salary effectively covered, Atlético could afford him. Suárez didn’t want to leave Spain and there was a swift connection with Simeone. “Many people said I couldn’t perform at the highest level but he was convinced,” Suárez told Onda Cero. It was agreed. First, though, Barcelona had to fulfil their decision to force him out.
Eventually on 21 September a deal was drawn up to rescind his contract, ready to sign the next day. It included a list of clubs Suárez would not be allowed to join and Atlético were not on it, a possibility no one had thought of. When, at the 11th hour, the press mentioned them, Bartomeu panicked and reneged on the agreement, or tried to. But, backed into a corner, if there was one thing Bartomeu thought worse than Suárez joining Atlético it was Suárez staying – and, like Messi, telling the world exactly why.
An agreement was reached which allowed Barcelona to save face and Atlético get their man. Suárez rescinded his contact. There was no fee but Atlético agreed to performance-related payments at the end of each of the two seasons. At most, they will pay €6m. The good news – if it can be called that – is that he’s playing so well that meeting those criteria is likelier now, driven by a charismatic coach who has convinced him, a communion building.
“I’m happy to feel valued here,” Suárez said. “People thought it was easy to play at Barcelona and score 20 goals. No, it’s not easy. It is nice to show there’s merit in what I did, that I can play in the elite, and not just because I was at Barcelona with the world’s best player alongside me.”
Suárez is 34 and sometimes he looks it. The impression, though, is partly false. Watch him off the ball and he can look rigid, limping, like it hurts to walk. But he is watching, waiting, moving into position. Then watch the ball come into shot and he is immediately transformed, first to it, ready to provide the finish. His legs don’t go particularly fast, but his mind does and he finds a way to the ball. He can appear to do nothing, but then appear and do the thing that matters most. Each time he does is another twist of the knife.
Ronald Koeman was asked recently if paying Suárez to go and take Atlético to the top of the league might go down as one of the greatest errors in the club’s history. They had touched a nerve; he touched on the truth. “You only ask me about him when he scores,” the Barcelona manager said, which is exactly why they ask so often. Those who thought he was finished are given an almost weekly reminder of the life left in him, the numbers brokering little argument.
Nor is it just the goals. It is the leadership, determination, and attitude. “A warrior’s spirit,” Costa called it, qualities appreciated even more here. It is the awareness and technique, the subtlety and cleverness, qualities sometimes overlooked in Suárez. It is the passing, the lay-offs, the control, the facilitation of others. Amidst the 198 Barcelona goals, there were 98 assists in Spain. At Atlético, he has nudged that to a hundred.
With him, Atlético’s style has shifted: more possession, higher up. “All generated by Suárez’s presence,” Simeone said. “We’ve changed radically and he fits us like a glove,” Koke insisted. João Félix, one of the beneficiaries, calls Suárez “perfect.”
Suárez’s is the voice you hear most echoing around empty stadiums, his command sometimes less a shout, more a scream, even a squawk: sharp and urgent. Other times, he directs: not where he wants the ball but where others do, even if they don’t know it. He calls the play, sounding like a commentator who has got out of sync, voice arriving before the pictures. A goal against Elche was radio-controlled by Suárez, talking his team through each move, every step, every pass all the way to the final moment when he arrived to put the ball into the net, the plan coming together.
“He has leadership, ascendency, is always ‘in’ the game and plays intelligently,” Simeone says. Efficiently, too: his 16 goals have come from 22 shots on target.
And all that at 34, when even those on his side wondered if it might be almost over. Suárez himself admits he didn’t expect it to go this well and knows it may not continue. This is a better start than at any of his former clubs, so good that Simeone was asked if he might even be the best signing Atlético have made under him. “I can’t stop to think about arguments like that,” he said, “but he’s extraordinary and we’re happy he’s with us.”