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the hymn to love / One day, one transfer / Episode 38 /

This summer during the transfer window, So Foot returns every day of the week to a transfer that marked its time in its own way. For this 38e episode, throwback to 2006, the year Luis Suárez left his Nacional and his native Uruguay to try his luck at FC Groningen, a club he had never heard of. A choice driven solely by the desire to find his soul mate, who had gone to live in Barcelona a few months earlier.

Luis Suárez probably doesn’t know Damien Sargue or Cécilia Cara. However, he can only agree with the words sung by the two interpreters of Romeo and Juliet in the musical of the same name: “Love is stronger than anything. Give, the best of us. To love, and to feel his heart. To love, to be less afraid » . If he certainly never had the chance to dance on The Kings of the worldthe Uruguayan striker may have read the written version of William Shakespeare or seen the film West Side Story by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. So many stories in which the two protagonists do everything possible to live their love while their families hate each other. A priori, the family of Luis Suárez has never fought with that of his lover Sofía Balbi. However, like Romeo and Juliet or like Maria and Tony, Luis and Sofía will do everything to ensure that their love story continues despite the Balbi family’s move from Montevideo to Barcelona. Do everything, like leaving to fill the ranks of FC Groningen.

You wanted to see Elias, you saw Luis

When Hans Nijland, general manager of Groningen, and Henk Veldmate, technical director of the Dutch club, landed in Uruguay in the summer of 2006, they had already heard of this young striker from Nacional who goes by the sweet name of Luis Suárez. However, it was not for him that the two men landed in the Uruguayan capital, but for a certain Elias Figueroa, who plays for Liverpool Montevideo and who is a hit with the youth teams of Celeste. But even if it means being in Montevideo, Hans and Henk say to themselves that it doesn’t cost much to go and see what Luis Suárez gives on a football pitch. They did not regret their choice as they saw the future Barça striker clear two defenders on a feint before rolling a left shot into the top corner and going to celebrate with a kiss on the badge in the direction of the audience. It didn’t take much for the two men to be conquered, as Veldmate later told Bleacher Report : “Sometimes he was a little lucky, or rather he seemed to be a little lucky, except that we quickly realized that it was not luck, but quality. He knew exactly what to do when he was in the penalty area. He always creates something on his way to the goal. We were sure he had something special” .

Europe in the sights

Problem: the agent of the Uruguayan striker will not make it easier for the Dutch. Already because at that time he was in Milan, therefore on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, and above all because he was asking for 4.2 million euros in exchange for his jewel. Enough to remove the smile from the faces of the two men who came to meet him in Milan and who had an envelope of one million euros to recruit Figueroa. As a result, Nijland and Veldmate returned to Groningen empty-handed. Until a phone call comes to make them smile a week later: “Mr. Nijland, can we come to Groningen on Monday to talk about Luis Suárez? » To understand this turnaround, you have to go back to 2002 when the Uruguayan striker fell in love with Sofía Balbi, whom he met at a disco when she was twelve and he was fifteen. The two lovebirds then live the perfect love, Luis Suárez even often takes refuge with his in-laws to escape a complicated family environment, until the Balbi family is forced to flee to Barcelona due to the economic crisis that is raging in Uruguay.

To listen to the brother, Maxi, in the number 113 of SoFoot, it was on this day that Luis made football his priority: “He came back from the airport with a huge stuffed tiger. He threw himself on the bed, his head in the mattress. It stayed like that for six hours. When he got up, his eyes were all red and swollen. When Sofia was in Spain, he was destroyed and cried all the time. I think he thought he would never see her again. It’s because of her that he moved his ass. » With a single objective: to integrate the professional team of the Nacional to attract European recruiters. So, when his mission was successful and those in Groningen approached his agent, he quickly asked the latter to ensure that this transfer did not fall through, and too bad if he knew absolutely nothing about the club which saw Arjen Robben hatch as he confided to brand years later : “When I was told that I had the possibility to go to Groningen, the first thing I did was to look on the Playstation where the club was playing and what jersey the players were wearing. It was a big step to get closer to Sofia because she lived in Barcelona.” . But, again, not everything is going to be obvious, even if after three days of negotiations – during which Luisito waited in a hotel room in Amsterdam – and a few glasses thrown on the floor under tension, the transfer of Suárez to FC Groningen is recorded for 1.585 million euros. Either a colossal sum at the time for the Dutch club.

The weight of discord

FC Groningen may have invested a nice fortune in Luis Suárez, but the Dutch club does not intend to cut corners with the 19-year-old striker. Especially since the main interested party has a few extra pounds. The coach at the time, Ron Jans, refuses to integrate him into the team until he reaches 82 kilos as confided by Luisito to the magazine Helden : “Ron checked my weight every day” . While waiting for the scales to indicate the correct number, Suárez – who could count on the support of his compatriot Bruno Silva, seven years his senior, to integrate more easily into the new habits and customs – made his debut with the U23s, where he is more talked about for his faults than for his goals. While the leaders of Groningen are beginning to doubt a player deemed too individualistic, Luis Suárez will finally get everyone to agree. First, on September 14, 2006, when during a UEFA Cup match on the lawn of Partizan, the future darling of Anfield reduced the mark with a nice header nineteen minutes after entering stakes.

A goal which will not qualify Groningen, but which will allow Suárez to start against Sparta Rotterdam three days later – decisive passer on the only goal of the meeting – and to never leave this role again. His masterpiece arrives against Vitesse on 1er October 2006. Trailing 3-1 at home ten minutes from the end, Groningen understood that Suárez was not going to stay long at home. A penalty caused then a double in two minutes, Groningen won 4-3 and Luisito made a name for himself throughout Europe. Especially in the Netherlands, where Ajax snatch it a year later against 7.5 million euros. The rest, everyone knows it with this 2009-2010 season with 35 goals and 16 assists in 33 Eredivisie games, this hand against Ghana at the 2010 World Cup, this transfer to Liverpool, this Golden Boot in 2014 thanks to his 31 goals in the Premier League, this 2014 World Cup ended with a bite on Giorgio Chiellini, this transfer to Barça, the Champions League raised in 2015, this season to 40 goals in 2015-2016, the MSN with Messi and Neymar, this Liga obtained with Atlético de Madrid and finally his return this summer to Nacional, where it all started. Except that this time, it was with his wife Sofía Balbi and their three children that he returned to Uruguay. Finally, this love story ends much better than that of Romeo and Juliet.

By Steven Oliveira


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