The great Luis Suarez was born and bred in the Galician city of La Coruna, in north-western Spain. Growing up in the austere post-war period, he honed his football skills with a rag ball on the city’s streets, and was so good at the game that his friends would fight over him when it came to picking sides for their kick-abouts.
It was not long before 'Luisito', as he is affectionately known, began attracting the attention of Deportivo La Coruna, who handed him his first division debut at the age of 17. Though only a teenager, the dashing style and elegance for which he would become known were already very much in evidence.
Impressed by his silky technique, vision and appetite for goals, Barcelona signed the speedy inside-left in 1954. It was at the Camp Nou that Suarez made the acquaintance of Helenio Herrera, a coach who would have a major influence on his career.
The Spaniard spent seven seasons with Barça, winning two league titles, two Copas del Generalisimo (as the Copa del Rey was then known) and an Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. The only trophy that eluded him was the European Cup, his last game in the Azulgrana shirt coming in the 1961 final against Benfica in Berne, which the Catalans lost 3-2.
Reflecting on that defeat in an interview with FIFA.com, Suarez said: “That’s the only black mark on my time at Barcelona. I always say that it was the only final I lost out of the many I played in, though it was a game we should have won. It’s always been a source of regret for me.”
The Galician magician went into that game knowing it would be his last for Barça. Herrera, who had by that time moved on to Inter Milan, was determined to lure him to Italy, and five days after that fateful final Suarez signed for I Nerazzurri for a cool 25 million pesetas (approximately €204,000), a deal that made him the world’s most expensive footballer at the time. Following his departure Barcelona would have to wait for another 14 years and the arrival of one Johan Cruyff before lifting the league trophy again.
Il Grande Inter
Hailing from a region with a long history of emigration, Suarez was one of the first Spanish footballers to seek fame and fortune abroad. Instead of packing his bags for the Americas, however, he made calcio his destination, taking with him the 1960 Ballon d’Or. He remains the only Spaniard ever to have won the prestigious award.
“There have been a lot of Spanish players who have deserved to win it,” he told FIFA.com. “So much depends on the era you find yourself living in. You need the slice of luck that comes when another great player of your time doesn't perform quite so well. There have been some truly great players who have never won the award, and to win it at a time when you had people like Di Stefano and Puskas around was very nice.”
Somewhat ironically, the goalscoring wide man would become an even greater player under Herrera, the man accredited with inventing catenaccio. In the process Suarez was required to adapt his usual attacking game to the more defensive demands of Italian football, where the first concern was to avoid defeat.
“The main priority was not to concede any goals, which was not a mindset I was used to,” said Suarez. “I played as a midfielder at Barcelona and scored a lot of goals, but I had to change for the good of the team and to win titles.”
Suarez had more than enough talent to make the switch, however. Lining up alongside legends such as Mario Corso, Giacinto Facchetti, Sandro Mazzola, Tarcisio Burgnich, Jair, Aristid Guarneri, Angelo Domenghini and the side’s inspirational captain Armando Picchi, the Spaniard was Il Grande Inter’s orchestra leader. In his nine seasons with the club he won three scudetti, two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups, while also staying firmly in contention for the Ballon d’Or, coming second in the voting in 1961 and 1964, and third in 1965.
In the meantime he was also making history with Spain, captaining a legendary side that also featured Jose Angel Iribar, Feliciano Rivilla, Fernando Olivella, Isacio Calleja, Ignacio Zoco, Jose Maria Fuste, Amancio Amaro, Jesus Maria Pereda, Marcelino Martinez and Carlos Lapetra. That fabled XI won Spain’s first major title, the 1964 UEFA European Championship, beating the Soviet Union 2-1 in the final.
During the course of his 32-match international career, in which he scored 13 goals for his country, Suarez also appeared at two FIFA World Cup™ finals, Chile 1962 and England 1966, but was unable to add the world crown to his impressive list of honours.
Dubbed 'The Architect' by Alfredo Di Stefano for his skill and vision, Suarez left Inter in 1970 and saw out the final three years of his playing career at Sampdoria.
He then moved into coaching, yet as he jokingly acknowledged: “I wasn’t much of a coach, I have to say. Things went better for me as a player.” He took charge of several clubs, most notably Inter, Depor and Cagliari, and also led Spain to the Round of 16 at the 1990 World Cup Italy, where they went down to Yugoslavia in extra time.
Suarez stayed in Italy after his last coaching appointment and joined Inter’s technical staff. His love for the club remains as strong as ever, as indeed does his accent, just as you would expect of a solid gold Galician.
Did You Know?
"As a player I would have liked to have won the World Cup and as a coach I would liked to have taken charge of Barcelona," Suarez once said, citing two ambitions he failed to achieve.
The great Alfredo Di Stefano dubbed Suarez “The Architect”, a compliment that Suarez was keen to repay. “La Saeta (The Arrow) is the greatest player I’ve ever seen,” he said of the Argentinian ace.
After signing for Barcelona Suarez treated himself to a Renault Dauphine, driving the car all the way back to his native La Coruna to show it to his family.