It was in the Melwood gym on August 9, 2013 where Luis Suarez reconsidered what would have been “a massive mistake.”
That Friday morning, in the expansive workout area of the training complex, Steven Gerrard narrowed his eyes and bluntly asked the Uruguayan: “Do you really want to leave Liverpool Football Club for Arsenal? Or do you want to leave Liverpool Football Club for a mega team?”
Suarez listened intently as his captain explained why staying on Merseyside for another season and waiting for an offer from Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich would be a smarter decision than accepting a move to north London that summer following a provocative £40,000,000 plus £1 bid.
As Gerrard detailed his reasoning, he drew parallels between the South American trading Liverpool for the Gunners to Fernando Torres’s departure to Chelsea in January 2011. The Spaniard had felt like a “king” at Anfield before his switch sparked a swift disintegration of his relationship with the club’s supporters.
“Do you want that?” enquired the midfielder. Suarez didn’t, and moreover, Arsenal was not a destination he particularly coveted but one he pushed for out of “confusion and uncertainty.” The conversation with Gerrard swayed the attacker’s decision and ultimately helped shape his path to Camp Nou.
Since that talk amongst the exercise bikes and dumbbells, Suarez, who used to attend Nacional training aged 18 with a grey Barcelona rucksack, has recorded just three short of 100 goals. 31 of those were for the Reds in his final campaign at the club, in which he so nearly inspired a first championship in 24 years. Sixty six have been smashed in in 80 games as part of the best attack in world football alongside Lionel Messi and Neymar in the team that he has held in his heart – much like his wife Sofi – since he was a teenager.
Arsene Wenger, meanwhile, has been on the outside looking in wondering how much more formidable his side would’ve been had Gerrard not volleyed the thought of joining Arsenal out of the forward’s head. As the former Reds skipper explained: “You’ve got a chance of beating anyone in the world with Luis Suarez in your team.”
In the Champions League round of 16 on Tuesday, Wenger has to find a way to thwart the man he knew would elevate his squad to greater heights. The man who has helped modify an already fearsome Barcelona into a suped-up version of indomitableness. The man who is quite possibly the premier player in Europe presently, but works as though everyone else on the pitch is more talented than he is.
Large swathes of Liverpool’s support base will be watching the encounter at the Emirates, chiefly to cheer on their former talisman. He may be in different club colours but he’s still the street player they bowed to, who fought for every ball, flummoxed his opponents when he had it at his feet, and made fans dream in 2013-14.
In a season-and-a-half, Suarez has lifted five trophies with Barcelona. Like Torres, he held aloft the European Cup after departing L4. Unlike Torres, he heavily contributed to the triumph in the final and his feat was heavily celebrated by Reds worldwide. The duo were meant to be a deadly pairing at Anfield before the Spaniard left for Stamford Bridge in the same window Suarez was signed, but things have turned out much differently for them since January 2011.
The 29-year-old admitted in his autobiography, Crossing the Line, that he never fully visualised himself as an Arsenal player, and that had he turned out for the Gunners, “the regret would have eaten away at me when I saw the Liverpool supporters and when they saw me in the shirt of their rivals.”
While Torres publicly never said as much, his unhappiness and compunction at Chelsea was privately revealed to those he was closest to in his old dressing room. It took until April last year for much of the bad blood between the striker and the Liverpool support base to subside as his song was once again sung at Anfield during the All-Stars charity match. He was surprised, but more than that, El Nino was relieved.
Suarez was spared the ignominy Torres long-suffered, and he’ll long be adored by Liverpool fans.
His every accomplishment will be applauded, his every success saluted because for a brief but brilliant spell, he ran the show for the Reds and ran himself into the ground. And then ran some more.
Suarez has the extraordinary gift of not just being a great footballer, but helping those around him become greater. Gerrard explained that “there was a sustained period when playing with Luis was like being under a magical spell.”