In March 2014 John W Henry admitted that, yes, Luis Suárez did indeed have a clause in his contract at Anfield that allowed him to depart if anyone offered more than £40m, exactly as Arsenal had done the previous summer, but that he didn’t care.
At £40,000,001, the bid was provocative and it should have been enough but Liverpool’s principal owner decided that, forget the clause, forget the extra pound, forget the Uruguayan’s public plea to leave, he wasn’t selling. “Apparently, these contracts don’t seem to hold,” he told a conference in Boston, seven months later.
Henry’s words might have annoyed Suárez but for the fact that something else he said rang true: “It’s been great for us,” Henry said. He also said: “It’s been great for Luis.” It had, too. By then Suárez was leading Liverpool’s bid for a first league title in 24 years and, while that ultimately ended in disappointment, the striker crying beneath his shirt at Crystal Palace, he finished top scorer in the Premier League, joint winner of the European Golden Shoe. And the following summer he did get away. To an even better place, too.
In the end Suárez got what he wanted, but only after they had refused to let him have what he wanted. The move to Barcelona he had dreamed of but always thought beyond him. Yet even before he had joined Barcelona he had concluded that he would have regretted moving to the Emirates. He had been lucky, he admitted, and was grateful Liverpool said no. The blunt text message from Liverpool’s chairman, Tom Werner, saying: “Luis, you are staying,” ended up being a good thing.
“I’ve never really thought about what would have happened if Liverpool had accepted Arsenal’s bid,” Suárez wrote in his autobiography Crossing the Line. He might have found himself on the other side on Tuesday night, for a start.
By the summer of 2013 Suárez had decided he had to leave England. His season had finished five matches early because of the bite on Branislav Ivanovic and David Cameron had called him a “terrible example”. But only Arsenal offered a formal bid and therefore an exit.
“My head was all over the place,” he wrote. It was still England but he wondered if London would do. “A big city, a chance to get lost and to play Champions League football. Deep down it wasn’t what I really wanted, but I began to tell myself that this might work.”
Steven Gerrard told him something different. He told Suárez he should wait, not push for an exit that would be denied him anyway; that if he was to leave Liverpool it had to be for one of the Europe’s biggest clubs. Bayern Munich, Real Madrid or Barcelona would come, Gerrard said. He was right: the following summer, two of the three did. By then Suárez had signed a contract extension with Liverpool, the release clause watertight this time, and he joined Barcelona over Madrid for €81m.
He was unable to play until that October because of his Fifa ban but things have gone rather well since, that sense of good fortune reinforced. At last month’s Ballon d’Or ceremony in Zurich he finished fifth and the only surprise was that he wasn’t higher. Leo Messi and Neymar expressed their surprise he was not on the podium with them. They would, of course, but they had a point. He had won the treble with them, and the European Super Cup and World Club Cup followed.
He had scored two in Manchester, two in Paris and one in the Champions League final against Juventus. Excluding penalties, he scored more goals in 2015 than any other player in any of Europe’s top five leagues. He has not slowed down in 2016; in fact, he has accelerated, scoring 12 goals in his last six games and more than anyone in Europe’s top leagues since the turn of the year.
On Wednesday he missed a penalty but curled in a superb goal soon after as Barcelona beat Sporting Gijón to go six points clear at the top of the table, seven ahead of Real Madrid. It was his 24th league goal, the division’s top scorer, his 40th in all competitions this season. Only three Barcelona players have done that before, and it is still only February. His 41st came on Saturday, the first in the win at Las Palmas. And nor is it just about goals, far from it.
Asked about Barcelona’s success, about a front three who scored a remarkably evenly spread 134 goals in 2015 – Messi 47, Suárez 46, Neymar 41 – the Argentinian said: “The key’s good chemistry.” Much is made of how well they get on, perhaps too much as Cristiano Ronaldo irritably insisted this week, but Atlético Madrid’s manager, Diego Simeone, was right to say such “complicity” is “rare” in football. The three are genuinely close and Suárez really does have remarkably little ego. “Neymar and Messi are the best; I’m one of a pile of others,” he said.
That has been fundamental, on and off the pitch. A case can be made for describing Suárez as the best player in Europe so far this season, the first player in Spain to reach double figures for goals and assists, but he talks like he doesn’t consider himself talented. More importantly, he plays like he doesn’t, either. He runs like a man who thinks he’s no good at all. At the Camp Nou that matters. Other strikers did not embrace that role as he has.
When Barcelona scored that indirect penalty last weekend Messi’s pass was actually meant for Neymar. But, the Brazilian said, “Gordito got there first”, using a nickname that means Fatty. That he did, despite not being in on it, was a telling portrait. The inspiration, the cheek, was theirs but the execution was his. There he was: ready, determined, arriving first, his run actually starting just inside the box. It never occurred to him that he was taking it off Neymar until the giggling Brazilian told him.
That attitude carries others. As the Spanish phrase has it, Suárez is contagious. The impact on the team has been enormous, beyond the goals. “His arrival has strengthened them,” Simeone said. “I haven’t got a bad thing to say about him. He’s complete: he can turn with his back to goal, arrive from deeper, score from mid-distance, head it, take free-kicks. I love not only the way he plays but his intensity and voracity. He gives a touch of ‘vertigo’ to their attack that they didn’t have before.”
In short, he has made them better. Much better. It is impossible to know what would have happened had Suárez signed for Arsenal but it is extremely unlikely that he would have won the treble. More to the point, it is extremely unlikely that Barcelona would have done either. Suárez could have joined Arsenal but he ended up in Barcelona instead. Five trophies later, he faces the team he could have signed for. Back then, John W Henry stopped him; now Arsenal must do the same.
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