A simple elastic band has aided the Uruguay striker’s return to fitness after knee surgery last month, boosting his chances of facing some Liverpool team-mates against England in Group D
Sometimes there can only be one opening question – and this is one of those times. Over the past fortnight, it has been the question, asked over and over. It has been asked of everyone and anyone, only not of him. In Uruguay it has become an obsession, a country seeking reassurances as if their hopes rest solely upon the answer. So, Luis, are you going to make it? The response is cautious but it is confident. If there is one person that has not been worried about Luis Suárez playing at this summer’s World Cup, it is Luis Suárez.
And that, he says, is exactly why he should make it.
We met just over a week after Suárez underwent surgery on the meniscus in his left knee and less than a fortnight before Uruguay were to play their first World Cup match game, against Costa Rica, and he admits these have been “difficult days”. They have been painful days and long days, too. It is late in the evening and there is still more treatment to be done before the following day.
He sits with his leg up on a wooden bench, a cushion under his heel, but Suárez is in a remarkably positive mood.
“Emotionally, I’ve felt fine; psychologically, I’ve been spectacular. At no time did I feel pressured, at no time have I felt sad because at no point did I think there was a chance of me missing the World Cup,” he says.
“The thought never went through my mind. I could have really cried [in pain] because of this injury but I didn’t because I knew. I knew. When the doctor first spoke to me three little tears fell but no more. My wife said: ‘I can’t believe how strong you’re being’ but I knew I’d make it.”
Ah, but to which game? “What you don’t know is how the knee will react,” he says. “Today, I could say to you: ‘Yeah, I’ll make it to the first game’. Or: ‘No, I prefer to wait for the second or the third’.
“But you only know for sure as you progress and you see how the knee reacts. You can reach the 20th day and think: ‘I’m flying here’ but then that day your knee swells up and everything slows down. For as long as the knee resists and there’s no pain, so long as the quadriceps strengthen, you’re OK.”
Suárez is determined to be cautious – and so is everyone in the Uruguay setup. It is the day after the team doctor, Alberto Pan, addressed the media to tell them the news that “there is no news”.
There has been a conscious effort to prevent this becoming a circus and, it is tempting to conclude, to avoid giving clues, too. Theoretically, it also isolates Suárez from the noise but he cannot help but be aware of it. One wild story circulating even claimed he had damaged his cruciate ligament as well. “Daft,” Suarez says.
He has barely been seen; when he returned to Uruguay’s Complejo Celeste HQ outside Montevideo towards the airport he worked in the gym, away from prying eyes. Most of his rehabilitation has been done not far from there, at home.
He has a Tens machine but the most significant piece of equipment has been a simple elastic band. A few days later, he appeared on the pitch for the first time, with medical staff. Reports enthusiastically note that he had even done some ball work and some sprints. For now, though, the treatment is simple: he gets up and walks steadily out of the room. It is time to apply ice once more.
Suárez is following the regime carefully – as he has done since 22 May, when he was brought home in a wheelchair after the operation. The surgery was carried out by doctor Luis Francescoli – the brother of the former Uruguay player Enzo Francescoli, Suárez’s idol. “Pure chance,” he grins. “Incredible.” For the first few days he was ordered to rest but the rehabilitation process began swiftly.
For Suárez, being strong emotionally has been vital. Physical pain? He can handle that; there is something almost indestructible about him. As the interview ends, time to fetch the ice, he tells the story of the time he was hit by a car, broke his foot and kept playing.
“I was 12 or so, near [Nacional’s ground] Parque Central. I’d fractured my fifth metatarsal but I didn’t realise and played anyway. Eventually, they put a plaster cast on but I still played at school.
“When I went to get it taken off, there wasn’t much left; the heel had been worn away and the doctor was furious. A week after they took the plaster off I played a proper match.
“I’m an emotional person and I externalise my feelings a lot with some things but I’m strong with others,” he continues. “Injuries are not only a physical question, which is the most important thing of course, but also a question of your mind. If you’re thinking: ‘I’m not going to make it’, ‘I can’t cope’, ‘it hurts’, ‘it’s never going to get better’, then it won’t. My objective was clear: be strong emotionally and physically. I wanted my children to be able to see me play at the World Cup.
“Of course there was the normal worry there always is when you undergo an operation … and an operation is always an operation. At first I had to rest completely. I couldn’t put weight on it at all. To see my wife worried, saying: ‘don’t move’, ‘sit still’, ‘stay there’; to not be able to put the kids to bed or bath them; was hard. But I was more concerned about that than not making it. If they had said to me that the extent of the injury was greater, I’d have been worried. But knowing the grade of the injury, I was confident.
“I knew that there was time to make it carefully so there was no point in risking trying to get ahead of myself. I would rather get there just on time but be sure that it is right.
“After a couple of days I was on crutches and Walter Ferreira, the physio, said: ‘get rid of those’. He told me to put weight through it, but gently. Don’t do what some do and leap right on to it. Bang, bang, bang. ‘Bit by bit, until the pain goes,’ he said. And, bit by bit, the pain goes.
“I’ve heard so many meniscus stories: some players say: ‘I was back in 15 days’, the next one says 20, the next says 25. Each case is different. Some players said: ‘I was walking on the second day’. But then they admit: ‘After 20 days it swelled up again’. And now it seems everyone’s a doctor.
“Today I’ve been exercising with an elastic band, lifting my leg like this, up and down,” he continues, demonstrating the movement. “The aim is to build the quadriceps: that’s what supports the knee. Sometimes you do your exercises and you look down at the knee and think ‘it’s swollen’ but it’s not swollen; that’s just the way it is and that’s the way it will be now.
“I’ve worked indoors so far. What I don’t want to do is to go outside and start jogging and for people to see me like this,” Suárez adds, imitating a limp. “When I go out on to the pitch, I want to go out there ready. We know what the expectations are like and what the media is like. They’d say: ‘Today he’s jogging but he doesn’t look quite right’. Then it’ll be: ‘Today he was running normally’. And that can load pressure on and also create a false impression.”
The pressure comes from the importance. The World Cup dominates everything here; it feels like every billboard and every advert is dedicated to Brazil 2014; many of them featuring Suárez.
Except, that is, the billboards and banners that are yet to come down since last Sunday’s elections, when Suárez’s friend and team-mate Sebastián Coates admits he spent much of the day taking friends and family to the polling booths.
And if the World Cup preparations dominate everything, Suárez’s recovery dominates World Cup preparations. The interest, and the speculation, has been intense. Suárez was not among the 50,000 who attended Uruguay’s two pre-World Cup matches at the Centenario. Outside the stadium were mobile hairdressers. Inside, fans were showing what they would do for Uruguay; a girl sat as they dyed her hair sky blue; alongside, a teenage boy was getting his hair shaved off entirely.
“Maybe in England the Premier League eclipses everything but here it’s all about the World Cup,” Suárez says. “The day of the operation was incredible. The affection is overwhelming. I left hospital in a wheelchair and there were so many people there, although I never really understood why they wanted a picture, to be honest. Then there were loads of journalists outside my house. I told one of them: ‘All you’re going to get is cold.’ I wasn’t going to leave the house.”
A few days ago Suárez turned up at the Complejo Celeste to join his team-mates for lunch. One Uruguayan newspaper printed a photo of him. He was moving well. Suárez laughs. “That picture was from two years ago! I went in the back door and no one saw me. And I was limping a little bit.”
There is a theme developing here. “I saw reports saying that I had told the Liverpool players I would make it for the game against England, for sure,” he continues. “But I didn’t say that. The day of the operation I exchanged messages with Stevie [Gerrard] and Glen [Johnson]. They said: ‘Hope to see you in Brazil’. And I said: ‘Yeah, see you there’. That’s not exactly the same thing. I never said I’d definitely be there.
“This is the game everyone is looking forward to most here. It’s incredible to see how Uruguayans have followed Liverpool; they’ve become fans and that makes me feel very proud. To see an entire country waiting on the Liverpool games is incredible or to see people angry because they can’t watch it because it’s only on satellite TV. People are getting up early in the morning to watch us play,” he says.
In front of them on 19 June will be familiar faces; there could plausibly be five of Suárez’s Liverpool team-mates in England’s starting XI.
“I’ve already told Gerrard that we’ll swap shirts,” Suárez says. “And Glen will ask for my shirt, I’m sure. Maybe Daniel [Sturridge] and Raheem [Sterling] will as well. I’ll take a few with me.”
He speaks from experience. “When we played Holland in 2010, I was at Ajax and had friends in their team. I had to tell the kit man I needed five shirts. Although I didn’t play, they still wanted my shirt; they have the date and the match stitched into them, so it’s a nice reminder of the match. So, ys, I’ll swap shirts. I’m not sure I’ll actually put it on though!
“A World Cup is always different but my team-mates are playing very well and they could play a similar role for England as they have for Liverpool,” Suárez continues. “I was particularly pleased when I heard that Raheem and Jordan [Henderson] were in the squad. I didn’t have their numbers so I got hold of them to send messages saying congratulations. A year ago there were people who didn’t rate them and now, because they played so well this season, they’ve been called up.
“For Raheem, who’s so young, it will be a wonderful experience. England have a nice mix of experience and youth this time: in previous years, there were players who were maybe a bit past their best. Now there are players coming through with hunger to succeed. We have to be very careful.
“But,” he adds, matter of fact: “They do have weaknesses at the back and I know what they are.”
“I won’t be saying that in the paper ... but in the Uruguay squad, I will.”
Suárez admits that, beyond the obvious names, the player he most likes is Leighton Baines and describes this tournament as a good opportunity for Wayne Rooney. He warns against overburdening the Manchester United striker, though.
“Baines is a player I like a lot,” he says. “His focus is less on the defensive side of the game, more on getting forward, but he has got the best left foot in the Premier League. He’s spectacular. He has a lot of quality, he strikes the ball very well and, with good players around him, England can benefit from that. We have to be very careful,” he says. “Rooney has that will to win and this is a good chance for him. I read [Roy] Hodgson saying that people were piling responsibility on to him.
“It’s good that he has responsibility but not pressure: he has a lot of good players around him. It’s not just Rooney. You have to value the rest; you shouldn’t overlook them. England have lots of talented players.”
And that’s the crux. When the traditional lament is put to Suárez, it serves only to make him smile. Limited opportunities, few players, a small talent pool: these are not explanations that convince him. “Not many resources? With the quality and quantity of players there are, with the facilities they have to train, with everything they have in the ‘first world’, as we call it?” he starts. “With the millions of players and the resources they have … if that’s little resources, what have we got?”
The thing is, that might actually be exactly Uruguay’s secret. At the Luis Franzini stadium, with its purple wooden benches, it was the night of the play-off, first leg for the national title. About 5,000 would attend. Grounds are small and crumbling but there is something about them: a feeling, identity, edge. </italics>Something. This is a country of three million people that has twice won the World Cup. They are the holders of the Copa América and reached the World Cup semi-final four years ago.
“Yes,” Suárez says, “our secret lies in the determination not to settle for anything, never to accept the minimum. And we don’t want people to remember us for South Africa 2010 any more; we want them to remember us for Brazil 2014.”
Luis Suárez’s autobiography will be published by Headline on 25 September