The making of Luis Suárez: a year in Groningen

The making of Luis Suárez: a year in Groningen

As featured on Guardian Sport

Despite its obvious and very pragmatic function, the humble umbrella has proven itself more foe than friend to football managers. The modern game’s umbrella-related history is short and sour. Wembley’s Steve McClaren, isolated and forlorn under the chasm of an official Football Association golf umbrella, and the likeable Dutchman Ron Jans, provide notable episodes.

In September 2006, Jans’ FC Groningen were trailing Partizan Belgrade 4-2 after their UEFA Cup first round first leg. Throughout the return leg, typically Dutch showers lashed rain upon the compact Euroborg Stadion. Jans, persistently likeable and chipper, stood defiantly under a modest green umbrella. On the field, a certain 19-year-old with slick black hair and prominent teeth was proving Jans’ biggest gamble, and Partizan’s biggest thorn.

Luis Suárez, a blur of now-familiar bustle and poise, won Groningen a penalty just after the hour mark. Jans looked on, his positive aura and suit relatively dry, as Koen van der Laak duly despatched the penalty. Groningen’s fans hit fever pitch. It was their first European campaign in a decade and they were in the ascendency. With half an hour to play, one further goal would win the tie against their much-fancied opposition.

Almost inexplicably, Jans’ substituted the lively Suárez two minutes after the restart. Despite his tender years and lack of ability in English and Dutch, Suárez wasn’t shy about registering his anger. He stormed past Jans, furiously waved away the offer of a hand, and launched a tirade of expletive-laden Spanish at his manager. Not shy of showing some emotion himself, Jans’ response was to angrily and theatrically throw his umbrella to the ground. It smashed upon impact, breaking in two.

Back on the field, rain persisted but a second Groningen goal proved elusive. Without his umbrella, Jans was soaked through. As for his relationship with Suárez, that old Dutch saying rang true; na regen komt zonneschijn (after the rain comes the sunshine).

Though Suárez and his show of petulance had upset many, Jans was quick to clear the air. Just three days later, an Eredivisie fixture with Vitesse Arnhem offered a shot at redemption.

For 80 minutes against Vitesse, Suárez was industrious and exuberant, yet Groningen trailed 3-1. Suárez won his team a penalty in the 82nd minute, which was again converted by van der Laak. Spurred on by persuasive forces of fate and momentum, Suárez equalised five minutes later. Three minutes after that, and deep into the desperate depths of stoppage time, Suárez found time, space and composure where there should have been none, and blasted the ball into the roof of the net to win the match 4-3.

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At most Dutch football grounds it is custom for the home team to pay gratitude to their fans via an applause-laden lap of the pitch. Win, lose or draw, tradition is tradition, and appreciation is a sign of respect. Before Groningen’s post 4-3 victory lap really got going, a beaming Jans made a beeline for his young Uruguayan forward. Clasped in his hands was a replacement green umbrella. Arm in arm, Jans and Suárez smiled like young lovers and jigged around the pitch under said umbrella.

It was both a fairytale ending and beginning, encapsulated in a single moment. Na regen komt zonneschijn.

In his 2014 autobiography, Luis Suárez tells how the Vitesse match provided something of a watershed. All at once it provided a sense of arrival and belonging in what was his first foray into football outside his homeland: “After the game there was a meal at the club and the Directors who had come to see me in Uruguay told me they were breathing a big sigh of relief. It was starting to look as though the money they’d invested in me was beginning to pay off. Remember, they had only seen me play one game in Uruguay. The umbrella game changed everything. The early days when I’d been out of shape and out the team were gone. The Groningen fans were incredible with me, and now I was giving them something to smile about.”

Distraction, fitness concerns, controversial temperament, umbrella wreckage by association and the often defining culture shock experienced by a headstrong teenager in a foreign land saw that Suárez’s first months in the Netherlands were far from smooth.

Sofia Balbi, Suárez’s childhood sweetheart and now wife, was the ‘distraction’, and arguably the biggest reason for switching his homeland for Europe. Having met in Montevideo, the young couple had maintained a long-distance relationship after Sofia had moved to Barcelona with her family. Suárez made no secret of his motivations and readily admitted he’d have joined any club in Europe to be closer to Sofia. Irrespective of the admission, Groningen, a little-known footballing outpost in the far north of the Netherlands, seemed something of an unconventional step.

Henk Veldmate, who at the time was Groningen’s technical director, was the man responsible for bringing Suárez to Europe in July 2006. Having travelled to Uruguay to look at another player, Veldmate’s discovery of Suárez was somewhat unintentional. In the single match witnessed by Veldmate, Suárez netted a penalty and a wonder strike. The contingent from Nord-Holland moved swiftly, if a little tentatively.

With Nacional, Uruguayan league champions at the time, slapping a price tag of €800,000 on their prodigy, the sense of risk increased. Not only was Suárez an unknown quantity, he was also more expensive than Groningen’s original budget for any possible deal. After much deliberation, a series of minor complications, and a muted Plan B switch to Getafe in La Liga, Suárez was eventually on his way to the Netherlands.

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Six months past his 19th birthday, and largely by coincidental circumstance, Suárez was setting up home in a small Dutch city with a girlfriend two years his junior. Neither had lived away from their family homes before, and neither could speak Dutch. In his own words, Sofia had to “housetrain” him. As Suárez reported for pre-season training with his new team, the need for further discipline soon became apparent.

Ron Jans, a coach Suárez continues to list as one of the best he’s worked with, informed his new signing of concerns regarding his physical condition and weight. Having arrived for pre-season training at nearly 90 kilos, the young Uruguayan’s diet of soda, steak and McDonald’s didn’t make for a positive first impression. Jans told Suárez his target weight would be 83 kilos, and that he would be with the reserve squad till the scales tipped toward that figure.

Evidencing dogged single-mindedness and more than a defiant streak, Suárez realised what he needed to do, and did it. He immediately cut out soda drinks and fast food, and with Sofia’s support drank only water and drastically improved his diet, not that it could have gotten much worse. Incidentally, the ‘only water’ habit still stands today. The influence of Jans, and Groningen’s most established forward, Erik Nevland, ran deep.

Around the same time, and in an early display of deep-rooted emotional attachment, Suárez declined the club’s offer of English tuition and threw himself into studying Dutch. His persistence and playful ability with the language endeared him to supporters and media alike.

Visibly leaner, meaner and fitter, Suárez went from strength to strength in the Eredivisie. Underpinning the spats, the sublime and the spectacular, there was a gritty and pragmatic attitude about Suárez in a Groningen shirt. Dedicated to winning at all costs, yet struggling to learn that diving was severely frowned upon in Dutch football, Suárez often grappled to keep his zealous approach under control.

Evidencing a visibly flustered sense of being deeply affected by each refereeing call, emotional swings were part and parcel of every Suarez appearance. Naturally, and coupled with undeniable ability, they only served to further endear him to an ever-growing audience. In all competitions, he registered 15 goals in 37 appearances in his debut season and compiled quite the highlights reel in the process. Others began taking interest.

February 2007 saw Suárez’s senior international debut, in which he was sent-off in a friendly against Colombia for a second booking, and the first rumours he was on the radar of the Netherlands’ bigger clubs. By the season’s end, Suárez’s goals had helped Groningen to a second successive UEFA Cup qualification and earned a formal bid of €3.5m from Ajax.

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Despite the potential of recouping nearly three times the outlay, Groningen surprised many and rejected the bid. For Suárez himself, surprise turned very quickly – and not for the first or last time – to defiant outrage. Having learnt that KNVB regulations state that a bid must be accepted if the bidding club will play Champions League football and double the individual’s salary, Suárez dug his heels. Several rungs of the football player’s career path, a quintupling of his salary, and Champions League football were at stake.

A case was opened with the KNVB arbitration committee and unfolded much in the way of animosity and frustration throughout the close season. In Groningen, tides of popularity and admiration gave way to waves of anger and shirt burning, such is the fickle way of the football fan.

In keeping with the theme of shock and surprise, and with just two weeks before the start of the 2007/08 campaign, KNVB’s committee ruled against Suárez. Ajax, clearly valuing the potential shown by Suárez’s one and only season in the Eredivisie, responded by upping their bid to a significant €7.5m in August 2007. Groningen accepted the same day. Money talks.

Eventually, the transfer went through on 15 August. Suárez netted on his Ajax debut, an 8-1 rout at De Graafschap, and netted two on his home debut a week later. Of his protracted transfer, Suárez did reference his sense of deep loyalty to Groningen, however, tellingly of a man with a defiantly instinctive means of getting what he wants, for his greater good, he also referenced the loyalty to the trajectory of his own career path was greater.

Supporters of Groningen, Ajax, Liverpool and Arsenal can make their own interpretations of those comments. Fans of Barcelona can probably breathe a sigh of relief, and be grateful Sofia Balbi’s family still live close by.

In the iconic colours of Ajax, and the eminent city of Amsterdam, Suárez struck a golden strike partnership with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, became club captain, married his childhood sweetheart, and fathered his first child. He also hit 81 goals in 110 appearances, took a fair amount of suspensions and controversies on the chin and earned a big-money move to the promised land of the English Premier League.

Despite being pipped to the Ballon d’Or by Cristiano Ronaldo and teammate Lionel Messi, in recent years, Suárez is undeniably at the peak of his powers. He celebrated his 30th birthday in 2017, and surely received a card from Ron Jans. Perhaps the gift of a modest green umbrella, too.

By Glenn Billingham @glennbills

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