Long before the Uruguayan version landed at the Camp Nou following his truncated and less than totally harmonious departure from Liverpool, a different Luis Suárez was wowing the Catalans in the famous Blaugrana colours of Barcelona. Rather than being part of a trident for the club, this Luis Suárez, became an integral part of a quartet, achieved hero status in Catalunya and then nationally, before being recognised as Spain’s first and, so far, only Ballon d’Or winner. He then took Serie A by storm and became a legendary figure for the Nerazzuri in Lombardy. His namesake, currently strutting his stuff alongside Lionel Messi in the Barcelona front line has a bit of work to do if he is to become recognised as the best Luis Suárez of all time.
Luis Suárez Miramontes was born in the Galician town of Coruña in May 1935, and would join local club Deportivo in 1949, quickly advancing through the teams there to make his first team debut on 6th December 1953. It was a less than auspicious occasion however, as Depor were handed a 6-1 thrashing by Barcelona. Despite this apparent set back, he must have made an impression on both his own club’s hierarchy – in his debut season, he played 17 games in total, netting three goals – and that of the opposition – as the following year, Barcelona went back to Depor and signed him.
It was clearly a move with an eye to the future, as Suárez was loaned out for most of the season to CD España Industrial in the Segunda División. The club clearly saw him as a future star and wanted to secure his services before any other club pounced. It proved to be a shrewd move, with the youngster playing 21 games and scoring half-a-dozen goals. The following term he would go back to Barca, ready to play.
Operating in what would now be regarded as a ‘number ten’ role, Suárez’s easy grace when in possession and the ability to set up attacking moves for his colleagues quickly earned him the epithet of El Arquitecto (the architect). It fitted him well. At the time, Barcelona were under the shrewed guidance of legendary manager Helenio Herrara and, much as Real Madrid had picked up the services of footballing refugee Ferenc Puskas, Barca had brought the Hungarians Ladislao Kubala, Zoltan Czibor and Sandor Kocsis. Now with Suárez to complete the quartet, Herrara’s Barcelona team was ready to take flight.
With the scars of the Spanish Civil war still raw, a seething bitterness and resentment was felt across Catalunya at the success of Castilian club Real Madrid, especially so as the hated dictator Franco chose to drape himself around the success of Los Blancos, both nationally, and as the club dominates the nascent years did the European cup competition. There was an urgent need for the Blaugrana to ‘knock them off their perch’ as a famous Scottish manager once said about his particular rivals. In the six years Suárez was with Barcelona, to at least some extent, that’s what they did, especially when the Galician led the way to taking away Real Madrid’s most treasured possession.
Barcelona gave notice that they were a coming power in the first two seasons Suárez played at the Camp Nou, finishing as runners-up, first to Los Blancos in 1955-56, and then to Athletic Bilbao the following term. The latter season did however see Barca collect the Copa del Generalísimo. It was an outstanding season for Suárez individually as well. He was selected to play for the national team, debuting bin a 5-1 victory over the Netherlands at the tender age of just 21. It would be the start of a 15-year international career that brought not only 32 caps and 14 goals, but also a major trophy for Spain in which he would play a full part.
With their first trophy safely pocketed, Herrara’s team would now kick on in the next few years. In 1959, they secured a La Liga and Copa del Generalísimo double, retaining the title in 1960. It was a sensational season for the club – and Luis Suárez in particular. In a team of stars, he was the brightest of lights, dominating games with his play. The league title was, in reality, a romp for the Catalan club, and a pulsating run in the European Cup would take them to the last four, before Los Blancos halted Barcelona’s progress whilst en route to yet another lifting of Europe’s premier club trophy. Suárez and his team-mates would have their revenge the following season though.
With Suárez in his pomp, Spain were considered by many to be favourites to win the inaugural European Championships in the same year, but politics was to raise its dead hand to halt their progress. In what was then a truncated tournament, Spain would need to defeat the Soviet Union to take their place among the countries vying for the crown. Franco however decided that it would not be proper for a team representing Spain to travel to the communist country and required them to withdraw. It was a political decision tinged with malice that nonetheless deprived Suárez and his team-mates of a tilt at glory. That would have to wait for another day.
Despite not being able to demonstrate his skills in the European Championships, such had been the success and outstanding play of Suárez in that season that he was awarded the Ballon d’Or, as the greatest of footballers in Europe. He was the first and, to date, remains the only Spanish born player ever to receive the accolade.
The following year, he almost capped these achievements when the Blaugrana reached the final of the European Cup, but lost out 3-2 to Benfica. The road to the Wankdorf Stadium in Bern though encompassed a triumph that for many of Barca’s cules, would trump lifting the trophy with the big ears.
Real Madrid had monopolised the European Cup since its inception in 1955. Five consecutive victories denying anyone else an opportunity to feel how heavy the trophy was. It seemed to have taken up a permanent residence at the Bernabeu, and the Madrid club guarded it jealously. For the 1960-61 tournament, Barcelona took their place as champions of Spain, with Real Madrid there as holders. In the first round, the Catalans comfortably accounted for Belgian club Lierse, accumulating a 5-0 aggregate margin. As champions, Real Madrid were exempt from this round. Their first match in defence of what they by now considered their personal property therefore came in the second round, and they were paired with Barcelona – and Luis Suárez.
The first leg took place in Madrid on 9th November 1960, and very quickly the home team were ahead. Just one minute had passed when a low shot from Enrique Mateos squirmed under the Barca goalkeeper, Antonio Ramallets. All seemed to be going to plan for Los Blancos, but slowly Barca played their way into the game, prompted in no small part by the play of Luis Suárez, and it would be the midfielder who squared things up in the 27th minute. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen and for a few minutes the home team were knocked out of the elegant stride. Just half-a-dozen minutes later though Gento restored the lead and all seemed fine for another home win until a couple of minutes from time. Vicente Train, conceded a rash penalty and, in a cauldron of noise, it was Suárez who coolly stroked the ball to the right of Train. A 2-2 draw and the chance for Barcelona to take the cup out of Real Madrid’s reach in the Camp Nou.
And so it was, in front of 120,000 passionate Catalans, Martí Vergés. born in Girona and a one club man throughout his career, scored just after the half hour with a shot from the edge of the box to put the home side ahead. There were a mere nine minutes remaining when Brazilian Evaristo de Macedo – who would later join Real Madrid – dived to head the second. A late goal from Canário was scant compensation for Madrid. They had lost their grip on the trophy – and at the hands of their fiercest rivals. The contribution of Suárez in the first leg had been decisive.
The defeat in the final to Benfica would be one of Suárez’s last games for Barcelona. Herrera had now moved on to Inter Milan and he would return to the Camp Nou for the club’s prized possession. It would take a world record fee of some 250 million lira to convince Barca to let Suárez leave, but in 1961, he moved to join his manager and wear the famous Nerazzurri shirt. If his time with Barcelona had been successful, the move to Lombardy would take things to a whole new level.
It was a time when Grande Inter was about to take flight. There was already a collection of stars at the San Siro when Suárez arrived to add his brightness to the glittering firmament. Now Herrera’s talent for developing players would come to the fore. In his Barca days, Luis Suárez had been the playmaker of the team, the number ten in modern day parlance, but with an eye to the flow of Italian football and the team he was building at Inter, Herrera would reshape Suárez’s play, deploying him as a deeper lying midfielder where his passing ability and game nous to control the flow of play would be better suited.
With Suárez complementing the play of the outstanding Sandro Mazzola in the middle of the field, Inter would come to dominate Serie A, winning three Scudetto titles in four years between 1963 and 1966. They would also win two Intercontinental Cups, but the crowning glory of Herrara’s team were the back-to-back European Cup triumphs in 1964, when they defeated Real Madrid 3-1 and the following year that saw a 1-0 victory over Benfica.
The first of those two occasions also saw Suárez finally have his chance to take Spain to a trophy on the international stage. After being thwarted by Franco’s political wiles four years earlier, Spain hosted the 1964 tournament. Although not scoring, Suárez was the star of the show and in front of more than 80,000 people at a packed Bernabeu stadium, Spain won the tournament, ironically defeating the Soviet Union 1-0 in the final.
Those years proved to be the zenith for Inter, for those four years they were arguably the best club side on the planet and at the heart of everything good that they did was Luis Suárez. He would stay with the club until the age of 35, before molving to Sampdoria. He would stay in Genoa for three seasons before retiring. He played his last game for Spain in 1972.
After retirement Luis Suarez still had plenty to offer the game, and it’s little surprise that he has managed Inter on three occasions, the latter two times as a caretaker, when the club wanted a trusted and safe pair of hands after a manager had been moved out. He also coached a number of other Italian clubs and both Deportivo La Coruña and Albacete in his homeland.
On the international stage, he has also taken charge both the Spain U21 and full national teams during their campaign in the 1982 World Cup. Unfortunately, he was unable to repeat the feat he achieved as a player in a similar situation a couple of decades earlier. Although Spain progressed to the second round of group matches, a defeat to Germany and a draw with England saw them eliminated.
It’s an outstanding testament to the ability of Luis Suárez that despite the gold rush of trophies enjoyed internationally by Spain, and in club terms by both Real Madrid and Barcelona that, to this day, he remains the only Spanish player ever to win the Ballon d’Or. The ‘second’ Luis Suárez still awaits that award.
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘Spain’ issue of the ‘These Football Times’ magazine).