Suarez to finally emerge from biting ban

The Uruguayan’s first match back will be against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu

The roubled Barcelona striker Luis Suarez will make his return from a biting ban against giants Real Madrid. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

The roubled Barcelona striker Luis Suarez will make his return from a biting ban against giants Real Madrid. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

 

Monday morning at Sant Joan Despí and the countdown has begun. It is 11am when Barcelona’s players appear, heading for pitch two where the sprinklers are still going. They are preparing for a Champions League match against Ajax but this is clásico week and it is inevitable some are already looking to Saturday evening at the Bernabéu. For the man walking out alongside Sergio Busquets, that is even more true; for Luis Suárez the end is in sight. Or is it the beginning?

“The only thing I’m obsessed about is Ajax; nothing else interests me,” Luis Enrique insists after the morning’s session, but few believe the Barcelona manager. And even if they do, the message, aimed at his players, does not apply to Suárez. The next game is the one that matters, Luis Enrique says. For Suárez, the next game is Real Madrid. Ajax is the last game he serves under his four-month suspension for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup, although his international ban will still see him miss the Copa América. His ban ends at 00.00 on 25 October. At club level, he returns in the biggest match there is.

The date he had circled was the one everyone else ended up circling too. When the fixture list came out, Suárez described it as “destiny”; others had a more cynical take on it, judging it a little too convenient. Back one day, at the Bernabéu the next. Barcelona swiftly requested written confirmation he could indeed play. The bite happened on 24 June and Fifa’s punishment was handed down two days later. Spanish TV had chosen to schedule the game for Saturday, not Sunday. But the court of arbitration for sport confirmed the ban does end on 25 October. Right on time.

These have not been easy months. Suárez admitted to having felt “depressed”. Now the Uruguayan can make a new start. “I thought I had ruined my career. After what happened at the World Cup I spoke to my wife, I reflected, and I accepted reality. I began to feel better after I had said sorry,” he said. “That was when Barcelona came. When Pere [Guardiola, Suárez’s agent] called, I started crying. I was scared that they would back off because of the repercussion the incident caused.”

“We accept human beings with their failings,” said the club’s sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta.

Suárez’s signing was confirmed on 11 July. He moved to Castelldefels, on the coast outside Barcelona where his wife’s family have lived for the past decade, later moving into a rented house a few minutes away. Fifa’s ban on “all football-related activity” – the word “all” not applying to transfers – was still in force. He was not allowed to set foot inside a stadium and there was no presentation. Suárez avoided the media, hiding from the photographers that waited for him. He was not allowed to train with his team-mates or appear at Sant Joan Despí or the Camp Nou.

Instead he trained alone with a physical coach, alternating his sessions between two gyms – one in Barcelona, the other in Sitges. He worked out in a 10m x 10m space. Occasionally, he would head out for a run in the hills near his home or on the beach, but the determination not to be seen made that problematic. As much as training, this was continuing rehabilitation after the meniscus injury that had threatened his participation at the World Cup.

“The first two months [OF THE BAN] were the worst part; I didn’t even feel like a footballer and I didn’t feel like I was going to work,” Suárez told the club magazine. Soon, he would. On 14 August Cas upheld the length of the ban but ruled that he could not be prevented from appearing in friendlies or from training with his team-mates.

Four days later Suárez played in the Gamper trophy and was presented the day after. By the time he had come on, Leo Messi and Neymar had departed and there were only 14 minutes left. The experience was a strange one. He admits he felt he had been invited to appear, rather than really being part of the team. At least now he could start mentally marking the days on the dressing room wall, working towards his target: Madrid, 25 October at 6pm.

“It is nice when you see that the way he trains reinforces the idea that you had of him,” Luis Enrique said. “He is happy to be here and he is very intense in training sessions; he places a lot of importance on the way he works day to day.”

There were occasional games too. A month later he played in a practice match for Barcelona B against Indonesia Under-19s at the training ground. He scored twice, but over in Madrid some gleefully said he looked overweight. He then played for Uruguay against Saudi Arabia and Oman during the last international break. His volley forced the own goal in the first game and he scored twice in the second. The tight shirts of his national team did him a favour. “You could see that he is not fat and he never has been,” Luis Enrique said. “He is on form, in shape, and ready to play.”

A week ago, Suárez was asked if he was 100% fit. Could he actually make his debut in the clásico? “If you had asked me before the international break, I might have said ‘no’ but I feel good after those games. They did me good,” he replied. “Yes, I think I’m at 100%.”

On Monday morning, as clásico week begun, Suárez raced round the circle pursuing the ball. “He is raring to go,” the goalkeeper Claudio Bravo said.

But chasing round in a training session is one thing; playing a competitive game is another. And playing a competitive game against Real at the Bernabéu is another step again.

“I’m ready but I would never go up to a manager and ask him to play, still less given the position I have come from,” Suárez said. “The games with the national team were good for me, I played at a good pace. But if I don’t play, I’m not going to get annoyed with the manager. I will understand it.”

The debate has begun: should he start? Thursday’s Catalan papers say he will and an online poll in Sport says 70% of fans believe he should, while only 5% think it’s too soon. It is quite a game to make your comeback in but, then, for Suárez that’s not a new experience. No wonder he described it as destiny.

In November 2010 he was banned for biting Otman Bakkal. Although he appeared in the Champions League for Ajax, he did not play another league game for them. His “comeback” was his debut for Liverpool against Stoke and he scored. After the Evra ban he came on as a sub against Spurs then faced Manchester United. And after the Ivanovic ban, next up were United too.

His first game after surgery on his knee, following a disappointing end to the Premier League season, was against England at the World Cup. Most specialists believed he would be out for two months but the England match was exactly one month after his operation. And we all know what happened then.

Now Suárez is back. Again.

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