(CNN Spanish) — When Luis Suárez celebrates a goal, he kisses the wedding band on his right hand and then three fingers, which he later raises, alluding to Delfina, Benjamín and Lautaro, his children with Sofía Balbi. What many do not know is that Sofía, in addition to being his partner since they were barely teenagers, is a powerful reason behind the striker’s success, the reason that led him to jump from the lower ranks of the Uruguayan National team to the Netherlands when he was barely 18 years and from then on to the conquest of Europe.
Luis was 15 years old and Sofía was about to turn 13 when they met. At that time, according to the soccer player’s accounts, he neither studied nor was applied to soccer. He played indifferently in the lower ranks of Nacional, where at 14 they had already given him an ultimatum: either change his attitude and improve his performance or there was no longer a place for him in the team.
His family was struggling to support themselves financially and the now national team star, meanwhile, was trying to make some money by caring for his grandfather’s cars and collecting used and empty phone cards that a man he knew bought.
So Sofia came into his life and, as he told in a recent interview on Channel 10, put her “feet on the ground”. “I did not study, I had left high school and she forced me to study and made me pass the year,” recalled the top scorer for the sky-blue team, who could play his last World Cup in Qatar. Sofia didn’t just become his girlfriend. She also became his guide.
But then the bad news came: around the year 2002 the young woman went with her family to live in Spain, in search of better economic opportunities while Uruguay was going through its worst economic crisis in recent decades. Suárez remembers every detail of the separation. “The night before we cried all night,” she recounted in this interview.
Back then, phone calls were expensive. But they managed to keep communicating. The relationship did not cool. One day she called him and told him: “If you don’t come in December, we’ll leave it. I can’t take it anymore.”
The problem was, of course, money; but Suárez succeeded and went to visit her. That was her first time in Europe, in a city that he would conquer years later: Barcelona.
Suárez knew that the only way to be closer to Sofía was to go to Europe. And that is why she accepted when they made her an offer from Groningen, a Dutch team that until then was unknown to her. What mattered to him is that the Netherlands was closer than Uruguay to Spain. “I made the decision that Sofia was also there close to her and it was an important step to be with her,” he recalled.
She, still a minor, went with him and in 2009 they got married in Amsterdam. They have not separated anymore.
An unparalleled football career
Now Luis Suárez recognizes how the experience in the Netherlands shaped him. “The best thing that can happen to you is to leave South America, go play in Europe, in the Netherlands. It’s the best school,” he recently recalled.
in the groningen played the 2006-2007 season and then moved on to Ajax, where he quickly became a star and team captain.
The World Cup in South Africa arrived, in which he was a semifinalist with the Uruguayan team after a quarterfinal match against Ghana that neither team will forget. They were tied, in extra time, and Suárez intercepted with his hand a ball that went straight to the Uruguayan goal, which led to a penalty missed by the Africans, thus saving the temporary tie and then ensuring Uruguay’s victory on final penalties. They made Suárez red, but Uruguay triumphed. He was the hero.
From Ajax he jumped to Liverpool in England which, for the Uruguayan, “is the best league in the world.” He was already a world star.
But his novel would have another twist in the plot: shortly before the World Cup in Brazil, in 2014, a hard tackle from a rival player hurt his knee. He had to undergo an intervention and undergo a recovery period that seemed impossible. However, against all odds, he was able to play that World Cup, where he made his debut with two goals against the English team.
And when his World Cup history was once again written in golden letters, another twist: the next match with Italy, where Uruguay sealed their qualification to the round of 16, the bite of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini and FIFA’s draconian suspension of nine games and four months of disqualification. Suspended and condemned, England and his league had become unbreathable for Luis Suárez, where he was not forgiven for his attitude. So he decided by mutual agreement to change the scene. And he left, for a bargain price, no less than Barcelona. The city where he had reunited with his beloved as a teenager and where he had always wanted to go.
And then he continued climbing towards the top, rung after rung, and in Spain began his era of greatest football brilliance: FC Barcelona. After six years, dozens of goals and multiple titles with the Catalans, the striker moved to Atlético de Madrid, what would be his last Spanish team to date.
His record in Europe is impressive. He holds five titles as the top scorer in European clubs, including two golden boots as the top scorer on the entire continent. He was a five-time Spanish league champion (four times with Barcelona and once with Atlético), won a Champions League and a Club World Cup, as well as 4 Copas del Rey and two Spanish Super Cups with Barça, among other titles.
The celestial marks of Luis Suárez
At the same time, Luis Suárez became an essential figure for the Uruguayan team and its all-time top scorer. He made his debut in the sky blue in the qualifiers for the World Cup in South Africa, where he scored three goals and was the main squire of the Ballon d’Or of the competition, Diego Forlán. He then won the 2011 Copa América, where he was top scorer and best player of the tournament. Subsequently, the fateful 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the suspension of almost two years to return to play with his team -which included two Copa Américas without playing-, and his triumphant return to the World Cups, with two goals and a fifth place in Russia 2018 .
In In total, Luis Suárez will arrive at the World Cup in Qatar with 7 goals in World Cups and 68 in total, making him the top scorer in the history of the glorious Uruguayan team.
Atlético de Madrid, his last European team and his redemption
Playing for Barcelona was “a dream come true” for Suárez and he fully responded to that dream: he is the third all-time top scorer for the culé team (198 goals) and he formed an anthology forward along with the Argentine Lionel Messi and the Brazilian Neymar. However, in September 2020 the “dream he had since he was a boy” ended, according to what he said. At the age of 33, Ronald Koeman, the coach who had recently arrived at the Barça bench, decided that he was expendable and the club terminated his contract.
“You deserved to be fired for what you are: one of the most important players in the club’s history, achieving important things both as a group and individually. And not that they throw you out like they did. But the truth is that at this point nothing surprises me anymore, “then wrote his friend Leo Messi, also at that time in conflict with the leadership of the club, from which he also ended up leaving the following year.
Suárez left the culé team in tears. But Spain would quickly give him revenge: Atlético de Madrid ended up, where the Uruguayan was key to giving “Aleti” that 2020-21 Spanish league.
Uruguayans from all teams united by a passion
The following year, in 2022, a statement by the Uruguayan when he had already been released from his contract with Atlético shook Uruguayan football.
“I am surprised because the leaders of Nacional did not even call me to find out my situation,” Luis Suárez told the newspaper The Observer days after his contract ended and in the midst of speculation about a possible trip to the Argentine River.
Immediately a crowd of fans of the team where Suárez began his career joined in a campaign on networks under the hashtag #SuarezANacional that became a worldwide trend. They tweeted fans. They tweeted pro-government and opposition politicians. They even tweeted followers of other teams. And there was no shortage of the question of “Who is Luis Suárez” among English-speaking tweeters who did not understand the trend.
That led the “tricolor” leaders to take steps and offer Suárez a contract for three months, to prepare in Uruguay for the World Cup in Qatar. Three weeks did not pass and the dream came true: Suarez confirmed that he returned to play in his country.
And he returned to Uruguay, which received him even with a caravan of cars and flags, to stay in the game and to give Nacional the title of Uruguayan champion shortly after.
Thousands of children and adults who until now had seen Suárez kick the ball only on television and with the light blue have had the chance to see him on the field, playing for the same team that saw him take his first steps and fueling the illusion of a World Cup where the light blue is once again a source of pride for its more than three million loyal followers.