There may not be a soccer player on the world stage more divisive and controversial than Uruguay’s Luis Suarez. Throughout the course of his 18-year career, the 36-year-old forward who is finalizing a move to Inter Miami has been accused of racism and called a cheat. He has been banned on three separate occasions for biting opponents during matches, both at the club and international levels. Many fans around the world see him as the devil incarnate.
Suarez is also among the best goalscorers that the sport has ever produced.
The anthology of his career exploits is best summed up by his numerous nicknames. Suarez was the “S” in “MSN” — the acronym used to describe the legendary three-man Barcelona strike force of Lionel Messi, Suarez and Neymar. His oldest nickname relates to his signature goal celebration. He points both hands like he’s carrying two guns and fires off several imaginary rounds, earning the moniker “El Pistolero” (The Gunman) for his lethal scoring talents. But in 2010, Suarez was also dubbed the “Cannibal of Ajax.”
He was the captain of Dutch giants AFC Ajax that season when he inexplicably bit PSV Eindhoven’s Otman Bakkal on the shoulder during a match. The incident occurred inches away from the referee, but Suarez was not punished.
— ESPN NL (@ESPNnl) March 29, 2019
There was no video assistant referee (VAR) at the time, but because of the overwhelming video evidence, Ajax suspended Suarez for two matches after the incident. The Dutch Football Federation then charged Suarez with committing a violent act and doubled down by handing the Uruguayan a seven-game ban of their own. He would not play again for Ajax, but his more than 80 goals across four seasons caught the eye of Liverpool. Despite that biting incident and subsequent suspension, the Premier League club signed Suarez in the winter of 2011.
Further controversy soon followed. During a match against rivals Manchester United that season, Suarez was accused of using a racist slur toward United defender Patrice Evra, who is Black. Evra said that Suarez had referred to him using the N-word. Suarez in turn admitted to saying “negro” (pronounced “neh-gro” in Spanish) in the same way a Spanish speaker may refer to someone as “flaco” (skinny) or “rubio” (blonde), he claimed.
Backed by Liverpool, Suarez maintained his innocence and pleaded not guilty when the English FA began its investigation. He was ultimately given an eight-match ban for racially abusing Evra. In a 2014 book written by Suarez titled “Crossing the line: My Story,” Suarez insisted that he is not a racist.
“I was horrified when I first realized that is what I was being accused of,” Suarez wrote. “And I’m still sad and angry to think that this is a stain on my character that will probably be there forever. Put ‘Luis Suárez’ into an internet search engine and up comes the word ‘racist.’ It’s a stain that is there forever. And it is one that I feel I do not deserve.”
Two seasons later, Suarez attacked Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic with another ferocious bite to the forearm. A horrified Ivanovic fell to the ground as Suarez acted as if nothing had happened. But, once again, consequences soon followed. Suarez was handed a 10-game ban.
Suarez phoned Ivanovic after the bite and apologized. The Serbian defender would later refer to the ordeal as “really strange.”
“When it happened I was surprised and angry. But after the game I calmed down and all was forgotten,” Ivanovic said. “We spoke on the phone, I accepted his apology, the police did not press charges.”
A little over a year later, at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Suarez bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder during a group stage match in Natal. Suarez’s chomp was clear as day, and despite the tooth marks on Chiellin’s shoulder, Suarez again escaped the referee’s punishment in the moment.
“Dare I say it. He’s had a little bite at Chiellini,” said television analyst Stuart Robson that day, after the broadcast replayed the moment. “Surely not again. Surely. Not. Again,” replied commentator Jon Champion, clearly stunned by what he had witnessed. Soon after, FIFA suspended Suarez for nine games, ending his World Cup, plus an additional four-month ban from club and international soccer.
Four years earlier in South Africa, Suarez was branded a cheat by an entire continent. During an intense World Cup quarterfinal between Uruguay and Ghana, Suarez intentionally handled the ball inside his own penalty area in a desperate bid to prevent what would have been a decisive goal for Ghana. With the match tied 1-1 late in extra time, Suarez parried away Dominic Adiyiah’s header with both hands, preventing a surefire winner for the African nation. A penalty was awarded to Ghana and Suarez was sent off, leaving the field in tears.
With the chance to secure the first-ever World Cup semifinal berth for an African country, Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan clattered his penalty kick off the crossbar. Suarez, who had made his way to the stadium’s tunnel following his ejection, ran out and celebrated, to the ire of Ghanaian faithful. Uruguay would win in a penalty shootout and advance to the semifinal.
If Diego Maradona’s goal against England at the 1986 World Cup was deemed the Hand of God, Suarez’s two-handed goal line save was quite the opposite.
“The whole of Ghana hates him and the whole of Africa hates him,” former Ghana midfielder Ibrahim Ayew told The Athletic last year.
Uruguay and Ghana met again at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar in the final match of the group stage for both teams. Naturally, talk of revenge for Ghana dominated the headlines. The day prior to the match, Uruguay surprisingly made Suarez available to reporters, fueling the fires for one of the tournament’s most anticipated clashes. Inside a nearly packed auditorium at the Qatar National Convention Center, Suarez held court.
Right away, a Ghanaian reporter referenced the handball, asking Suarez if he had ever considered apologizing for that decision. The reporter told Suarez that in Ghana, Suarez was considered “el diablo, or the devil himself.” Mild laughter was heard from those in attendance. Suarez, though, never cracked a smile.
“The first time, I didn’t apologize about that because I took the handball, but the Ghana player missed a penalty. Not me,” Suarez replied in English. “Maybe I can apologize if I make a tackle, injure the player and take a red card. Maybe I would apologize. But in this situation I took the red card. The referee called a penalty. It’s not my fault because I didn’t miss the penalty. The player who missed the penalty, he’d do the same (as me) in this situation. It’s not my responsibility to shoot the penalty.”
Suarez then accepted that he had “f—ed up” when he bit Chiellini in 2014. “Did I mess up? Yes. I accepted it,” Suarez said. There was no apology for Evra, however. Uruguay would go on to defeat Ghana 2-0 behind an inspired Suarez. But the win wasn’t enough. Uruguay were eliminated in the group stage on goal differential. Ghana, too, were out of the World Cup, but the Ghanaian fans cheered when a tearful Suarez was shown on the stadium’s big screen.
The Ghanaians will always view Suarez as a lawbreaker, but the Uruguayan remains a respected and revered player in Liverpool and Catalunya. After winning his first European Golden Shoe (given to the top scorer on the continent) with Liverpool in 2014, Suarez joined Barcelona that summer and clicked immediately with Neymar and Messi, his good friend. Suarez was clearly one of the best strikers in the world — a tenacious goal scorer and a big-game performer. He scored 198 goals in six seasons for the Catalan club, forming a telepathic relationship with Messi on the pitch, and close bond with the Argentine and his family off it.
Suarez won four La Liga titles, another European Golden Shoe, and a Champions League trophy with Barcelona. His intelligent movement and clinical finishing made him a centerpiece of every team he played for, enticing clubs to look past his list of transgressions. However, the combination of relentless production and nefarious behavior cemented Suarez as one of the game’s great villains in the eyes of many around he world.
After the World Cup in Qatar last year, Suarez, then a free agent, returned to his boyhood club Nacional de Montevideo to a hero’s welcome, complete with a viral social media campaign that captivated the soccer world. Nacional is one of Uruguay’s biggest clubs and a three-time Copa Libertadores champion. Suarez debuted for Nacional as an 18-year-old in 2005.
Today Suarez is a club legend. He solidified that status after he led Nacional to a league title last fall. Curiously, his brace last October against Uruguayan side Liverpool (not to be confused with Suarez’s previous employer in England) clinched the league championship. Suarez then moved to Brazilian club Gremio in January of this year. Gremio is a former South American powerhouse that was relegated to Brazil’s second division in 2021. There, too, Suarez became a club idol. He finished with 27 goals in 52 appearances with Gremio, adding two domestic trophies.
When Messi signed for Inter Miami last summer, reports immediately linked old friend Suarez with a move to south Florida. A reunion with Messi felt inevitable when the Argentine’s former Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba quickly joined him. However, Suarez, who acts as his own agent, continually denied speaking to Miami. He also told reporters in Brazil in July why he had sought to end his contract with Gremio one year early, which raised questions about his view of the standards of MLS.
“I feel that next year I will not be able to perform due to my fitness and the high demands of the Brazilian championship, which is why the club and I have spoken about ending my contract (with Gremio) a year early,” Suarez said. “That would be in December (of 2023). The club agreed and I’m grateful to them. I don’t know if I’ll continue to play somewhere else because I have a chronic issue with my knee that you all know about.”
Yet, he’s now set to continue his career in MLS.
Uruguayan journalist and television commentator Rodrigo Romano, who has followed Suarez’s career from the start, calls Suarez “a peculiar person” and someone who is prone to emotional outbursts. That doesn’t diminish his standing in Uruguay, though.
“Luis is an icon,” Romano told The Athletic. “And that goes beyond the historical statistics that he holds as the national team’s all-time leading goal scorer. He has a unique sporting resilience that allows him to get up when he’s knocked down and do fantastic things. I think he’s the most important striker in the history of Uruguayan football. That’s the best way to define Suarez.”
In 2011, Suarez helped Uruguay win their 15th Copa América title and was named the tournament’s best player, one year after Uruguay’s semifinal run at the World Cup. The national team has always been Suarez’s refuge — an insulated environment devoid of criticism. Thanks to his success with his country, Suarez became the rare player who could play for Nacional and still be respected by fans of archrival Peñarol whenever he wore the Uruguay shirt.
“That’s very unique,” Romano said.
“Suarez always found a special place within the national team in spite of the badge that he represented,” continued Romano. “From day one, the people in Uruguay have protected him. He has always been embraced by the fans in Uruguay.”
That support came during Suarez’s darkest moments. He isn’t a villain in his home country. Suarez’s attitude and fighting spirit are embraced as part of the garra Charrúa — Uruguay’s sporting identity, one of perseverance and courage.
“The people in Uruguay backed him after the incident with Chiellini at the World Cup in Brazil, and after the accusations of racism towards Patrick Evra, which could never be proven,” said Romano. “He was persecuted in England and that created a sense of victimization. That’s what happened with Luis.”
Suarez’s international future was in doubt after the 2022 World Cup. And when Marcelo Bielsa took over as the national team’s manager in May, bringing with him his traditional high-tempo, high-pressing tactics, Suarez’s regular place in the team was in jeopardy.
After the first four matches of the South American 2026 World Cup qualifiers, Suarez was not called up. Bielsa finally included Suarez in round five against Argentina, a match that Uruguay won 2-0 in Buenos Aires. Suarez did not play, but he was briefly reunited with Messi.
The former Barcelona teammates hugged each other before the match, and will now begin the final chapter of their careers together in MLS. Suarez is coming to America, but not to rescue his career. Not to reshape his image, either.
Suarez is coming to MLS to be who he has always been — a dangerous player in more ways than one.
(Top photo: Richard Ducker/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)