From a neutral standpoint, it would be absolutely thrilling if Luis Suarez joined Atletico Madrid. From an Atleti point of view, it might — just might — be sufficient to give them the natural, instinctive goal threat they’ve been missing for years. From La Liga’s vista, retaining a world-class superstar and legendary talent — rather than seeing him join Ever Banega, Santi Cazorla, Aritz Aduriz and Sergio Reguilon in disappearing from Spain’s fields of play — is gold dust.
From the Barcelona side of things, the whole idea is a small-visioned, deeply flawed, personality-based error of pretty huge proportions. Some may disagree, but I think it’s blatantly obvious. More of that in a moment.
Let’s start with the absolutely delicious prospect for those — like most of you, and me — who would stand back and expect the blue touchpaper to be lit if explosive Suarez meets abrasive Atletico. (Barca are apparently going to fight not to let this happen and might yet keep Suarez, which speaks further to their disarray.) You could begin it like one of those hackneyed old jokes: “Heard the one about an Argentinian, a Brazilian and a Uruguayan walk into a football club…?”
Why Suarez would make sense at Atletico
Diego Simeone may have lost his right hand, Mono Burgos, but his left still carries a powerful hook, jab and haymaker. The Argentinian has always been ferocious. As a player, like Suarez, he would do practically anything to win. This would make their union a meeting of like minds, but Simeone’s most impressive components, like Suarez’s, weren’t pure dark arts — they were his calculating brain and his relentless commitment to giving a bare minimum of 100%. That meant working hard every day in training, then upping the intensity in matches.
You’ve witnessed what an electrifying, galvanising effect that’s had on Atleti in the past decade, when he’s achieved several things that will mark him down as, probably, the greatest individual figure in the entire, garlanded history of Los Colchoneros. He’s earned the club many hundreds of millions of euros from relentlessly muscular performances in Europe — hence a salary that is rumoured, and I believe it, to be the biggest for a manager anywhere in club football. He’s consistently made any group of players the club has given him at least as good as the sum of the parts, and often greater.
That, I’d argue, is the No. 1 skill of any manager. And it’s very, very rare.
He’s completely catalysed the fanbase, drawing them like a Pied Piper, in ever more hungry, vociferous droves, to the Vicente Calderon, and then to the Wanda Metropolitano. Above all, he’s won trophies — seven of the beauties.
But Atleti are desperately short of scorers. Since losing Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona little more than a year ago, they’ve not had a proper lead striker (Alvaro Morata was top last season with 12 in La Liga) and since Kevin Gameiro scored 12 league goals three long years ago, Atleti’s second-highest La Liga scorer, whoever it has been, hasn’t managed to hit the net more than eight times. Not only is that not good enough, it’s puny verging on pathetic.
Now the Brazilian. Diego Costa, for the moment, doesn’t have any buyers. He’s pretty static, reliant on trying to bully and frighten defenders because he’s still one mean son of a gun. It’s not that he doesn’t have technique nor lacks ideas, but the cumulative weight fluctuations and injuries throughout the years have left him prematurely unable to make his body do what his mind and eyes can imagine.
What unifies him and his coach is their unwavering commitment to bulldozing all obstacles in their way in search of victory. Simeone and Costa represent the fiery, fighting, ferocious face of Atletico Madrid — which is not to say, for one single moment, that the team, the squad, the coaching staff and the big bosses don’t also possess football smarts, imagination, flair and athleticism. They do, but this remains a warrior club.
Whether Costa makes the cut and remains a Colchonero beyond the Oct. 5 transfer deadline remains to be seen. Frankly, I’d pay good money to watch him and Suarez gang up together; in training, in the dressing room, on away trips and, even if only occasionally, up front as a pairing. More often one would be replacing the other, given their age and the battle scars their bodies bear. But if there were a short series of months when Costa and Suarez were in the same team then it would be worth saying fervent prayers for goalkeepers, centre-halves and referees all over Spain and Europe.
What about Barca letting Suarez go?
Right now it’s fashionable for disillusioned Barcelona fans to be ridiculously derogatory about Suarez. He’s never had the most outstandingly athletic physique. Add to that the fact that he’s turning 34 in January, that he’s disconsolate at the way the Camp Nou authorities are running (down) his current club, and that he’s constantly had someone poking or prodding with scalpels and sutures at one area or another in his knees and ankles in the past few seasons means that he’s not in peak, peak shape.
However, and this is vital: Suarez is not due massively more respect and better treatment from Barcelona, and some of their disgruntled fans, simply because of his stats, though they are, of course, extraordinary. He’s Barcelona’s third all-time leading goal scorer (198 in 283 games), and winner of 13 trophies in six years. But crucially, he is, by far, the greatest, most mutually beneficial strike partner Lionel Messi has ever had. And despite any decline in athleticism, Suarez remains just about as smart, bright, technical and resourceful a striker as you’ll find anywhere in Europe.
That brain, that tungsten-edged ambition, that vision — Suarez has few peers. It’s for that reason4 I would be fascinated to see what he can manage with Koke, Saul, Angel Correa, Joao Felix, Yannick Carrasco and, hopefully, Thomas Partey supplying him — to say nothing of Atleti’s flying wing-backs. To boil it right down, they do the running and the hunting, he finishes the job.
Assuming all this comes to fruition because the transfer market is quixotic beyond belief, it’s true Suarez would suffer if “Professor” Oscar Ortega, Atleti’s ruthless fitness coach, gets his hands on him. But you’d pay to witness that, too. All of which leaves Suarez’s employers since 2014, a club he helped to a Treble and the squad in which he’s become, with Messi, the reason that the Catalans have so successfully been able to rage against the dying of the light.
What the Suarez mess says about Barcelona
Barcelona have been an increasingly ill-run, badly focused, self-absorbed, money-obsessed mess for quite some time now. The fact that Suarez brings the absolute best out of Messi, as friends, as born winners, as teammates and as an instinctive anticipator of genius, has been crucial in the Blaugrana not sinking into their sticky, embarrassing morass long before now. But here’s the rub: President Josep Maria Bartomeu is ruthlessly determined to prove that this is his club, completely set on breaking up the Suarez-Messi axis.
Bartomeu believes he can’t be seen to let Messi leave, thus the axe falls on the axis by pushing Suarez out. That Ronald Koeman reportedly told the Uruguayan “I’d keep you but the club wants you out” tells the full story.
Bartomeu won’t say it in public, at least until it comes to some self-justifying interview or paid memoirs when he’s long out of office, but it’s true that there are many people around Barcelona who resent the Messi-Suarez axis and who shrivel in their presence. Just the other day, in conversation with Vicente del Bosque for El Pais, ex-Barcelona keeper and ex-Camp Nou director of football Andoni Zubizarreta said: “Much depends on the generosity of [great] players. When Tata Martino was in charge at Barca he said to [Messi], ‘I know that if you call the president, he’ll sack me, but hell, you don’t need to demonstrate that to me every day. I already know it.'”
That is a fierce, even startling, image.
Just last week Koeman, for the first time since taking over, felt the need to impose himself.
For the longest time — certainly since Messi, Suarez and Neymar were routing Europe up front — it has been traditional that Messi and one or more of his closest Praetorian guard wander out to training last. Often that’s a noisy process; the laughter and clatter of studs on the concrete stairs up to the Tito Vilanova pitch indicating that, a handful of minutes after the penultimate players and longer after the eager ones, the little genius and his gang are ready to work.
Most accept it readily, some resent it and a few wish they could bring that state of affairs crashing down. It’s an emblem of the fact that there’s a bubble of “Thou shalt not” around Messi, best summed up with the phrase, “Don’t tick him off unnecessarily.”
But then greatness, especially greatness like this, carries privilege. Until now.
The rule now is that players must report to the training ground by 9.30 a.m. Training will usually be at 11 a.m. and one day last week, the new Dutch boss wasn’t pleased that the last couple of his squad (guess who) weren’t out on the field until 11.03 a.m. instead. Koeman took that as a disrespect, told them so and work commenced. But a marker was laid down. Like the reports of that first meeting between Koeman and Messi a couple of weeks ago: No more privileges, mate.
So where we stand is that Bartomeu thinks that he can win an internal battle by shooing Suarez off the premises. And he thinks he can do this at the same time as he’s made Messi stay, by force, when the player claims he was repeatedly told that he could leave this summer and when Bartomeu said that very thing on television the season before last, he has opted to strip Messi of his third-greatest asset (Suarez) after that magical left foot and his brilliant brain.
The logical thing for a smart president to do, rather than to stick two fingers up at Messi by forcing out Suarez and paying to terminate the remainder of his Barcelona contract, would be to swallow pride and keep the Uruguayan. If there were financial resources to bring in a young, quick, ready-to-go striker like Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez then the argument would be different. But there aren’t.
Suarez staying would mean a happier Messi, a centre-forward for Koeman to plan around, a good supply of goals (21 in 5,670 minutes, meaning one every 122 minutes last season) and a structure whereby Griezmann wouldn’t have to play either at centre-forward or left wing where he struggled last season. It’s simple logic. But, instead, Bartomeu is determined to win this battle — even if it means him losing the war.
I told you two weeks ago that Simeone wanted Suarez and that the Uruguayan’s arrival might well make Atleti true title challengers. I haven’t changed my mind. Now it’s down to the bean counters, the lawyers and the agents. Suarez is furious that the club are seemingly backtracking on their willingness to let him leave now that Atletico have emerged as his strongest suitor.
But from this unholy mess something beautiful, dressed in red and white, might be born.
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