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THE Estadio Gran Parque Central, tucked away amid Montevideo’s tight La Blanqueda neighborhood, does not, at first glance, seem much to look at. Signs of modern football’s fast-expanding wealth and affluence are yet to reach this particular corner of the globe. There is no retractable roof, no color-changing exterior, no five-star hotels or vast retail space.

Yet Gran Parque Central, with its open plan and its modest 23,500 capacity, has history coursing through its veins. The home of Nacional CF, one of Uruguay’s traditional ‘big two’, can tell plenty of stories.

It was here, in 1930, that the first ever World Cup match was played, with the USA defeating Belgium in front of 19,000. Away from football, it was on this site, a former bullring, that Jose Artigas – “the father of Uruguayan nationhood” – was crowned in 1811.

But as the famous South American saying goes; “Other countries have history, Uruguay has football”. And it was at the modern Gran Parque Central, redeveloped extensively in the mid-2000s, that the new leader of the Uruguayan (football) nation began his journey to the top.

His name, of course, is Luis Alberto Suarez Diaz. He may only have played 34 times for Nacional, leaving the club for the bright lights of Europe at the age of 19, but he remains a club hero.

When their idol was found guilty, controversially, by an independent FA-appointed panel, of using racially abusive language towards Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, Nacional fans responded by turning their next game, a Co’pa Libertadores tie with Libertad of Paraguay, into a pro-Suarez rally. Local politicians even lent their support to the Liverpool striker’s cause. The Prime Minister too. In Uruguay, Suarez is beyond reproach.

To them, he IS Uruguay, a beacon of brilliance, representing their country with distinction across the world, maintaining the standards set by his forefathers.

Uruguay, a nation of just 3.5m, has traditionally, in football terms at least, punched well above its weight. That it continues to do so – they are the current Copa America holders, and finished fourth at the last World Cup – is down to talent and personality. Suarez has both, in abundance.

Yet whilst Montevideo worships Suarez, it is also true that they merely inherited him. Salto, a city of around 120,000 which lies on the banks of the Rio Uruguay river, some 300 miles northwest of the capital, is the place that can truly lay claim to him. Suarez’s earliest memory is playing football, barefoot, on its cobbled streets.

The middle of seven children, born to mother Sandra and father Rodolfo, it was not until Suarez was seven that his family arrived in Montevideo, forced to move so that Rodolfo, a porter by trade, could find work.

There, amid the high rises and the pollution, life was tough. Money was tight, poverty a looming presence. Suarez remembers being unable to attend one practice match because he did not have shoes to wear.

“We were from the lower class,” he remembers. “I never had the possibility to choose my own running shoes, for example, because of how big my family was.

“My parents did everything they could but they couldn’t buy us the things that we wanted, only what they could provide. But I was forever grateful for what they provided.”

Those who know Suarez, those who understand him, believe those formative years, scrapping for survival, jostling for attention, are reflected in his character today. Suarez agrees.

“(Montevideo) was basically where my life started,” he says. “It’s where I started to learn about everything, to go to school, to learn how to play football better. They taught you good football much more in Montevideo than in Salto. So this is where my path really started.”

The tale of South American kid-come-good has become something of a cliché over the years. But, as hackneyed as this phrase will sound, football provided an escape for the young Suarez.

“In Montevideo, we started to look for a team for him,” says his mother.

“I was told about Urreta, a club where there were a lot of people with money, so I took him there.”

It proved a wise choice. Suarez scored a hat-trick, as a substitute, in his first friendly match for Urreta. Tricky, speedy and relentless, his development was as quick as his feet.

It was playing for Urreta, aged nine, that he was discovered by Wilson Pirez, a scout working for Nacional.

“He had incredible ability for someone of that age,” says Pirez. “You could always tell he was going to be a great player.”

Suarez, though, is rather more modest.

“I actually knew that I was very bad, technically, with the ball,” he says. “But I had the character to get past this. I never gave up on any ball or play.

“Technically, I wasn’t very good but as time passed, I figured what I needed to get better and focused on that every day.”

It was far from plain sailing. Suarez, never the most attentive of students, was jolted by his father abandoning the family home when he was 12. His mother and grandmother would strive to keep the family together, but by 14, distracted and disenchanted, he was fighting for his career at Nacional.

“Life was difficult for him,” says Pirez.

“He wasn’t quite ready mentally to be a footballer. But that tough childhood made him so hungry for success.”

Suarez agrees: “I wasn’t on the path I wanted to be on. I was going out at night, I didn’t enjoy studying and I wasn’t dedicating myself to football. There were some people around me who were a bad influence.”

Fortunately for Suarez, there was a good influence waiting around the corner. He was 15 when he met Sofia Balbi, but was instantly smitten.

“She gave me a lot of confidence and helped me believe in myself,” he says.

Pirez recalls Suarez picking up coins from the street in order to treat Sofia, who is now his wife.

“He was infatuated,” he says. In the meantime, he was busy convincing Nacional’s sceptical coaches to keep faith with their young maverick.

Thankfully for Suarez, and for football, they did. It proved to be one of their smarter moves.

An unremarkable start to a memorable career  >>>>>>>>>>>>>

The Luis Suarez story – an unremarkable start to a memorable career

HIS ascent to the summit of world football has been a rapid one, but Luis Suarez’s professional debut must rank as one of his more anti-climactic moments.

A 3-2 Copa Libertadores defeat against an unremarkable Colombian outfit called Junior de Barranquilla, on May 3, 2005, will not live long in the memory of most Nacional supporters. For Suarez, though, it was the first step on the road to greatness.

Nacional’s side contained future Uruguay team-mates Sebastian Viera, Juan Albin and Gonzalo Castro, but was on its way out of the Libertadores, winning just one of their six group matches that year. Another failure for the club whose last South American triumph came in 1988.

Suarez, though, was on the up. He netted his first senior goal, an extravagant overhead kick, in September of that year, having helped Nacional to the Uruguayan championship two months earlier. Nacional were crowned without the need for a play-off that season after their rivals, Defensor Sporting, refused to participate, in protest at a controversial penalty awarded to Nacional in their final league game.

Suarez would go on to play 34 times for Nacional, scoring 12 goals.

“He always scored in the big games, in derbies,” remembers Wilson Pirez. “He always appeared when you most needed him.”

“He didn’t play here long but he is an idol,” adds Gustavo Bueno, who coached at Nacional.

“He’s an idol in the whole of Uruguay. It wouldn’t surprise me if they named a stadium after him one day.

“Whenever he comes back here, he comes to games and visits the youth teams to tell them all about Europe. It’s invaluable. We have all become Liverpool fans here because of him.”

The Luis Suarez Story – international recognition at last

THE first indentation Suarez made on the international football scene came at the 2007 U20 World Cup, played in Canada.

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