It’s been 12 months since Luis Suarez left Barcelona for Atletico Madrid. Forced out as part of an attempted team rebuild after six seasons filled with success and trophies, Barcelona’s third-highest scorer in team history left Camp Nou an angry man on a mission: to show that at 33, he could still perform at the highest level.
Diego Simeone’s tough, streetwise Atletico proved the perfect match. Suarez’s 21 league goals fired them to the 2020-21 LaLiga title and his final day tears, after scoring the goal that clinched the league in Valladolid, were one of the defining images of the campaign. Barca finished a distant third, seven points back.
This year, with Suarez’s close friend and confidant Lionel Messi out as well, Barca have lurched from one crisis to another, with Wednesday’s 3-0 Champions League defeat at Benfica feeling like a new low. Coach Ronald Koeman — blamed in part by Suarez for the manner and timing of his rancorous departure — is on the brink.
Suarez, meanwhile, is flying after a slow start to the season, scoring twice in a 2-1 comeback LaLiga win at Getafe last week and then dispatching an added-time penalty to beat AC Milan 2-1 at San Siro in the Champions League. The forward and his former club will come face-to-face on Saturday as Atletico host Barca in LaLiga in the biggest game of the season so far.
– Stream LIVE: Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+
Looking happy and relaxed at Atletico’s training ground on the outskirts of Madrid, Suarez spoke to ESPN’s Rodrigo Faez on Thursday about the game, Atletico’s season so far, and his complex feelings about Barcelona, Koeman and Messi.
ESPN: Luis, you’ve got an important game this weekend. How is the team? You’re doing well.
Suarez: Atletico vs. Barcelona is always a very difficult game. The team that plays best over the 90 minutes will take the win — you can’t let yourself get distracted for even a minute. After the result (against AC Milan) the other day, the team’s morale is really good; we have a lot of confidence. But we saw the previous week after we turned around the game against Getafe, then we lost again against Alaves. We’ll have to try not to make the same mistake again.
What have you learned from this start to the season? What do you have to improve?
We have to be aware of how important and difficult the first few minutes are. If you don’t start with authority and conviction, putting pressure on the opponent in the opening minutes, they set the tone for the game. That’s where you become strong and confident. The first minutes are so important.
Some people might say that opponents have to finish you off early because if they don’t, you’ll get them in the last few minutes…
[Laughing] We shouldn’t have to wait until the last few minutes! But anyway, we’re used to it. At Atletico, that’s the motto: don’t stop believing until the end. It depends on the circumstances of the game, but we the players and the coach have to try to correct that, we shouldn’t have to suffer so much. But also it’s the reality — that’s why you have to value winning the league last year. It isn’t easy, you have to fight to the end, football is so difficult nowadays, and LaLiga even more.
But it tastes even better when you do it like that.
It tastes better when you win! In the moment it’s non-stop suffering, but obviously if you win, it tastes much better.
At Atleti, you’re a leader in the team, you’re involved a lot on the pitch. You’re happy. Everyone can see that.
Yes, I’m happy, I’m enjoying it a lot. To have the confidence of teammates, the staff, the fans — they trust in your potential and what you can bring, whether you’re physically right or not, they believe in you and that makes you feel happy and important. The importance you feel when you take on a role in the team, that’s important too.
You know Barca better than anyone and you go into Saturday’s game above them in the table. (Atletico are fourth, with 14 points from seven games while Barcelona are sixth, with 12 points from six.) Looking at how Barca are doing, what could be the key to the game?
We’ll have to be careful. Despite the form they’re in, their morale isn’t good — a lot of things have been talked about in recent weeks. They won [vs. Levante] at the weekend, there was some euphoria and then they lost again [on Wednesday, to Benfica] and that hurts, but the team has to have character. They have to fight to turn the situation around, and I think the players have their pride in that sense and we’ll have to be very careful. We’ll try to take advantage of the moment they’re in now and we’ll have to be careful.
They’re going through some difficult moments, but you can’t get carried away, either.
Seeing how they treated you, and Leo [Messi], but especially with you and Koeman, are you even more keen to win?
I’m a player who owes, and loves, this profession. I dedicate myself 100% or 150% to the shirt I’m wearing at the time. I fought for a lot of years for Barcelona with pride — I even became a fan of the club — but now I fight for Atletico Madrid, which opened its doors to me after the way I left Barcelona, and I’ll fight for them until I can’t anymore, because I feel happy. I love my job. I don’t care which opponent I have in front of me.
Does it still hurt you the way Koeman treated you?
I said it at the time: it was the way they did it. I gave a lot to the club, and I don’t think I deserved to be treated that way.
They should sit down with me, one-to-one, and explain everything. Then don’t tell me that if the termination of my contract isn’t done by Wednesday, that you’ll count on me against Villarreal. Either one thing or the other. They sent me to pitch 3 or pitch 4 to train alone.
Of course, these are things you don’t forget. But I shouldn’t think only about that, but rather about doing my job well, showing that I can keep fighting for important things. Everything I did last year with Atletico is there, and now I’ll keep showing it in important moments.
Do you go into Saturday’s game as favourites?
No, I don’t think so; there aren’t any favourites. The other day, we lost against the team [Alaves] who were bottom of the table. We were the favourites. Games like ones against Getafe or Alaves? They’re games that give you the league [title]. They’re important, when it’s an uphill struggle. But in games against your big rivals, you show your level and you prove yourself. [The big games] say something about the team and the players individually.
In these games, you have to perform.
Do you and Antoine Griezmann, who have been there, look at what’s happening at Barca over the past two weeks, and you see what it was before, two years ago. Did you already see things that could have led them to be in this situation, but maybe not as bad as it’s actually been?
Let’s see… We’re both aware that at Barcelona, you’re at a really big team, that we didn’t show our level the year that we lost (8-2) against Bayern — yes, we’re aware and very self-critical as players. We’re the ones responsible. It’s one thing to lose; how you lose is another thing. Yes, you have to be self-critical. But then you have to value it — it isn’t easy to go to Barcelona and keep yourself at the level that I did, for example. Anyone can go to Barcelona, but the thing is to maintain your level with the demands at that club. I have to be proud of that.
Seeing what’s happening at the club hurts. It hurts as the fan that I am, because I have a lot of affection for the club. It gave everything to me; it trusted in me in a difficult moment in my career. It hurts for my friends there, the friendships, the people that work inside the club on a daily basis. It hurts, yes it does.
You came to Atletico, you’re an important player, you won the league, this season you’re scoring goals… is Atletico an oasis of happiness for you right now?
For me and for my family too, yes. Seeing their happiness when they see me on the pitch. It’s hard to be in a bad mood because there’s a spectacular atmosphere within the team, in training. It’s all positive, there’s nothing bad. That’s what makes you feel loved in a family. Then you try to perform at your best and show people that we’re happy, and live with that pressure of winning, and not getting bored of winning.
I have as many trophies as you can have individually, but I don’t get bored. I like winning and I like the challenge of keeping winning.
Sid Lowe explains what’s keeping Ronald Koeman at Barcelona after another embarrassing defeat.
That winning mentality to stay there, season after season? We see it on the pitch.
It’s put me there. Since I was a kid, it was so hard for me to get to the highest level, to keep believing and fighting until the end. It made me like that. When things go badly, I’m even more keen to do things well. I’ve always been like that.
How many goals will you score on Saturday?
On Saturday? The team picking up a win is enough! If I have the chance to score, great, but if the team wins, I’ll be very happy.
Is it strange to play against Barca without Messi being there given the relationship you have?
Yes — right now, yes. Last year was strange for me, going back to Camp Nou and him being there, because of what we’ve talked about. Now it will be strange not facing him in a Barcelona shirt. But things happen for a reason and today he’s in Paris and I’m at Atletico, and a year ago we were together in Barcelona.
You’re exactly the same. You go to Atletico and win the league, Messi goes and wins the Copa America, his goal [against Manchester City] the other day…
I’m happy as a friend, as the fan of football I am. I love seeing him happy and enjoying himself, scoring goals. It’s a difficult time because changes are difficult, and obviously it’s hard at first, but seeing him smile and enjoy himself like he did the other day, as a friend, I love it.