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Luis Suárez is one of those footballers who splits opinion – radically. Some love him for his aggressive attitude and outstanding skills, whilst others have an often rabid dislike for the darker sides of his personality, regardless of any magic in his feet. His time with Liverpool served to polarise opinion of him in British football with majestic goals – the hat-trick against Norwich City being a prime example – stacked up against conflicts with opponents – the alleged slur against Patrice Evra and bite on Branislav Ivanovic being cases in point. Before moving to Anfield however, Luis Suarez had similar issues with Ajax.
A 19-year-old Suárez first arrived in Europe at Groningen in the Eredivisie in 2005. Young and feeling isolated in a foreign country, an inability to speak either Dutch or English would not have helped integration either into the team, or Dutch society. After a period in the club’s second team though, and assisted by fellow Uruguayan player Bruno Silva, Suárez did the hard yards to learn Dutch and earn the respect of his teammates. In 29 league games for the club, he would score ten goals. That was the positive side of it, the less encouraging one was that despite scoring four goals in a run of five games, he also accumulated three cautions and a dismissal. For all that, after his premier term in Dutch football, Ajax were sufficiently convinced of his potential to make a bid for his services.
A bid, however, is hardly the same as a completed transfer, and perhaps understandably, Groningen thought the Amsterdam’s offer of a reported €3.5 million was hardly sufficient compensation for losing the player’s potential. The player was keen to drive through the move and even took the matter to the KNVB. He lost, but Ajax relented and upped the bid to €7.5 million and left the north of the country for the capital and pursuit of advancement.
With a five-year contract safely tucked into his back pocket, the Uruguayan forward got straight down to work. A goal in his club debut against Slavia Prague in a qualifying game for the Champions League set the ball rolling and a brace in his home Eredivisie debut suggested that Ajax did snag themselves a bargain. That initial season ended with 17 goals from 33 league appearances and 22 from 44 games in all competitions. The club’s leading scorer at the time was Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and many of the striker’s goals carried the credit of an assist by his young partner. The future was looking bright.
The club was being led by coach, and former legendary striker, Marco van Basten. For any young aspiring forward, there would probably be no better a mentor to guide them forwards. Van Basten though had a problem with Suárez. Although he admired and appreciated his abilities, his disciplinary record was becoming a concern. Having the best player in the world on your books is of little help if he’s sitting in the stands, under suspension. Twenty-two goals showed his menace on the field, as he ended up as the club’s top marksman, and second in the entire league, but how much better could it have been. He even suffered a suspension after rowing with a teammate over who should take a free-kick. Ajax finished the season in third place. More time on the pitch for Luis Suárez could have made a difference. Although with AZ Alkmaar running away with the title by a dozen points, closing such a gap was hardly possible.
The following season saw Martin Jol brought in to replace Van Basten, and Suárez was given the captain’s armband, following Thomas Vermaelen’s exit to Arsenal. Whether this was due reward for his contribution to the team, or an attempt to curb wayward behaviour with increased responsibility is unclear, but it seemed to produce positive results. In a season when he would be the league’s top scorer, netting a highly impressive 35 goals in 33 games, the Uruguayan enjoyed a number of hat-tricks in games and netted six against junior team WHC Wezep in the KNVB Cup in a 14-1 romp. Across all competitions, his 49 goals in 47 appearances was sufficient to make Suárez Ajax’s Player of the Year and Dutch Footballer of the Year. The club would still fall short of the league title, however, finishing just a single point adrift of Twente as ‘how you say’ former England coach Steve McClaren, took the title to Enschede. It was drinks all round at De Grolsch Veste. The 2009-10 season had been a personal landmark for the Uruguayan and offered up the chance of seriously pushing for the league title in the next term. By January 2011 though, Luis Suárez would be gone.
The early season started well after the forward returned from the World Cup in South Africa, where La Celeste finished in fourth place. They lost in the semi-final, ironically to the Netherlands, in a game that Suárez missed after his last-minute goal-line handball denied Ghana victory. Back in club action though, he was back in the goal groove and notched his 100th strike for the club in a UEFA Champions League qualifier against Greek club PAOK. It put him into an elite group, now comprising four forwards to have hit a century of goals for the club. Suárez being the only non-Dutch player to do so.
Towards the end of November though, in an Eredivisie game against PSV Eindhoven, Suárez revealed a darker side to his character. Perhaps frustrated by a failure to score, he blatantly bit Otman Bakkal on the shoulder, in a move that foreshadowed later events in England with Ivanovic and during the World Cup with Italy’s Chiellini. Whilst Bakkal was of fairly average physique, the latter two were teak-tough defenders only too eager to deliver robust challenges. Leaving a calling card with your teeth is hardly a politically sensible approach. Ajax duly fined and suspended him for two games, whilst the Dutch press piled into the issue. De Telegraaf labelled him as the “Cannibal of Ajax.” The club’s reaction was overshadowed by the KNVB who upped the suspension to seven games. Suárez would post a video on the internet apologising for his actions, but verbal such contrition was surely rendered as mere lip service by the repetitions that followed. His time with Ajax was nearly done.
In the January transfer window of 2011, Liverpool finally conceded that hanging onto Fernando Torres was no longer a viable proposition and they took Roman Abramovich’s money as the Spanish forward moved to London and Stamford Bridge. Eager to replace the lost striker, Kenny Dalglish laid out some €26.5 million of those Russian roubles to take the Uruguayan to Anfield. It made Luis Suárez the clubs most expensive signing – at least for a few hours, until the mark was surpassed by the deal that took Andy Carroll to Merseyside.
Despite the incident in November, and unlike when he left both Groningen and later Liverpool as well, Suárez would depart Ajax on good terms. Ironically, that same season Ajax reached the summit of the Eredivisie and took the league, displacing Twente by two points. Suárez would be presented with a league winner’s medal for seven goals in 13 league games.
Like so many fans across the footballing world, Ajax supporters will primarily remember Luis Suarez for the positive things he achieved at the club. Joining the legends of Cruyff, Van Basten and Bergkamp in the ‘100 Club’ is enough to earn a place alongside the greatest legends of the Ajax teams, and 111 goals in 159 appearances ranks him as one of the outstanding goal scorers in the club’s history. For a young player, a long way from home, starting out on his career, it’s an enviable record, especially if you can forget the less than ideal incidents.