SALTO Uruguay (Reuters) - Uruguay’s star striker Luis Suarez always had a temper when things did not go well on the pitch but coaches, relatives and neighbors remember him as a happy kid in no way destined to be hit with a record World Cup ban for biting another player.
Suarez’s life in soccer began at the age of 4 in a team linked to the club where his father, a soldier, was a player. His talent and his drive to succeed were obvious from the start.
“He already had that spark. He was very intelligent, he was always scoring and they all followed him. But he would get angry at himself when things didn’t work out, if he missed goals,” said Richard Suarez, who coached the player in his home town of Salto in Uruguay’s northwest.
Still, he and others who knew Suarez said he showed the normal passion of a talented player. Like most Uruguayans, they have rallied behind the 27-year-old since he was thrown out of the World Cup in Brazil and banned from soccer for four months for biting Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini.
“He was really mischievous but he never did anything like that here,” said Suarez, who is not a relative of the player despite having the same surname. “They killed him with that punishment, it was too much.”
Known in Uruguay as “El Pistolero”, or “The Gunslinger”, Suarez was one of seven children raised in a modest home next to an army barracks in Salto, where his father worked.
The family moved to the capital Montevideo when Suarez was 7 and there he made his way up through youth teams at Nacional, one of Uruguay’s top two clubs.
As a teenager, Suarez allegedly head butted a referee during one game. The details are sketchy and people linked to him are reluctant to discuss it but they insist he was not a problem player and that there no other incidents during his career in Uruguay before he moved to Europe.
“All the problems that they say he has now, we never saw them ... We saw kids with problems every weekend on the pitch and off it and he was never one of those,” said Jose Luis Esposito, a leader of Nacional’s youth team program when Suarez was at the club.
Daniel Enriquez, a former coordinator of the youth teams, said Nacional had a psychologist to help players with drugs, family or behavioral problems but Suarez was not a concern.
“Luis was a real bandit, a rascal, very funny. It was him who always joked around on the bus. He was great ... He never went with the psychologist because there was no need.”
Still, since leaving Uruguay to play in Europe, Suarez has been banned three times for biting opponents - first in 2010 when he was at Ajax Amsterdam, last year playing for Liverpool in England and last week at the World Cup.
Without him leading the attack, Uruguay was knocked out of the tournament in a 2-0 defeat against Colombia on Saturday night.
Both Esposito and Enriquez agreed that, as a teenager, Suarez had a hot temper when he wasn’t playing well and that he struggled for periods at Nacional after his parents separated and when he was not being used as a starting forward.
At one point, he was close to being cut by the club but he stayed on, flourished and is now one of the world’s top players.
‘COMES FROM INSIDE’
Esposito said he spoke to Suarez after the first two biting incidents in Europe and described a player who did not himself understand why he had done it.
“What he said the other times was that he never went out with that in mind, it’s something that comes from inside, something that he didn’t control, the tension of the match, all the friction in the game, and it happens.”
In Salto, a town of about 100,000 people, relatives and neighbors talk of a child obsessed by soccer.
”He lived to play ball with everyone on the block ... They were streets of dirt but you always saw him with a ball at his feet, said Elsa Goncalvez, 67, who taught at Suarez’s school and has lived most of her life in the neighborhood where he grew up.
Some of his supporters have in recent days said Suarez pulled himself out of extreme poverty through soccer but his family home was humble rather than some kind of slum dwelling. There was a soccer field nearby at the army barracks and early school records show he was doing fine.
“His life was normal, he doesn’t have any trauma. He is a kid from the neighborhood, like any other,” said Jorge Diaz, a great-uncle.
All of those who know him say they have no doubt Suarez will bounce back, and continue to score goals either at Liverpool or if he moves to another European team.
But some also worry that he may have missed his best chance to shine at the World Cup, the biggest stage of all. He missed the first game in Brazil due to injury but scored two superb goals in the 2-1 win against England.
“The most painful thing is that they took away his party, his moment,” said Enriquez. “The next World Cup is in four years and Luis was on the crest of the wave. He’ll never forget this.”
Writing by Kieran Murray, Editing by Nigel Hunt