After six years, four league titles, four cups, a Champions League and 198 goals, Luis Suárez is on the verge of leaving Barcelona to join Diego Simeone at Atlético Madrid.
The Barcelona president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, initially reneged on a deal to let him leave when his chosen destination became apparent but finally agreed to the move during a meeting with Suárez’s lawyers at the Camp Nou. On Wednesday night Barcelona announced they had agreed a fee worth up to €6m (£5.5m).
“FC Barcelona and Atlético Madrid have reached an agreement for the transfer of the player Luis Suárez. The Madrid club will pay FC Barcelona €6m in variables. FC Barcelona would like to publicly express their gratitude to Luis Suárez for his commitment and dedication and wishes him all the best for the future.” Barcelona said there will be a farewell event for Suárez on Thursday afternoon.
The 33-year-old will sign a two-year contract at Atlético. Simeone, who has previously described the Uruguayan as a “hugely important player: tremendous, marvellous, extraordinary, strong, aggressive, intense”, phoned Suárez to convince him to join when the manager saw an opportunity had opened up. They are men of similar mindsets and it is a terrifying prospect for opponents, not least with Suárez potentially playing alongside Diego Costa. It has caused huge excitement among Atlético fans.
Suárez will replace Álvaro Morata, who on Tuesday returned to Juventus – the club Suárez had appeared likely to join, only to be unable to secure Italian citizenship in time. For Barcelona, his departure represents a success but the way it has played out has been damaging.
Suárez was told he was not part of Barcelona’s plans by the new manager, Ronald Koeman, in a telephone conversation on 24 August that lasted less than a minute. Three days earlier the striker had publicly said he wanted to continue, even as a substitute, despite rumours the club were determined to force him out. Bartomeu had left him off a public list of those players who were “untouchable”.
“There is talk of names the president gave, changes that could be made, but nobody has told me they want to get rid of me. If that’s the club’s desire, it would be good if the person who decides spoke directly to me,” Suárez told El País. “I have been here for six years, long enough for them to tell me what they think. That’s better than leaking that I am one of the ones they want to depart. I think I can still contribute a lot. As long as they want me, I want to give all I can.”
The third-highest scorer in the club’s history, Suárez had one year left on his contract but that would have been extended to 2022 if he had played 60% of games this season. When Koeman confirmed the club’s plans to move him on, Suárez accepted but on his terms. His lawyers began to negotiate an exit, initially with the intention of having his final season paid up in full and leaving as a free agent.
Barcelona, faced by an economic crisis, the desire to rejuvenate and to remove Suárez from Lionel Messi’s side, agreed to let him go as a free agent. They said they would pay the difference between Suárez’s €14m salary and his wages at the club he joined. The agreement named a series of clubs he would not be allowed to sign for, including Real Madrid, Manchester City and Paris Saint-German. It did not include Atlético.
At first, his destination appeared to be Juventus. Suárez travelled to Perugia for a language exam, a requirement for Italian citizenship, enabling him to not occupy a non-EU slot and thus facilitating the move. On Tuesday it emerged Italian police are investigating the university after claims the exam was rigged. The university has denied wrongdoing and there is no investigation into Suárez. In any event, time ran out to complete the process. Four days ago, the new Juventus manager, Andrea Pirlo, admitted: “Passport times are long, it would be difficult for him to be a Juventus striker.”
In the meantime, Koeman had left him out of two friendlies, although he also said if the Uruguayan stayed he would be treated like any other player. By then, Suárez was talking to Atlético, eventually reaching an agreement on a deal worth €7.5m a year on the condition he arrived as free agent. That part was in place: the paperwork to rescind his contract at the Camp Nou was agreed and ready to be signed.
But when news of Suárez’s destination leaked out on Monday – a day too soon – Bartomeu tried to block the move, insisting the striker could not depart for free. No one had thought to include Atlético on the list of clubs he could not join. In 2013, Atlético had signed a similar deal with the Barcelona striker David Villa. By the end of the season, Villa had won the league with Atlético, taking the title at the Camp Nou. Atlético had also knocked out Barcelona en route to the Champions League final.
That prospect, suddenly real, was one Bartomeu had wished to avoid – even at the cost of breaking his word.
Suárez could not believe it. He was determined if he did not join Atlético, he would stay at Barcelona. He would also publicly explain exactly why he was staying, delivering another damaging blow to a president who stumbles from crisis to crisis, his grip on power slipping.f
Barcelona offloaded another player yesterday, with the right-back Nélson Semedo joining Wolves for an initial €30m (£27.6m) plus €10m “in variables”.