National Writer: Charles Boehm

Luis Suárez “dreaming big” as he completes Inter Miami’s “Fab Four”

Luis Suarez - Inter Miami

For anyone who’d admired the quicksilver transcendence of their FC Barcelona peak, it was impossible not to smile at the images emanating from the Florida Blue Training Center on Saturday morning.

Inter Miami CF were working through the first training session of what is expected to be an enthralling, entertaining and challenging 2024 season. As a cascade of cameras clicked for rapid global consumption, Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba welcomed their old friend Luis Suárez, leading to this potentially iconic snapshot of the mellow reunion vibes under the Fort Lauderdale sunshine:

Barça boys together again

Those easy smiles. The media hordes looking on. Those sharp touches flashing in video clips from a passing drill that reminded everyone where the onomatopoeia that is ‘tiki taka’ came from.

The boys are back together again, now in Heron pink instead of blaugrana, and they look positively blissful at the dawn of another high-flying caper, this time a mission of MLS dominance.

“This is a new challenge, a new team, with objectives that excite me very much,” said Suárez as he addressed reporters at a packed press conference after the workout. “I very much believe that football is always based on the challenges that you have to meet. Inter Miami showed me a nice opportunity to dream of winning MLS [Cup], something the club hasn’t done yet. It’s good to come help a club that has great players, that everyone already knows; I’m adapting and getting used to my teammates.

“I am motivated by the challenge of wanting to fulfill what the club wants this year, which is try to win MLS, with the professionalism to try to perform, to do what they expect from me.”

The photo told a story of both past and present. The Uruguayan striker’s arrival, not quite six months after IMCF’s big three stepped foot in south Florida, is intended to round out this Gulf Stream Galácticos gambit with cool, clinical finishing of the chances his teammates have created with such regularity under Messi’s direction.

“The arrival of Luis is a source of happiness, not only for us but for everyone who is a fan of this sport,” Alba told at MLS media day last week. “Being able to share moments with him is very gratifying. And the four of us will try to enjoy this. Who would’ve thought we’d be together again?

“Fortunately it turned out that way, and now we have to enjoy it and try to win many trophies.”

It all makes for a “Fab Four,” and headline writers wasted no time in launching breathless comparisons to The Beatles, whose “American invasion” kicked off almost exactly 60 years ago.

“It's nice to remember great moments that we lived together in the club that we all dreamed of playing for,” Suárez said of the Barça salad days being revisited and reminisced. “Another reason for being here is to meet them again. But more than anything, it is that we are very ambitious, very professional, and committed to teaching Inter Miami’s great young talents that age does not matter, but rather the commitment to sacrifice that you have within you, on the field and off.”

Going global

Just like that quartet from Liverpool, another of Suárez’s old stomping grounds, they’re even going on a world tour. Starting with Friday’s friendly in El Salvador, the Herons will migrate from Central America to Texas to Saudi Arabia, then on to Hong Kong and Japan before returning home to DRV PNK, a circumnavigation of the planet before they’ve even officially begun a marathon campaign they hope and believe can, perhaps should, end with the MLS Cup Final on Dec. 7.

“I think a professional has to be prepared for everything,” said Suárez of the jetsetting, reminiscent of the itineraries of the old New York Cosmos with the likes of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto in the 1970s. “In this case it’s about preparing well, a good preseason, some good work to adapt, to get into rhythm. These preseason games serve for the coach to see elements of our team, see new players that are arriving.

“We’re indebted to the club, too, and to the public, and we have to be ready for that. So in El Salvador, Arabia, Hong Kong, Japan, wherever we go we have to be professionals, get into shape and keep improving ahead of [Feb.] 21st, when we start the [regular season].”

The world is eagerly watching, again, to see what they can achieve, and they know it. Asked about the four trophies IMCF could conceivably hunt down this season (and really, there’s five, spanning their Leagues Cup title defense, MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield, Concacaf Champions Cup and US Open Cup), Suárez reminded a reporter that winning everything is the default mindset at his echelon.

“The best word we players have to have is to dream: dreaming big. To dream is to want to win,” he said. “Why not dream of winning the four titles?

“You have that desire to want to compete no matter how old you are,” he added. “Wanting to win, that is our DNA. Apart from coming from Barcelona, and having been together for many years, we have a competitive DNA that is about wanting to win.”

Messi's right-hand man

Even as he intermittently flashed that distinctive toothy grin, El Pistolero repeatedly steered the focus back to the forward setting. He politely emphasized he’s here in search of a lot more than sepia-tinged memories. Suárez, who turns 37 later this month, and his BFFs bonded not over golf outings or bar crawls but winning trophies – about a dozen big ones, give or take, and playing some of the best soccer the world has ever seen.

While the setting may be significantly different from those golden years in the 2010s, their coach already sees glimpses of that fluid understanding they thrived on.

“The reality is that we finished a demanding training where, basically, there is more emphasis on the physical part,” said Gerardo 'Tata' Martino, who led the Fab Four for one season at Barça in 2013-14. “We ended with 20 minutes of football, and no, they clearly have not lost the memory of how they have played together. That was 20 auspicious minutes.”

Could Suárez’s comprehensive toolkit and attacking telepathy with Messi unlock even more of the GOAT’s devastating quality? Considering the breathless moments the Argentine produced during his first months in pink, that’s a heady proposition for MLS and the rest of Concacaf.

“Hopefully a lot of goals and a lot of offensive connection between them. That’s what we’re looking for,” said Busquets at media day. “Hopefully that connection they had some years ago can return and provide the same results from when they were together, because they understand each other wonderfully.”

All that said, as is so often the case with Suárez – whose penchant for controversy is nearly as strong as his nose for goal – there is a catch.

This is a ferocious, no-holds-barred competitor who intentionally took a red card with a goal-line handball to avoid defeat in a World Cup quarterfinal. He is quite likely the only person in soccer history at the center of not one, not two, but three incidents of biting opponents on the pitch, among myriad other explosive incidents. He is the walking personification of garra charrúa, the tenacious Uruguayan fighting spirit, magnified by his own particular strain of combustive ruthlessness on the pitch.

Now Suárez sets down in the United States with his own recent descriptions of his chronic knee pain ringing in everyone’s ears. His recounting of the exhaustive management routines, the cartilage wear, the osteoarthritis, the injections, the limp to the Sport 890 radio program in his homeland was grisly. It painted a picture of a scarred warrior on his last legs, doubtful of whether he’ll even be able to have a backyard kickaround with his children once he finally does retire.

Yet even that is tricky to get a comprehensive grasp of for outsiders, perhaps because of his polemic past and passionate personality. Might he have been padding his own narrative of desperate competitiveness to the very end? Suárez left his previous club, Grêmio, with a year remaining on his contract, convincing the Brazilian side his aging body couldn’t take another of their draining campaigns. Club president Alberto Guerra even suggested a prosthetic joint might be in his future.

“I feel that next year I will not be able to perform due to my fitness and the high demands of the Brazilian championship, which is why the club and I have spoken about ending my contract,” Suárez said in July. “The club agreed and I’m grateful to them. I don’t know if I’ll continue to play somewhere else because I have a chronic issue with my knee that you all know about.

“I’d ask Grêmio supporters to value the fact that they have a 37-year-old player who always plays despite having a lot of pain in his knee. That’s all I ask.”

"One of the best No. 9s in history"

Tata and Inter Miami, for their part, see an elite forward still producing at a very high level. Suárez racked up 26 goals and 17 assists in 53 matches across all competitions for Grêmio last year, earning the Brazilian top flight’s golden ball in leading the Tricolor to second place in the league and a Campeonato Gaúcho trophy. His one-year contract underlines the measurement of risk involved, and the natural urgency of making the most of what everyone involved has got left in them.

“Luis worked very well, he completed the training very well,” said Martino on Saturday. “Probably we’ll need to take precautions throughout the season with his knee. But the truth is that right now he has worked very well and he is doing it in good shape. So we are happy for that and expecting what he has done almost regularly in the last 15 years. We hope to find a very good version of him, just like last year at Grêmio, for example.”

Miami make consistent use of analytics in their decision-making, and a source familiar with the club’s evaluations of Suárez recently described to how the underlying data looks just as promising as his statistical output in Brazil’s demanding environment. Suárez logged north of 4,600 overall minutes in 2023, which is roughly six games more than Ilie Sánchez, the player who totaled the most minutes in LAFC’s marathon season, among the longest and most congested in MLS history.

Performance reports indicated that he missed only a small handful of training sessions along the way. Much like Messi and a long list of other distinguished superstars who’ve flourished on these shores in their 30s, he’s adapted his style of play with age, enabling his sophisticated soccer IQ to compensate for physical erosion.

In other words, whatever he’s doing seems to be working.

“For me, he’s one of the best No. 9s in history,” said Alba, “and he has a lot of football left in him. It’s a blessing that he’s in Miami.”

Suárez’s participation in the “Messi and Friends” adventure has been mooted for what feels like years. His interest in MLS dates back even further, to many conversations with his friend and countryman Nico Lodeiro, who as he noted with relish on Saturday will now be a Florida derby adversary thanks to his own winter move, from the Seattle Sounders to Orlando City.

Many months of rumor, intrigue and dogged multinational reporting led up to this point. Now it’s a reality, and the Fab Four’s first game in an Inter Miami kit is a matter of days away. Whether this grand gambit reaches the lofty heights being aimed for is anyone’s guess, but most every step figures to be destination viewing, with dates circled on calendars the world over.

Come together, right now, over me.

“This is a nice chance that’s being given to me,” said Suárez, “and I’m well prepared to enjoy it and to achieve big things.”