SALTO, URUGUAY — ON the corner of Barbieri and Julio Delgado in the city of Salto in northwest Uruguay lies the headquarters of Nacional Futbol Club. Just five blocks from the river that separates this small city of just over 100,000 residents from the border with Argentina, its facade is decorated with photographs of Salto’s two most famous sons.
The photographs are from their childhood, but they are still instantly recognisable. On one side, the toothy grin of Barcelona striker Luis Suarez; on the other, behind the ill-fitting shirt and closely cropped hair, the strong features of Edinson Cavani, now a regular goal scorer for Paris Saint-Germain.
It was in the Nacional gymnasium where the two top goal scorers in the history of the Uruguay national team played some of their first competitive football. Back then they were not yet stars for big European teams, they were just two kids from the same neighbourhood, born three weeks apart, who loved to play football.
Now they are superstars. Cavani and Suarez are from comparable backgrounds but various deviations saw them develop in different ways, personally and professionally. They share a strong will to win but their motivations are distinct.
On the pitch, their styles are opposed yet complementary. Cavani is most at home galloping into open grass; Suarez in manufacturing space in tight quarters, in scrapping for each and every little advantage there is to gain.
That might be why they work so well together for Uruguay and may even reach a century of combined goals (Suarez, 50; Cavani 42) for the national team at this summer’s World Cup. They are both humble characters, laid back, low profile. They are similar, but also very different.
IT is incredible to think that two players of such quality should come from Salto. The centre is compact, with a single commercial thoroughfare. Chevrolet pickup trucks, Mercedes delivery vans and Opel saloons from a bygone age chug their way through the streets, leaving billows of black smoke in their midst. Agriculture is the main industry.
Once you leave behind the large squares and grand architecture of the riverfront, distances between houses start to increase, the roads transition from tarmac to dirt and before too long, you are in the countryside. For most of its renowned figures, Salto has acted as a departure point rather than a final destination.
That was certainly the case for Horacio Quiroga, the masterful teller of macabre short stories, who made his life in the Misiones jungle of Argentina; and for Jose Maria Delgado, a poet and football lover, who moved to Montevideo at 16 and played a key role in the early development of Club Nacional de Futbol into a force in the Uruguayan game.
It also has some history of producing footballers. There is no professional team in Salto — although Salto FC did spent two seasons in Uruguay’s second division in the early 2000s — but the intensely competitive local league and the sheer number of pitches and playing spaces goes some way towards explaining the volume of players who emerge from the city.
The “Black Marvel” Jose Leandro Andrade, a star for Nacional and winner of two Olympic gold medals and the 1930 World Cup with the national team, was born in Salto. So too was Pedro Rocha, the skilled attacking midfielder who played for Uruguay in four consecutive World Cups between 1962 and 1974 and was a serial winner of domestic and continental titles with Penarol. Nacional youth graduate and now Melbourne City striker Bruno Fornaroli is also part of the same generation as Cavani and Suarez.
Indeed, the fathers of Cavani and Suarez both played football in Salto and would have squared off on numerous occasions. Luis Cavani was a striker for Salto Uruguay; Rodolfo Suarez a hard-hitting defender for Deportivo Artigas.
Whether their sons ever met in competitive action in Salto is a topic of debate. Every February during the 1990s, a tournament was held at the Nacional gymnasium for five and six-year olds. Nacional, where Cavani got his start, and Artigas, where Suarez was coached by his uncle, Sergio, both competed. It is probable that they faced each other there, but no one in Salto can remember for sure and there are no detailed records.
The first time they unquestionably locked horns was over a decade later, in June 2006, in the Parque Central in Montevideo, during the nascent stages of their respective professional careers. Cavani scored the opening goal as his Danubio side defeated Suarez’s Nacional 2-1. Within a year, they would both be in Europe: Cavani at Italian side Palermo and Suarez at Groningen in the Netherlands.
Edi follows his father
CAVANI always loved birds. He loved the way they moved, the way they lived each day as it came, the way they slowly grew to trust and respect him. An enduring memory for many in Salto is of little Edi Cavani chasing birds across the street — he would sometimes disappear for hours on end, engrossed in his passion.
His father worked in road maintenance and Cavani would often go along with him. While his father worked, he would lay traps all around, catching birds and taking them home to feed and care for them. The Cavani household soon began to resemble an aviary.
He was a child who adored the outdoors, the feeling of fresh air in his lungs, the pleasures of exploration. He and his father would go fishing every weekend; as he got older, they began to hunt in the nearby forests: capybara, deer, wild boar. Cavani was never a great scholar; his mind was always on the next break. He was a shy child, but popular with his classmates, and he’d sometimes arrive at school with a backpack full of oranges to share.
When he was 12, his class were scheduled to go on a trip around Uruguay — Cavani’s parents couldn’t afford to send him, so his classmates organised raffles and sold pasta to raise the money for him to join them. But his timidness disappeared the moment he stepped out onto a football pitch. Locals remember him as a fiercely competitive boy. Whether it was marbles, action-figure fights or football, he always wanted to win. He always demanded the best of himself and his teammates.
That was something that had been instilled in him by his father. Luis Cavani taught his son to always give everything in anything he dedicated himself to. He was a well-known figure within football in Salto, first as a player, then as a coach, and he helped guide his son’s development once it became evident he had the talent to go far.
“His father is like me,” said Mario Souto, a family friend and Cavani’s final coach in Salto at Ferro Carril. “At the end of each match, I write down all the mistakes and focus on those more than the positives. His father was the same.”
Luis was a regular presence on the sidelines as his son moved from Nacional to Penarol, on to Salto Baby, Remeros, Salto Uruguay and finally Ferro Carril. At first, it was Cavani’s strength and supreme stamina that stood out. He would dominate from deeper areas. When he moved onto bigger pitches, it began to become clear that his best position would be the same as that of his father: striker.
Cavani scored so many goals that many in Salto struggle to remember specifics. For Souto, though, there is one that stands out. “It was for the Salto city team against Paysandu,” he explained. “I have recorded in my memory. A cross came in and the ball was cleared towards the middle of the pitch. Edi dropped back to receive it and fired an unstoppable shot over the goalkeeper.”
Cavani recalled a different goal when questioned by a television interviewer in 2014. When he was 14, his father, then coach at Salto Uruguay, promoted him to the first team. Not really with the intention of giving him playing time, more so he could experience an adult dressing room and learn how to coexist in that environment.
The youngster gave his all in training, determined to show he could compete physically and was worthy of a place in the team. His opportunity came in a preseason tournament, and he responded with a goal. He received the ball out wide, cut into the area and fired an accurate shot into the far corner. The first thing he did was run to the side of the pitch to hug his father.
Suarez searches for his path
AT the age of seven, the life of Suarez changed course. His father’s military employment had ended, and he was forced to travel to Montevideo in search of work. The whole family followed, apart from Suarez. He didn’t want to move. All his friends were in Salto; his life, as he knew it, was there. For a month, he stayed behind with his grandmother before he was finally convinced to join them.
It is difficult to adequately detail the difference between life in the two cities. Salto may be Uruguay’s second city, but its population is 17 times smaller than that of the capital. It is essentially a rural hub. In contrast, Montevideo is a bustling commercial centre where open spaces are few, life moves at a rapid pace, and the differences between rich and poor are readily perceivable.
The family’s life in Montevideo was certainly not the stagnant, middle-class existence famously depicted in Mario Benedetti’s “Montevideanos.” His parents’ marriage strained under the weight of the long hard hours in menial jobs that were necessary to keep the family afloat. They divorced when he was nine.
Suarez had once had free reign of the countryside, but in Montevideo he and his siblings had to pace purposefully through one of the city’s most dangerous neighbourhoods to get to and from practice. His days of happily kicking a ball around barefoot had passed. It is a story that many Uruguayans can relate to.
Through the middle part of the 20th Century, Montevideo grew to hold over half of the country’s population as people flocked to the capital in search of work and a better life. The flow has somewhat slowed in recent times, but there are still plenty who make the trek each year.
At the sprawling Tres Cruces bus terminal, a notice over the entrance reads: “An Entire Nation Under One Roof.” One nation on the move. Every day, the equivalent of over half the population of Salto passes through its doors.
Tres Cruces was the axis of Suarez’s life in Montevideo. His mother Sandra worked there as a cleaner, eventually taking charge of the ladies’ restroom outside McDonalds. The family shopped there, socialised there, celebrated birthdays there. Suarez went to school just three blocks away.
Their homes, first in the Pasaje de la Vía, later near the corner of Cabildo and General Pagola, were within the same distance of the terminal. It was in the small diagonal space outside that first property, colloquially known as “El Callejon,” where Suarez honed his skills.
The East Uruguay Railway had once passed by, ferrying eager gamblers to the Maronas racecourse to the north of the city centre. When it closed, it left behind an enclosed, earthen space ripe for ball games. It was there that Suarez learned to manoeuvre himself in tight confines and to scrap and compete with older boys.
He was not the first prominent Uruguayan footballer to do so: in 2016, historian Jose Eduardo Picerno found that Obdulio Varela, Uruguay’s World-Cup-winning captain in 1950, had once lived at the same humble residence.
When his father moved out, Suarez felt that he no longer had a reference point in life. He was jealous of the support his friends received from their parents. He felt that he was largely left to fend for himself and his frustrations eventually boiled over. There was a period in which he became apathetic to everything. He was even in danger of losing his place in the youth system of Nacional.
His life could have turned out very differently had it not been for two guiding lights. The first was Wilson Pírez, a director at Nacional, who persuaded the club to keep Suarez and provided encouragement and financial support. The second was his girlfriend, now wife, Sofía. She made him believe in himself and provided himwith a reason to focus.
“Luckily I met Sofia,” he said an interview last year. “She led me onto the right path.”
A soul still in Salto
THE first time Edinson Cavani moved to the capital, he just couldn’t take it. At 14 years old, an agent connected him with Liverpool of Montevideo. He travelled to take part in trials and was chosen for a place at the club. But he couldn’t. He missed his family, the countryside, his birds. He missed Salto.
His brother, Christian, can empathise. He speaks in the same soft tones as his younger sibling, the one who was eventually able to put his attachment to Salto to one side when he returned to Montevideo to join Danubio a year or so later.
Christian, a strong defender, followed him. The club were one of many to show interest in him, but the pull of his home city was too strong. “I trained there too, and I also trained with Nacional and Wanderers, but I always missed Salto and kept returning, back and forth, back and forth, until one time I returned and never left,” Christian told ESPN FC. “In that sense, Edi was stronger than me.”
Christian still lives in the Cerro neighbourhood where he grew up — just another member of the community. His life is perhaps the one that Cavani would have lived had his commitment not taken him first to Montevideo and then to Europe, to Italy and to France.
“I’ve always liked football but I would never have been able to follow Edi’s career path because I always missed my friends, my family, Salto itself,” Christian explained. “For me, Salto is everything, just like it is for him. Today, he has his job. He dedicates his time to his career. But he is always thinking about returning. He misses it every day. He always carries that with him.”
That much is evident in Cavani’s interactions with his old friends. He is regular participant in a Whatsapp group populated by teammates from his year at Ferro Carril and always asks them about the latest news in Salto.
Another recurrent theme is the strength of his familial relationships. Christian said that he and his brother squabbled a lot when they were kids — he was a defender and Cavani a striker, so it was only natural — but it was only ever the playful tussling of competitive siblings.
When Cavani moved to Danubio, his adaptation was smoothed by the presence of his eldest brother, Walter Guglielmone, himself a professional footballer and now Cavani’s agent. Members of the family take it in turns to visit Cavani in France, but it still isn’t the same as everyone being together in Salto.
“Despite the fact that [Edinson] does something he loves, because he is passionate about football, when he’s not playing, his family are very far away and he misses them a lot,” Christian said. “Everything has gone well for Edinson in his career, and I think Mum and Dad played a big role in that because they were always there supporting him. He always felt surrounded by that human warmth from his family.”
Like many in Uruguay, the Cavani family has Italian heritage. Christian and Edinson’s paternal great-grandfather hailed from Maranello in northern Italy — the home of Ferrari. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get to meet him.” Christian explained. “But our father told us that he always talked to him about his homeland. He came here because of the war, but his home was over there.”
His body was in one place; his mind and soul elsewhere.
“Like Edinson,” I ventured.
“Yes, like Edi,” Christian replied.
An inner tension
FROM Christian’s house, it is just a short walk to the home of Sergio Suarez, uncle of Luis Suarez and his first coach at Deportivo Artigas. Sergio sells firewood for a living, but the trophies that line his mantelpiece are evidence of his secondary vocation. He remembers his nephew as an energetic child with one true love: football.
“For him, everything was about the ball,” he recalled. “He always had his ball with him. He was a bundle of energy. With kids, sometimes things don’t come off for them, but he always had the desire and attitude to keep trying. At some point or another, everything started to come off for him — everything.”
When Suarez was younger he would sometimes return from Montevideo for the weekend to take part in tournaments for Sergio’s teams. While Sergio believes that his nephew generally dealt relatively well with the move to the capital, he could always sense an inner tension.
“[He was always] active and restless, because he wanted to be something, but he didn’t yet know what,” Sergio told ESPN FC. “So much so that I insist that is evident in everything he has done since he left.”
Sergio has remained in regular contact with Suarez throughout his career to date, tracking his progress from Nacional to Groningen, on to Ajax, Liverpool and now Barcelona. He has received photos and signed shirts at every juncture, although he is yet to get hold of the Barcelona shirt that he craves the most. It has, however, been a decade or so since his nephew last visited his home city.
“It’s been a while since he last came to Salto,” Sergio said. “But all his friends are elsewhere. It’s only me and his grandmother who are still here. I’m sure he’ll come again one day, but I don’t ask him about it. There’s only been a few times when his grandmother has asked me and I’ve passed it on.”
Sadly Suarez’s grandmother, protector of the photo archive of his childhood in Salto, reacted unfavourably to ESPN FC’s attempted contact, saying that she had already said everything she wanted to say.
An inspiration for the future
THERE is, at least, a physical representation of Suarez in Salto. Back in the centre, at the corner of Uruguay and Amorim stands a statue of the Barcelona striker, clad in the sky blue of Uruguay, with his right arm raised in celebration.
The statue was the brainchild of Leonardo Boruchovas, a former director at Nacional in Montevideo and an entrepreneur in the food industry in Salto. With the support of finance company Abitab, for whom Suarez has appeared in a series of advertisements, and the local mayor, funds were raised and a site was found in the heart of the city.
“It seemed to me that a statue of Luis Suarez could be a tourist attraction,” Boruchovas explained. “But also a form of recognition from the population of Salto for this sportsman who has made us known worldwide.” The sculptor, Alberto Saravia, has made his name as the immortaliser of some of the most famous names from Uruguay’s past: Carlos Gardel, Irineo Leguisamo, Rosa Luna.
In the Tres Cruces bus terminal stands his depiction of Uruguay’s 1950 World-Cup-winning captain, Obdulio Varela, a player with whom Suarez is seemingly destined to forever be intertwined.
The appearance of the statue opened up a line of debate in Salto. There were many who felt that Cavani was more worthy than Suarez. He has a closer connection with the city; he returns twice a year, organises an annual charity match for local causes and retains friendships from his childhood; his lifestyle is also more in tune with that of the majority of Salteños: a simple life, connected to nature, one in which family is highly cherished.
“He is still the same person,” explained Gabriel Paique, a local journalist and former coach, who came into contact with Cavani during his early years at Nacional. “Every time he returns, he walks around the shops and is always willing to have his photograph taken with any kid or person who asks. He is someone who hasn’t forgotten the identity he shares with the community here.”
Suarez isn’t nearly as present, although it must be noted that, like Cavani, he has contributed to relief efforts following the flooding of recent years. Any further criticisms of his character are the sort of things that quickly fade under scrutiny: a series of feelings, perceptions and presumptions. The issue often seems to be who he isn’t rather than who he is.
Salto is like any small city: there are those who can happily conceive a life lived within its confines but an equal number for whom anywhere would be better than the nowhere of their present existence. That those who remain largely fall into the first group perhaps goes some way towards explaining why their preference is for Cavani.
“People talk about Cavani being more Salteño than Suarez, but I don’t think that’s the case,” Paique said. “The difference is that Suarez left for Montevideo at seven years old and lived the majority of his life there. They both share the same characteristic of being people who are always attentive to the needs of the people and who try to help to the extent they can.”
The opinion of the younger generation certainly doesn’t seem to have been coloured by that of their elders. At the offices of the city’s newspaper, the Diario El Pueblo, a class visit from a local school provided an ideal opportunity to assess where loyalties laid. The result was an almost 50-50 split, with a slight leaning towards Suarez.
For the kids of Salto, both players act as aspirational figures. Like everybody in the city, they will be keeping close tabs on their progress during the World Cup. Mario Souto and former teammates of Cavani at Ferro Carril will get together, ready to share jokes, praise, advice or commiserations over Whatsapp; Sergio Suarez will be hunched in his living room, with his nephew’s shirts, the white of Nacional, the green of Groningen, the red and white of Ajax, the deep red of Liverpool and the sky blue of Uruguay, hanging proudly out front; the journalists of the Diario el Pueblo will be gathered around the office television.
Throughout Salto, friends and family will congregate in houses, restaurants and work places. All hoping that these two famous sons of the city can fire Uruguay to success.
Nick Dorrington is a freelance football writer. Twitter: @chewingthecoca.