The mushrooming of Celtic’s profile that has accompanied the arrival of Brendan Rodgers was best illustrated with a glowing reference given to the Irishman this week. By the world’s most storied footballer. On the topic of how he had made one of the planet’s best players. For the globe’s favourite football club.
Pele’s assessment that Luis Suarez has been blistering, and a better person, at Barcelona because of the mentoring he received under Rodgers at Liverpool is a considerable commendation of the Celtic manager. As he prepares to face up to Suarez – and the other colossuses of the Catalans’ attacking trident Lionel Messi and Neymar – in Tuesday’s Champions League opener, Rodgers’ emotions are stirred by Pele’s proclamation. “My dad would have been proud – Pele was my dad’s hero,” said Rodgers of his late father Malacky. “It was an nice thing to read.”
Rodgers finds Suarez a heroic figure in how he utilises his playing talents. He doesn’t dwell on the disreputable aspects of the striker’s character. Of which there is a litany. The racism directed at Patrice Evra. And the biting incidents that led to him sinking his molars into Otman Bakkal while playing for Ajax, doing likewise to Branislav Ivanovic when under Rodgers and then receiving a four-month ban for such an assault on Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini while playing for Uruguay in the 2014 World Cup.
“The troubles that he had with the biting and stuff, there was never any sign of that [away from the pitch],” Rodgers said. “He’s a very clever boy. You could sit and talk to him about many things. He was a proud man, proud of his family. The edge comes from within. And you have to have that edge. The best players do.”
Suarez is one of the foremost footballers in world football at present because he has so many edges. Rodgers, in three years at Anfield from the summer of 2012, drew these from a player with so much to give.
“If you were to pick a world-class competitor, that’s Luis Suarez. He was a striker but he was like an old-school centre-half – tough. You could kick him all you want, he trained every day. He has a special mentality. He set the tone of training. There was a number of them, boys who are genuine world-class, and when you work with world-class, it’s not just talent, it’s availability. “These guys put the games in – Ronaldo, Neymar, Suarez, Bale. They are playing games. They are playing 50 or more. He wasn’t just available for every game but every training session. Didn’t want to rest. Super professional. You would go away and stay in your hotels and afterwards he would refuel – two big two litre bottles of water. He looked after himself, rested when he should, incredible professional, wonderful enthusiasm for the game.
“When I first went in there I said I wanted to build the team around him. I moved Andy Carroll. I thought he was playing in a 4-4-2 system and playing off a second ball. He got a lot of stick at that time that he couldn’t score, needed too many chances to get a goal but I wanted to create the team around him. I spoke to him in terms of how he would play and how we would get speed and movement around him and get lots of chances and in the two seasons I think he got 30 and 31 goals – in the second season and he was incredible.”
Now Rodgers faces an incredibly difficult task to somehow contain Suarez, Messi and Neymar. The Celtic manager doesn’t think such an assignment – wherein his undeniable coaching acumen will ensure he seeks to avoid “exposing” his side – has come too early.
“I think if we were here ten years it would still be a tough task. Let’s make no mistake about it, Real Madrid have gone there and suffered. Bayern Munich have gone there and suffered. Other teams way beyond our level have suffered. We have to somehow find a way to get a result that can give the players confidence. The beauty is to be able to challenge themselves in an arena like that.”