Since joining Brazilian club Grêmio, veteran striker Luis Suárez has taken the city of Porto Alegre by storm, scoring a flurry of goals, hoisting two trophies and helping the down-on-its-luck team dare to dream again.
The southern city has been swept by "Suárezmania" since the 36-year-old Uruguayan arrived four months ago for a late-career swan song.
Attendance has doubled at Grêmio's stadium, Suárez's shirt sold out in 10 days at the clubhouse store, and his face is stamped on banners that flutter amid a sea of sky blue at matches.
"It's been quite a show," lifelong Grêmio fan Sandra Quintana said outside the stadium last month before the semi-finals of the Rio Grande do Sul state championship.
"It's so exciting. He's one of the greats," the 66-year-old nutritionist told AFP, brandishing a banner with a picture of "El Pistolero" – who went on to lead Grêmio to victory in the state championship finals on April 8 against fourth-division side Caxias.
"And now he's part of our family. He's bringing his experience here and helping shape the next generation of Grêmio players."
Suárez was the terror of defences during a more than 15-year career in Europe, where his raw energy made him a talisman for the likes of Liverpool and Barcelona – but also got him in trouble when it boiled over into infamous incidents of biting or racially abusing opponents.
The ageing star made his South American homecoming last year, returning to his boyhood club, Nacional in Montevideo, and helping them to the Uruguayan league title. He stayed just four months, then joined Grêmio in January.
On paper, the scandal-plagued star's arrival in Brazil looks like a potentially lame post-postscript, coming after his stint with Nacional and his tearful exit with Uruguay in the group stage of the 2022 World Cup – his fourth.
But Suárez, whose thick black hair and beard are showing hints of grey, has silenced sceptics with his early performances in Brazil.
He has scored 11 goals in 15 matches, including four that secured Gremio the state winners' cup in January and state championship earlier this month.
"No matter how much money you earn, you have to have ambition. That's the mentality I arrived with," he said after the state championship final second leg, in which he scored the lone goal with a penalty kick.
Suárez's matches so far have mostly been against lowly state-level clubs. Things will get serious now with the start of the Brazilian league season.
The Uruguayan failed to impress in his league debut last Sunday, missing a penalty in Grêmio's 1-0 win over Santos.
Signing Suárez has been a boon for Grêmio, a once-great club who won the Copa Libertadores in 2017 but were relegated to the second division last year.
He has also been a money-making machine.
Grêmio went from having 63,000 members in 2022 to a record 95,000 today, and average home attendance for the state tournament more than doubled to 30,000 fans, club president Alberto Guerra told AFP.
The club's store registered record sales of nine million reais (US$1.7 million) in the first quarter, nearly doubling the previous record.
That included 3,800 sky-blue Suárez replica jerseys that sold out in 10 days.
"The store's sales are triple or quadruple the historic average," Guerra said. "Suárez may be approaching the end of his career, but he still has plenty of fire left in him."
Suárez was offered more money to play in Mexico or Europe, and flirted with the possibility of the MLS in the United States, Guerra said.
But in the end, he opted for Rio Grande do Sul, which borders his native Uruguay.
Porto Alegre, a city of 1.5 million people, has fallen under his spell. Suárez has put his bad-boy reputation aside and shown his family man side here, going out for shopping and ice cream with his wife and three kids.
He even has a local look-alike, 33-year-old electronics store employee Rafael Silva, who snaps selfies outside the stadium with fellow fans wowed by his uncanny resemblance to Suárez.
"Suárez has had a big impact" on Porto Alegre, Silva said.
Grêmio coach Renato Portaluppi said the city "has to tip its hat to 'Luisito.'"
"He's a spectacular guy. And he's making Grêmio even greater than it already is."
by Silvio Avila & Rodrigo Almonacid, AFP