Luis Suarez: Barcelona training makes Real Madrid debut a reality
Until now, Luis Suarez must have felt like a fugitive since making his £75m move from Liverpool to Barcelona a month ago.
With a ban on 'all football-related activity' hanging over his head following his nibble on Giorgio Chiellini's shoulder during the 2014 World Cup, Suarez had been effectively barred from living a normal footballer's life.
He could not train with his team-mates or attend squad meetings, he could not enter a football stadium and he could not even be formally unveiled by his new club.
Forced to live undercover, rare sightings of the striker outside his in-laws' house in Castelldefels (a beachside town near Barcelona which is also home to Lionel Messi), or on a shopping trip with his wife and children in El Corte Ingles (a major department store in the city centre) have been treated with the same kind of breathless excitement as a spotting of the Loch Ness Monster.
On Thursday, however, thanks to the decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) to uphold his ban on competitive games but allow him to resume other aspects of his job, the Uruguayan striker can finally feel like a professional footballer again and return to a semblance of normality.
The most immediate consequence of Cas's decision is that on Friday morning, Suarez officially came out of hiding and reported for duty at Barca's Ciutat Esportiva base to take part in his very first training session with his new club.
Furthermore, one of his first discussions with coach Luis Enrique will inevitably include the possibility of the former Liverpool man making his Barca debut in Monday's final pre-season friendly against Mexican side Leon at the Nou Camp.
Even if Suarez does not feature in that particular game, though, the fact that he can now take a full part in training is particularly significant, allowing him to finally draw a line under his latest biting episode, start the process of integration in his demanding new environment and openly commit himself to preparing for his first season in La Liga.
That becomes even more important when you consider the date of Suarez's likely competitive debut: the last weekend of October, when Barca travel to the Bernabeu to take on eternal rivals Real Madrid.
|The 11 games for which Suarez is unavailable|
|24 August: Elche (H)||31 August: Villarreal (A)|
|13 September: Athletic Bilbao (H)||16/17 September: Champions League group-stage fixture|
|21 September: Levante (A)||24 September: Malaga (A)|
|28 September: Granada (H)||30 September / 1 October: Champions League group-stage fixture|
|5 October: Rayo Vallecano (A)||19 October: Eibar (H)|
|21 / 22 October: Champions League group-stage fixture|
If Cas decided to keep the training ban in place, the prospects of Suarez playing a meaningful part in the crunch clash with Real would have been remote in the extreme.
Even though he would have been available for selection, the game would have come immediately after a four-month period of inactivity during which he would not have been afforded an opportunity to develop personal or professional relationships with his new colleagues.
Enrique, similarly, would have been unable to even begin to develop a strategy for incorporating Suarez into an effective team structure, enough to make any manager extremely reluctant to throw an effective stranger straight into the fray on such a big occasion.
Under those circumstances - physically unfit and unfamiliar with his team-mates or their style of play - the very most Suarez could have expected from the season's first Clasico would have been a brief substitute's appearance if his team's need was urgent.
Now, however, Suarez can train intensively with the rest of the squad on a day-to-day basis, getting into the rhythm of how Barca play their football and how he can comply with Enrique's technical and tactical demands.
Between now and the end of October, he can spend hour after hour learning how Messi likes to receive the ball when he darts into the area; how and when he should interchange positions with Neymar; how to time his runs to meet piercing passes from Andres Iniesta and Xavi - a process the Catalan club are likely to further facilitate by organising behind-closed-doors friendly games nearer the time of his return.
Of course, none of this is as good as actually playing competitive games, but at least now Suarez can spend two months immersing himself in the task of learning how to play for Barcelona, thus giving him a far better opportunity of making an immediate impact when he finally has the chance to do so.
So although Suarez would dearly love to be playing rather than watching from the stands when Barca get their La Liga campaign underway at home against Elche next Sunday evening, Cas's decision provides the considerable consolation that he could soon become a major factor in one of his team's most decisive fixtures of the season.
Over in the nation's capital, meanwhile, the influential pro-Real Madrid sections of the media will be doing their utmost to ensure Suarez's first foray into action at the Bernabeu in late October proves to be anything but successful.
If Suarez believed the British press were guilty of conducting a smear campaign against him, just wait and see what their Spanish counterparts have in store.
In particular, Suarez and everyone else at the Nou Camp will be forced to continue to answer allegations that his transfer represents a betrayal of the lofty "Mes que un club" (More than a club) ideals which have earned the Catalan club such widespread respect in the last few years.
Even Barca fans are divided over the signature of Suarez: in an online poll conducted by local newspaper Sport shortly after the transfer was announced last month, for example, 51% of respondents said they disapproved of the purchase.
Following a controversial year which has seen Barca end their policy of reserving their shirt sponsorship for charities, accused of dodging tax on the transfer of Neymar and hit with a (currently suspended) Fifa transfer ban for breaking regulations on the signing of international minors, many fans believed the last thing their club needed was to sign a player who has a habit of biting opponents.
|Luis Suarez controversies|
|June 2014: Banned for four months from any football-related activity, plus nine international matches, for biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini|
|April 2013: Apologises for biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic and receives a 10-game ban|
|Dec 2011: Given eight-match suspension and fined £40,000 for racially abusing Manchester United's Patrice Evra|
|Nov 2010: Given seven-match ban for biting PSV Eindhoven's Otman Bakkal on the shoulder while playing for Ajax|
Throughout pre-season, Barca's news conferences have frequently contained questions suggesting the signing of Suarez has struck another serious blow to the club's previously pristine reputation, forcing players and club management into awkward pre-rehearsed assertions that the striker has apologised for his actions and promised not to do it again.
As the Clasico and Suarez's return to action approaches, that line of questioning will only intensify and the Madrid media will take any possible opportunity - such as Premier League chief Richard Scudamore's "accident waiting to happen" comment earlier this week - to sully the reputation of both Suarez and Barcelona in general.
For now, though, the Uruguayan can afford to smile and revel in the present rather than worry about the future or the past.
After a period of solitary confinement, he will be content to step out of the shadows and finally start to become a fully fledged player for FC Barcelona - however close the next controversy might be.