It wasn't all that long ago that accredited reporters could attend entire training sessions at FC Barcelona or Real Madrid, able to study a coach's tactics, man-management and gauge the "temperature" of a squad in terms of mood, interactions and focus.
Inevitably, one would see moments that landed on the boundary of "to report or not to report." Arguments, injuries, a player reaching for but hopelessly failing to grasp normal form on any given day, kidding around, set-play routines -- you get the gist.
These days both clubs, with the exception of the one time per season that fans are allowed in en masse or occasionally on a summer tour, allow a strict 15-minute access on prematch days only. Beyond some desultory warm-ups, there's not a huge amount to learn, but occasionally some snapshots of mood, attitude and relationships do sneak out.
At Barcelona it's the "tridente," the MSN. Formed by the trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and today's birthday boy, Luis Suarez. Yes, Gerard Pique is such a force of nature that in the few minutes before the training session starts, it's quite feasible to see him larking about, teasing or talking animatedly to (or at) someone but that aside, it's always MSN's "taking the stage" that is most interesting.
You hear them before you see them. They are, almost without exception, the last ones out. Sometimes by a distance. All the other players, staff included, are usually out and waiting for a good few minutes (early) before you here the clatter of metal studs on the concrete corridor hidden from view, which leads from the dressing rooms beside the Tito Vilanova training pitch to the steps up to the grass.
That clickety-clack is almost always followed by raucous laughter or raised voices, and Barcelona's three strikers will emerge, umbilically linked, to the mostly amused and tolerant gaze of their colleagues.
"This is a team where we laugh a great deal," Suarez has said. "And that's a great bonus."
While times are good, the others may think "It's OK for them to be constantly last!" and yet, nobody complains. Last, but not late: Luis Enrique is a beast for punctuality.
That daily image of three different South American nationalities moving off the pitch just as in games -- as if they were table footballers linked by a metal bar across their shoulders -- is a metaphor for their great triumph. And it's a visual image of one of the 30 year-old Suarez's two great achievements at Barcelona.
Beyond the fact that it's rare for three genuine superstar footballers, all of whom play in the same general position, to share a team, share friendship and to flat-out work for each other, it's also very rare to see such footballing compatibility. There are other reasons for it beyond simply the lack of Suarez, but the first season of the Messi-Neymar tandem bore next to no relationship to what has happened since.
OK, Neymar was younger and was adapting. Tata Martino didn't manage to capture the hearts and minds of his squad. The previous months had been traumatic. But there's no denying that Suarez has become the missing part of that jigsaw.
Let's do each other a favour and look beyond saying "Suarez is obviously 'good' at Barcelona because he's scored 103 times, given 47 assists and won nine trophies if you include the Golden Boot." What's really clear is that Suarez is the perfect "bridge" between Messi and Neymar.
The Brazilian, talented though he is, remains a showman at heart. Winning is important, sure. His team play has improved noticeably; so has his vision and generosity. But this is a kid who would fully understand the old advertising adage that "you sell the sizzle, not the sausage." Sometimes the show is the show and while the win isn't quite an afterthought, Neymar's consideration of what is a "good day at the office" would certainly involve razzmatazz.
Messi? Everyone who's played or trained with him will tell you he's the most competitive person you'll meet -- at least when his boots are on. His talents are greater than Neymar's, as are his responsibilities, and part of what makes him so astonishing is that he's able to do "a bit of Xavi," "a bit of Neymar" and "a bit of Suarez" over and over again.
But what Suarez brings is that non-stop, ruthless, one-track mind, "get-out-of-my-way-I-don't-care-how-it-looks" appetite for scoring -- and he brings it as a means to winning. Scoring while losing has often been something that previous prolific strikers I've seen and talked to can handle in moderation. The act of the goal can remove some of the sting of defeat, as long as the losing doesn't become habitual.
Not Suarez. He's remorseless about using his great gifts to score not for self-aggrandizement, but as a means to an end. Victory. So, one gift you can give him on his 30th birthday is to appreciate how his particular repertoire tessellates to perfection with the guys to his left and right. Their threat, movement, dribbling and tricks all create space for him and he, in turn, is like a bank that provides a huge interest rate.
What's the point in saving money if you don't get a good return on investment right? Similarly, what's the point in consistently beating full-backs and defensive midfielders if a striker isn't going to give you a mean-eyed, high-percentage return on your efforts? Suarez is the bank that likes to say "Yes!" His conversion-to-chance ratio is incredibly high.
The Uruguayan was once asked by my friend and colleague Luis Martín: "Which hurts you more? A kick from an opponent, a defeat or missing a goal chance?" In a flash, the striker replied: "Defeat hurts much more than being kicked or fouled, but what's worst is missing a goal because you can never forgive yourself."
Of the months at Barcelona leading up to this landmark birthday, there are many examples of this yin-yang thing he's got going with Messi and Neymar. But both the best and the oddest came against Celta last season a little more than a year ago.
Messi and Neymar had been up to mischief in training and quietly practiced producing their version of the old Johan Cruyff-Jesper Olsen penalty for Ajax against Helmond Sport. You know, the one that Thierry Henry and Robert Pires mangled for Arsenal in 2005? Messi duly ran up as if to strike the spot kick but gently kissed the ball with his left foot so as to lay it to the side for Neymar to run up and score. The penalty as a goal-assist.
However, Suarez out-anticipated Neymar -- even though the Brazilian had known precisely what was going to happen.
Beyond the discussion about Cruyff-homage, the inevitable (moronic) controversy about whether it was "disrespectful" to Celta and the gentle comedy of Neymar's facial expression -- as if to say "Hold on, what just happened? -- was the sight of a born predator not stopping and not hesitating. A shark sniffing a drop of blood from a kilometer away.
The second major achievement, goals and trophies aside, is Suarez transforming himself from the player who didn't think into the footballer who thinks quickest. His transgressions were not only infamous but something I was strongly critical of when he was with Liverpool. Punishment served, he deserved a clean start. It's one of the foundations of a just society.
My ESPN colleague Sid Lowe ghosted the player's autobiography (with Pete Jenson) and once promised me that watching his behaviour at Barcelona and meeting Suarez would more than likely alter my very firm compunctions about his character. So it has been. But when Suarez was failing to think, failing to work out the consequences of biting or abusing, failing to think about the responsibility to his club, his supporters, his wife, his kids and to his own reputation, it disguised that his brain, at least in football terms, is very sharp.
At Barcelona, his other great success is letting the thinking, calculating, processing part of his brain become dominant over the pit bull part of his fight-or-flight mechanism. Not only has he behaved -- with no major incidents and a booking just over every five games -- he has benefitted from not feeling like he did with Ajax, Liverpool and Uruguay, where he bore almost sole responsibility for the "big" goal tally.
Understanding that he's part of a triumvirate, but also that the football ecosystem at Barcelona is totally different, has been terrific for his mentality.
"Playing at Ajax taught me about European football, England taught me about adapting to football at high velocity. But when you get to Barcelona, it's all completely different," he told El Pais.
"It's not so physical here, but it demands intelligence. You have to see the move early and be sharper to get to the right place before your opponent. You've got to think better than them, be sharper than them -- it's hugely demanding."
It's hugely rewarding, too. His new contract is aimed at keeping him until the summer of 2021 by which time, if he completes it, he'll be 34.
Well-paid, professionally content, with his son and Messi's son currently great friends and schoolmates, he's the cutting edge which this particular Barcelona side badly needs.
Happy birthday, Luis Suarez. You're a lucky man.