The boy was so thin and small, anyone could nudge him off the ball. The coaches and talent scouts were in a quandary. The boy was also a wonder. The ball stuck to his feet like glue. He could move… darting, swerving, feinting. Shy and quiet, he transformed into an electric eel on the field.
In the end, the coaches concurred. His talent trumped the fact that he was critically underweight. They were in one of the Colombia’s poorest districts after all. In La Guajira, on the northernmost tip of the country, along the Caribbean coastline, malnutrition was a fact of life. Few youngsters from this region found careers in sport.
Once in a while there was an opportunity, as in this case, when Atletico Junior, a football club in Colombia’s top division, visited to conduct open trials. That was in 2015. More than 3,000 boys turned up. Among the few chosen to join the club’s youth system was the scrawny 17-year-old with matchstick legs, Luis Diaz.
A few months later, Diaz had his first taste of international travel when he played for Colombia at the Copa America of Indigenous Peoples in Chile (Diaz is of the Wayuu, the largest indigenous community in Colombia). He flew for the first time in his life. Played under the guidance of Carlos Valderrama, he of the sun-god hair, Colombia’s greatest footballing legend. Valderrama reportedly called him “a young Lionel Messi”.
Fast-forward seven years and Diaz, now 25, is lighting up football fields at the highest level. It’s been less than five months since he joined Liverpool, but he is already shining something fierce, even in that team of glittering stars all operating at the peak of their ability.
Diaz is on course for a gloriously weird feat: he could end this season with six title triumphs. Liverpool have already won the EFL Cup in February. Two more Cup finals are lined up this month: the FA Cup, and the big one, the Champions League. The sensational battle for premiership between Liverpool and Manchester City, which I wrote about last month, is still on. Diaz is also eligible for a winners’ medal if Porto, the team he moved from in January, win the Portuguese Primeira Liga and the Taca de Portugal. Porto are in the Cup final and are sitting pretty at the top of the Liga standings.
Meanwhile, Diaz has slipped into the Liverpool first squad as if he’s been playing on the team for years, and he’s been absolutely critical to the Reds’ European campaign.
In the first leg against Benfica in the Champions League quarterfinals, Diaz set up Sadio Mane for Liverpool’s second and then scored the final goal, ghosting past the defence to latch on to a throughball. Both the assist and the goal proved to be game changers. Liverpool were held 3-3 by Benfica in the second leg.
In the second, away leg, against Villarreal in the semis, Liverpool struggled in the first half, down by two goals. Then Diaz rocked up from the bench and changed the colour of the game. He was mesmeric. His close control was a thing of joy. He unnerved the whole defence with his dribbling and trickery. He insidiously popped up in pockets of space; in one such instance, he scored.
Diaz is symbolic of all that being a Liverpool player means under Jurgen Klopp. A canny signing, scouted and tracked by people who have a peerless eye for big talent, swooped in and picked up at a relative bargain from a club in desperate need of money (remember the signings of Sadio Mane, Andy Robertson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Joel Matip?). A tireless player, running and fighting for his team all day long. Magic in his feet. And, most of all, a sense of joy every time he steps on the pitch.