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Thursday, December 2, 2021

Liverpool v Porto: Luis Diaz – Copa America star who ‘seemed to have malnutrition problems’

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Luis Diaz scores against AC Milan
Luis Diaz scored for Porto in both Champions League group games against AC Milan

It was all new for Luis Diaz.

Despite having been raised next to the border with Venezuela in north-eastern Colombia, the young winger had never set foot abroad when he was called up to represent his country at the Copa America of Indigenous People in mid-2015.

As a member of the Wayuu, the largest indigenous community in Colombia, he could not have been more excited after impressing local legend Carlos Valderrama.

“The competition would be held in Chile so we took a five-hour flight there and you could see his eyes light up with that experience,” former Colombia international John ‘Pocillo’ Diaz, who coached that side, told BBC Sport.

“Lucho would ask us if he could have the same meal more than once. He was this humble.”

Although this has not changed, one thing certainly did – Diaz has made many other trips since then.

The latest of them to Liverpool, where he arrives as Porto’s main hope of causing an upset at Anfield on Wednesday and taking a step towards the knockout stages of the Champions League.

Diaz was unstoppable during this summer’s Copa America, finding the net against the likes of Brazil and Argentina and finishing the tournament as joint top scorer alongside Lionel Messi. He has followed that with 11 goals in 17 appearances for Porto this season.

The 24-year-old is quickly becoming the next big thing in Portuguese football, with a Premier League move looking increasingly likely having been linked with Everton, Newcastle and Liverpool too.

It has been a long journey for the boy who is now emulating his compatriots Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez, Fredy Guarin and Jackson Martinez, all four of them former Porto stars.

‘He seemed to have malnutrition problems’

One of Diaz’s hobbies as a child was to watch large trains go by his small village of Barrancas three times a day, carrying coal from the Cerrejon, one of the world’s biggest open pit coal mines. Most of the product is loaded onto ships and sent to Europe.

As trains moved through, Diaz often caught himself wondering if he would ever have a chance to see more of the world too.

Very few kids born in the La Guajira region actually have. To this day, it remains one of the most neglected areas by the Colombian government, where 4.770 Wayuu children died from malnutrition between 2008 and 2016.

The humanitarian crisis still persists and has drawn attention from organisations such as the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.

When ‘Pocillo’ Diaz first met the Porto winger in 2015, the coach was astonished by how underweight he looked.

“For a moment, we thought it would be very difficult for him to perform because Lucho seemed to have malnutrition problems – he was very skinny and lost the duels with other players,” he recalled.

“But despite that, he managed to stand out among 400 candidates and make the 26-man squad. He initially played as a striker, but had one big issue in his game. He used to run the ball with his head down, so sometimes he didn’t even notice that he had reached the end of the pitch. He was very fast and had a very good technique, the ball would stick to his foot like glue.”

Ultimately, Colombia lost the Copa America of Indigenous People’s final 1-0 to Paraguay, but Diaz ended the competition with two goals to his name and a bright future ahead.

A record-breaking deal in the summer?

As he returned from Chile, he did not head back to Barrancas this time. Instead, he signed for second-tier club Barranquilla FC, an affiliate of Junior FC. He had made such an impression that he even led the team to create a new age group in order to accommodate him.

“When we brought him in, Lucho had turned 18, but the youth tournaments here in Colombia are divided between the under-20 and under-17 age groups, said Fernel Diaz, Barranquilla youth football coordinator.

“He was not ready to play with the former and was too old for the latter, so we had to come up with a solution. We then decided to launch an under-18 team to give him and other boys some playing time,

“He didn’t stay around long, however. By the end of that year, he was already featuring for our under-20 side.”

At this point, there was no doubt left about his talent. Diaz still needed, though, to strengthen his body, which prompted Barranquilla to start a plan that saw him gain 10kg through a diet plan that included eating pasta during breakfast.

In 2017, he was on the move to Junior and did not look back, going on to win the Colombian league and reach the Copa Sudamericana final the following year.

He would score his first national team goal in a 2-1 defeat by South Korea in 2019, becoming the first footballer from La Guajira to do so since the 1990s. Former Colombia boss Carlos Queiroz, who also led Portugal and Real Madrid, compared him to the legendary Luis Figo.

He had offers from Zenit St Petersburg and Cardiff City among many others but Diaz ended up choosing Porto in a 7m euro deal that same season. He is now expected to leave the Portuguese giants next summer in a record-breaking transfer, with his buyout clause set at 80m euros.

“Lucho can shoot from distance, he’s comfortable with his two feet, he can dribble, he can open up defences, he can score. What can’t he do?” ‘Pocillo’ concluded. “But, believe it or not, he’s yet to reach his ceiling.”





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