Luis Díaz is the Liverpool star who should never have made it

LIVERPOOL, England – Luis Díaz uncovers his forearm and puts a finger on his wrist, as if he were taking his wrist. He does this without breaking eye contact, without stopping to breathe. He doesn’t seem to notice that he is doing it. It’s a reflexive, unconscious movement, the best way to show what he means.

Diaz does not speak, he says, Wayúu, the language of the indigenous community in Colombia to which he can trace his roots. Neither he wears traditional clothes, nor does he maintain any custom. Life took him far from La Guajira, a strip of land bordered by the Caribbean Sea on one side and Venezuela on the other, home of the Wayúu.

It is at that point that he traces his veins with his finger, he feels the heartbeat. “I feel Wayúu”, she says. He may not be – by the same estimate as he – Wayúu “pure”, but it doesn’t matter. “This is my background, my origins,” he said. “That’s what I am.”

While Díaz has become a celebrity in the last five years or so, making it to Atlético Junior, one of the biggest teams in Colombia; earning a move to Europe with FC Porto; igniting Liverpool’s journey to the Champions League final after joining in January – his story about him has been told and told so often that even Diaz now admits he would appreciate the chance to “clarify” some details.

Some of these have been confused and distorted by what Juan Pablo Gutierrez, a human rights activist who first met Díaz when he was 18, describes as a desire to “take a romantic story and make it even more romantic” . The great Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama, for example, is often credited with “to discoverDiaz. “That’s not true,” Gutierrez said.

And then there is the tendency towards what Gutierrez calls “opportunism”. Countless former coaches, teammates and acquaintances were brought out of the media – initially to Colombia, then across Latin America and finally across Europe – to offer their memories of the 25-year-old forward. “There are many people who perhaps met him a few days ago, basking in the light he projects,” said Gutierrez.

However, the wide span of his journey is familiar, both ways. Díaz had a disadvantaged upbringing in the most disadvantaged area of ​​Colombia. He had to leave home as a teenager and travel by bus for six hours to train with a professional team. He was so lean at the time that John Jairo Diaz, one of his earliest coaches, nicknamed him “noodle”. His first club, believing that he was suffering from malnutrition, put him on a special diet to help him gain weight.

Although its outlines are, perhaps, a little more extreme, that story is not all that dissimilar to the experiences of many of Díaz’s peers, the vast majority of whom faced hardships and made considerable sacrifices to reach the summit.

What makes Díaz’s story different, however, and what makes it particularly significant, is where it began. Díaz doesn’t know other Wayúu players. “Not at the moment anyway, not those who are professionals,” he said.

There is a reason for this. Scouts don’t often go to La Guajira to look for players. Colombian clubs, as a rule, do not commit resources to find future stars among the indigenous communities of the country. That’s what empowers Diaz’s story. It’s not just a story about how he made it. It’s also a story about why so many others don’t.

As far as Gutierrez could tell, Luis Díaz was not only not the best player of the tournament, he wasn’t even the best player on his team. That honor, on the other hand, went to Diaz’s friend Daniel Bolívar, an imaginative and glittering director. “Luis was more pragmatic,” said Gutierrez. “Daniele was fantastic.”

In 2014, the organization Gutierrez works for, ONIC – the official representative group of indigenous peoples of Colombia – had organized a nationwide football tournament, designed to bring together the country’s various ethnic groups.

“We had seen that the only thing they had in common, from the Amazon basin to the Andes, was that they spent their free time playing football,” said Gutierrez. “Some played in boots and others played barefoot. Some played with a real ball and some played with a ball made of rags. But they all played. “

The event was the first of its kind, a cumbersome and complex logistical affair – the journey alone could take days – that took place over the course of a year. His aim, Gutierrez said, was “to demonstrate the talent of these communities, to show that all they lack are opportunities.”

The message had to resonate beyond the sport. “It was also a social and political thing,” Gutierrez said. “The word ‘Indian’ is an insult in Colombia. Indigenous groups are called primitive, dirty, wild. There is a long legacy of colonialism, an ingrained prejudice. The tournament was a way to show that I am more than folklore, more than the “exotic”, more than headdresses and painting “.

When the finals arrived, which took place in the capital Bogotá, Gutierrez was involved in another project. In 2015, with Chile scheduled to host the Copa América, a parallel championship was organized to celebrate the continent’s indigenous groups. Colombia’s squad would be drawn from the best players of its national tournament.

The La Guajira team, which represented the Wayúu community and included Díaz and Bolívar, had reached the final and their two extraordinary players were selected for inclusion in the national team. He would be coached by John Jairo Diaz, with Valderrama – referred to throughout Colombia exclusively as El Pibe – included as technical director.

Valderrama’s involvement meant a lot to Luis Diaz. “The fact that he saw me play and that I liked it is a beautiful thing,” he said. “I didn’t know him at all, but I admired him a lot. He is a point of reference for all Colombian football. It was a huge source of pride that Pibe Valderrama could choose me for a team. “

Valderrama, however, was not as practical as has often been presented (a misunderstanding does not appear eager to correct). “He was an ambassador,” said Gutierrez. “We knew that where the Pibe goes, 50,000 cameras follow. It was a way to make sure our message was heard. “

Díaz shined at the tournament, performing well enough that Gutierrez received at least one approach, from a club in Peru, to try and sign him. It would prove to be a watershed. There were, according to Diaz, many good players on that team. “The problem was that some of them were a little bit older, so it was difficult to become professionals,” he said. It would prove to be the exception.

Valderrama’s seal of approval, as well as the tournament media coverage generated, led to the transfer to Barranquilla FC, a farm team for Junior, the first step towards elite, Europe, Liverpool. It was the beginning of Diaz’s story.

Yet, as Gutierrez points out with a laugh, Díaz was not exceptional. “He wasn’t the best player in that tournament,” he said. “He wasn’t even the best player on his team.” By mutual agreement, that was Bolívar.

The story of Bolívar is not as well known as that of Díaz. He doesn’t have the thrilling ending, after all: Bolívar now works in Cerrejón, the largest open-pit coal mine in South America, again in La Guajira.

But his story is much more typical of Colombian indigenous communities: not of a gift discovered and cultivated, but of a lost talent. “There is no reason why he can’t play for Real Madrid,” said Bolívar’s Gutierrez. “He lacked the skills. He lacked the opportunity.”

Despite all the challenges he has had to face, the obstacles he has had to overcome, Diaz knows he has been one of the lucky ones. His father, Luis Manuel, had been a talented amateur player in Barrancas, the family’s hometown; Díaz still smiles at the memory of how good his father had been. “Really good,” says the evaluation of him.

When Díaz was a child, his father ran a football school – La Escuelita, everyone called it – and able to give his son the benefits of a more structured sports education than he had received. “You might see he was a little more professional, even then,” Gutierrez said. “He was a little more advanced and the credit goes to his father.”

His father’s dedication to his career is what made the difference, what turned Díaz into a unicorn: not only did it help him train, but his decision to head the football school meant that his son had competitions to play in. Those have allowed him to win a spot on Wayúu’s team for the indigenous championship for 17 years, which positioned him to win his place on the national team a year later, which led to him making the move to professional play.

Not everyone, of course, can take advantage of that constellation of factors. “There is no support in place in these regions,” Díaz said. “There are a lot of good players there, but it’s hard for people to walk away, take that step and follow their dream. They cannot leave for money or family reasons. And that means we are losing a lot of very talented players. “

Gutierrez hopes that Díaz can be an antidote to this pattern. “For a long time, the opinion has always been that indigenous peoples don’t exist,” he said. “This is the legacy of colonialism: that they are not seen, or are seen only as something exotic, something of folklore.”

Díaz’s presence on the biggest stage in football – on Saturday he could become the first Colombian to play and win the Champions League final – is a way to “dismantle” that image, said Gutierrez. “This is an immediate endangered community,” he said. “And now, thanks to Lucho, it’s in the light of the world’s cameras. He is sending a message that his community cannot send ”.

There is no doubt in Díaz’s mind as to where he comes from, who he represents. He doesn’t speak the language, but it’s the blood in his veins, his heartbeat. Diaz is the exception, the talent that has been found while all the others have been lost. His hope, Gutierrez’s hope, is that he won’t be alone for long.