LIVERPOOL, England – Luis Díaz bares his forearm and places a finger on his wrist, as if taking his own pulse. He does not break eye contact, without pausing for breath. He doesn’t seem to notice he is doing it. It is a reflexive, unconscious motion, the best way to show what he means.
Díaz does not, he says, speak Wayúu, the language of the Indigenous community in Colombia to which he can trace his roots. Nor does he wear traditional clothing, or maintain every custom. La Guajira, a spit of land fringed by the Caribbean Sea on one side and Venezuela on the other, the Wayúu homeland.
It is at that point that he traces his veins with his finger, feels the beat of his heart. “I feel Wayúu,” he says. Wayúu, but that doesn’t matter. “That is my background, my origins,” he said. “It is who I am.”
Atlético Junior, one of Colombia’s grandest teams; earning a move to Europe with FC Porto; igniting Liverpool’s journey to the Champions League final after joining in January – his story has been told so often that even Díaz, now, admits that he would welcome the chance to “clarify” a few details.
Juan Pablo Gutierrez, a human-rights activist who first met Diaz when he was 18, describes the desire to “take a romantic story and make it more romantic still.” The great Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama, for example, is often credited with “discovering” Díaz. “That’s just not true,” Gutierrez said.
And then there is the tendency toward what Gutierrez labels “opportunism.” Countless former coaches and teammates and acquaintances have been wheeled out by the news media – first in Colombia, then through Latin America, and finally across Europe – to offer their 25-year-old forward. “There is a lot of people, who may be in a few days ago, who bask in the light that he casts,” Gutierrez said.
Still, the broad arc of his journey is familiar, in both senses. Díaz had the underprivileged upbringing in Colombia’s most deprived area. He had to leave home as a teenager and travel for six hours, by bus, to train with a professional team. John Jairo Diaz, one of his early coaches, nicknamed him “noodle.” His first club, he was suffering from malnutrition, placed him on a special diet to help him gain weight.
Though its dangers are, perhaps, a little more extreme, that is not dissimilar to the experiences of many Diaz’s peers,
What makes Díaz’s story different, though, and what makes it especially significant, is where it started. Díaz does not know of any other Wayúu players. “Not at the moment, anyway, not ones who are professional,” he said.
There is a reason for that. Scouts don’t often make their way to La Guajira to look for players. Colombia’s clubs don’t, as a rule, commit resources to finding future stars among the country’s Indigenous communities. It is that which beats Diaz’s story its power. It’s not just a story about how he made it. It is also a story about why so many others do not.
As far as Gutierrez could tell, Luis Díaz was not only the best player in the tournament, he wasn’t even the best player on his team. That honor, instead, to Diaz’s friend Daniel Bolívar, the inventive, shimmering playmaker. “Luis was more pragmatic,” Gutierrez said. “Daniel was a fantasy.”
In 2014, the organization Gutierrez works for, ONIC – the official representative group of Colombia’s Indigenous populations – set up a nationwide soccer tournament, designed to bring together the country’s various ethnic groups.
“We have seen that, from the Amazon basin to the Andes, they have spent their free time playing soccer,” Gutierrez said. “Some played with boots and some played barefoot. Some played with a real ball and some played with a ball made from rags. But they all played. ”
The event was the first of its kind, the unwieldy and complex logistical affair – the travel alone could take days – that unspooled over the course of a year. His aim, Gutierrez said, was to “show the talent that these communities have, to show that they lack opportunity.”
The message was intended to resonate beyond sport. “It was a social and political thing, too,” Gutierrez said. “The word ‘Indian’ is the insult in Colombia. The Indigenous groups are called primitive, dirty, savage. There is a long legacy of colonialism, a deep-seated prejudice. The tournament was a way to show that they are more than folklore, more than the ‘exotic’, more than headdresses and paint. ”
By the time the finals – held in the capital, Bogotá – came around, 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 in its national tournament.
The team from La Guajira, representing the Wayúu community and featuring Díaz and Bolívar, made the finals, and its two standout players. It would be coached by John Jairo Diaz, with Valderrama – referred to throughout Colombia exclusive as El Pibe – included as technical director.
Valderrama’s involvement as a lot to Luis Díaz. “That he saw me and I liked a beautiful thing,” he said. “I didn’t know him at all, but I admired him a lot. He’s a reference point for all of Colombian football. It was a great source of pride that Pibe Valderrama might choose me for a team. ”
Valderrama was not, though, quite as hands-on as has often been presented (a misconception he doesn’t seem eager to correct). “He was an ambassador,” Gutierrez said. “We knew that where the Pibe goes, 50,000 cameras follow. It was a way of making sure our message was heard. ”
Díaz shone at the tournament, performing well enough from a club in Peru, to try to sign him. It would prove a watershed. There were, Díaz considered, the childhood of good players in that team. “The problem was that they were a little older, so it was difficult to become professional,” he said. He would prove to be the exception.
Valderrama’s seal of approval, as well as the Barranquilla FC, a farm team for Junior – the first step on the road to the elite, to Europe, to Liverpool. It was the beginning of Diaz’s story.
And yet, as Gutierrez points out, laughing, 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 common consensus, that was Bolívar.
Bolívar’s story is not well-known as that of Díaz. It does not have the stirring ending, after all: Bolívar now works in Cerrejón, the largest open-pit coal mine in South America, back in La Guajira.
But his story is more typical of Colombia’s Indigenous communities: not of a gift discovered and nurtured, but of lost talent. “There is no reason he could not play for Real Madrid,” Gutierrez said of Bolívar. “He didn’t lack ability. He lacked opportunity. ”
The Lucky One
For all the challenges he faced, the obstacles he had overcome, Díaz knows he was one of the lucky ones. His father, Luis Manuel, had been a gifted amateur player in Barrancas, the family’s hometown; Díaz still grins at the memory of how good his father had been. “Really good,” runs his assessment.
By the time Diaz was a child, his father was running a soccer school – “You could see that he was a little more professional, even then,” Gutierrez said. “He was a bit more advanced, and the credit for that goes to his father.”
His father’s dedication to his career is what made the difference, what turned Diaz into a unicorn: Not only did he help him train, but his decision to run the soccer school meant his son had competitions to play in. Those who have been able to win a place in the Wayúu team for the Indigenous championship as a 17-year-old, who has a common position in the national team a year later, who has moved into the professional game.
Not everyone, of course, can benefit from that constellation of factors. “In these regions, there is not the support in place,” They said. “There is a lot of good players out there, but it is hard for people to leave, to take that step and follow their dream. They can’t leave for reasons of money, or for family reasons. And that means we are losing a lot of players with a lot of talent. ”
Gutierrez hopes that Díaz can be the antidote to that pattern. “For a long time, the Indigenous peoples have not always existed,” he said. “That is the legacy of colonialism: that they are not seen, or they are only seen as something exotic, something from folklore.”
Díaz’s presence on soccer’s grandest stage – he could, on Saturday, become the first Colombian to play in and win the Champions League final – is a way to “deconstruct” that image, Gutierrez said. “This is a community at immediate risk of extinction,” he said. “And now, because of 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 about where he comes from, of whom he represents. He does not speak the language, but it is the blood in his veins, the beat of his heart. Díaz is the exception, the talent that was found while all the others were lost. His hope, Gutierrez’s hope, is that he won’t be alone for long.