LIVERPOOL, England — Luis Díaz bares his forearm and places a finger on his wrist, as if taking his own pulse. He does it without breaking eye contact, without pausing for breath. He doesn’t seem to note he’s doing it. It’s a reflexive, unconscious motion, the perfect option to exhibit what he means.
Díaz doesn’t, 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. Life has carried him removed from La Guajira, a spit of land fringed by the Caribbean Sea on one side and Venezuela on the opposite, the Wayúu homeland.
It’s at that time that he traces his veins along with his finger, feels the beat of his heart. “I feel Wayúu,” he says. He may not — by his own estimation — be “pure” Wayúu, but that doesn’t matter. “That’s my background, my origins,” he said. “It’s who I’m.”
As Díaz has risen to stardom during the last five years or so — breaking through at Atlético Junior, one among Colombia’s grandest teams; earning a move to Europe with F.C. Porto; igniting Liverpool’s journey to the Champions League final after joining in January — his story has been told and retold so often that even Díaz, now, admits that he would welcome the prospect to “make clear” a number of of the main points.
A few of those have been muddied and distorted by what Juan Pablo Gutierrez, a human-rights activist who first met Díaz when he was 18, describes as the will to “take a romantic story and make it more romantic still.” The nice Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama, for instance, is commonly credited with “discovering” Díaz. “That’s just not true,” Gutierrez said.
After which there’s the tendency toward what Gutierrez labels “opportunism.” Countless former coaches and teammates and acquaintances have been wheeled out by the news media — initially in Colombia, then through Latin America, and eventually across Europe — to supply their memories of the 25-year-old forward. “There are numerous people, who possibly met him for a number of days years ago, who bask in the sunshine that he casts,” Gutierrez said.
Still, the broad arc of his journey is familiar, in each senses. Díaz had an underprivileged upbringing in Colombia’s most deprived area. He had to go away home as a young person and travel for six hours, by bus, to coach with knowledgeable team. He was so slender on the time that John Jairo Diaz, one among his early coaches, nicknamed him “noodle.” His first club, believing he was affected by malnutrition, placed him on a special weight-reduction plan to assist him gain weight.
Though its contours are, perhaps, a little bit more extreme, that story shouldn’t be all that dissimilar to the experiences of a lot of Díaz’s peers, an amazing majority of whom faced hardship and made remarkable sacrifices on their option to the highest.
What makes Díaz’s story different, though, and what makes it especially significant, is where it began. Díaz doesn’t know of another Wayúu players. “Not in the mean time, anyway, not ones who’re skilled,” he said.
There’s a reason for that. Scouts do hardly make their option to La Guajira to search for players. Colombia’s clubs don’t, as a rule, commit resources to finding future stars among the many country’s Indigenous communities. It’s that which lends Díaz’s story its power. It shouldn’t be only a story about how he made it. It is usually a story about why so many others don’t.
So far as Gutierrez could tell, Luis Díaz was not only not the perfect player within the tournament, he was not even the perfect player on his team. That honor fell, as a substitute, to Diaz’s friend Daniel Bolívar, an inventive, shimmering playmaker. “Luis was more pragmatic,” Gutierrez said. “Daniel was fantasy.”
In 2014, the organization Gutierrez works for, O.N.I.C. — the official representative group of Colombia’s Indigenous populations — had arrange a nationwide soccer tournament, designed to bring together the country’s various ethnic groups.
“We had seen that the one thing all of them had in common, from the Amazon basin to the Andes, was that they spent their free time playing soccer,” Gutierrez said. “Some played with boots and a few played barefoot. Some played with an actual ball and a few played with a ball created from rags. But all of them played.”
The event was the primary of its kind, an unwieldy and complicated logistical affair — the travel alone could take days — that unspooled over the course of a 12 months. Its aim, Gutierrez said, was to “exhibit the talent that these communities have, to indicate that every one they lack is opportunity.”
The message was intended to resonate beyond sport. “It was a social and political thing, too,” Gutierrez said. “The word ‘Indian’ is an insult in Colombia. The Indigenous groups are called primitive, dirty, savage. There’s a protracted legacy of colonialism, a deep-seated prejudice. The tournament was a option to show that they’re greater than folklore, greater than the ‘exotic’, greater than headdresses and paint.”
By the point the finals — held within the capital, Bogotá — got here around, Gutierrez was involved in one other project. In 2015, with Chile scheduled to host the Copa América, a parallel championship was arranged to have fun the continent’s Indigenous groups. Colombia’s squad can be drawn from the perfect players in its national tournament.
The team from La Guajira, representing the Wayúu community and featuring Díaz and Bolívar, had made the finals, and its two standout players were chosen for inclusion within the national team. It will be coached by John Jairo Diaz, with Valderrama — referred to throughout Colombia exclusively as El Pibe — included as technical director.
Valderrama’s involvement meant loads to Luis Díaz. “That he saw me play and liked me is a lovely thing,” he said. “I didn’t know him in any respect, but I admired him loads. He’s a reference point for all of Colombian football. It was an enormous source of pride that Pibe Valderrama might select me for a team.”
Valderrama was not, though, quite as hands-on as has often been presented (a misconception he doesn’t appear desperate to correct). “He was an envoy,” Gutierrez said. “We knew that where the Pibe goes, 50,000 cameras follow. It was a way of constructing sure our message was heard.”
Díaz shone on the tournament, performing well enough that Gutierrez received not less than one approach, from a club in Peru, to attempt to sign him. It will prove a watershed. There have been, Díaz believes, plenty of excellent players in that team. “The issue was that a few of them were a little bit older, so it was difficult to turn into skilled,” he said. He would prove to be the exception.
Valderrama’s seal of approval, in addition to the news media coverage the tournament generated, led to a move to Barranquilla F.C., a farm team for Junior — step one 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 was not the perfect player in that tournament,” he said. “He wasn’t even the perfect player on his team.” By common consensus, that was Bolívar.
Bolívar’s story shouldn’t be as well-known as that of Díaz. It doesn’t have the stirring ending, in spite of everything: Bolívar now works at Cerrejón, the biggest open-pit coal mine in South America, back in La Guajira.
But his story is way more typical of Colombia’s Indigenous communities: not of a present discovered and nurtured, but of talent lost. “There is no such thing as a reason he couldn’t be playing for Real Madrid,” Gutierrez said of Bolívar. “He didn’t lack ability. He lacked opportunity.”
The Lucky One
For all of the challenges he faced, the obstacles he had to beat, Díaz knows he was one among the lucky ones. His father, Luis Manuel, had been a gifted amateur player in Barrancas, the family’s hometown; Díaz still grins on the memory of how good his father had been. “Really good,” runs his assessment.
By the point Díaz was a toddler, his father was running a soccer school — La Escuelita, everyone called it — and ready to present his son the advantages of a more structured sporting education than he had received. “You can see that he was a little bit more skilled, 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 profession is what made the difference, what turned Díaz right into a unicorn: He not only helped him train, but his decision to run the soccer school meant his son had competitions to play in. Those enabled him to win a spot within the Wayúu team for the Indigenous championship as a 17-year-old, which positioned him to win his spot within the national team a 12 months later, which led to his move into the skilled game.
Not everyone, in fact, can profit from that constellation of things. “In these regions, there shouldn’t be the support in place,” Díaz said. “There are numerous good players there, nevertheless it is difficult for people to go away, to take that step and follow their dream. They’ll’t leave for reasons of cash, or for family reasons. And that implies that we’re losing numerous players with numerous talent.”
Gutierrez hopes that Díaz may be an antidote to that pattern. “For a very long time, the view has all the time been that Indigenous peoples don’t exist,” he said. “That’s the legacy of colonialism: that they should not seen, or they’re only seen as something exotic, something from folklore.”
Díaz’s presence on soccer’s grandest stage — he could, on Saturday, turn into the primary Colombian to play in and win the Champions League final — is a option to “deconstruct” that image, Gutierrez said. “It is a community at immediate risk of extinction,” he said. “And now, due to Lucho, it’s in the sunshine of the world’s cameras. He’s sending a message that his community cannot send.”
There is no such thing as a doubt in Díaz’s mind about where he comes from, of whom he represents. He doesn’t speak the language, nevertheless it is the blood in his veins, the beat of his heart. Díaz is the exception, the talent that was found while all of the others were lost. His hope, Gutierrez’s hope, is that he is not going to be alone for long.