LIVERPOOL, England — Luis Díaz shows his forearm and places a finger on his wrist, as if taking his own pulse. He does it without breaking eye contact, without stopping to breathe. He doesn’t seem to notice that he’s doing it. It’s a reflexive, unconscious movement, the best way to demonstrate what it means.
Díaz does not speak, he says, Wayúu, the language of Colombia’s indigenous community to which he can trace his roots. He also does not wear traditional clothes or maintain any customs. Life took him away from La Guajira, a strip of land bordered by the Caribbean Sea on one side and Venezuela on the other, the Wayúu homeland.
That’s when he traces his veins with his finger, feels his heartbeat. “I feel Wayúu,” he says. He may not be – by his own estimation – a “pure” Wayúu, but that doesn’t matter. “It’s my journey, my origins,” he said. “It’s who I am.”
While Díaz has risen to fame over the past five years or so – breaking through at Atlético Junior, one of Colombia’s biggest teams; win a move to Europe with FC Porto; sparking Liverpool’s journey to the Champions League final after arriving in January – his story has been told and retold so often that even Díaz now admits he would be happy to ‘clarify’ a few details.
Some of them have been muddled and twisted by what Juan Pablo Gutierrez, a human rights activist who first met Díaz when he was 18, describes as the desire to “take a story romantic and to make it even more romantic”. Great Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama, for example, is often credited with ‘discovering’ Díaz. “That’s just not true,” Gutierrez said.
And then there’s the tendency toward what Gutierrez calls “opportunism.” Countless former coaches, teammates and acquaintances have been brought in by the media – first to Colombia, then across Latin America and finally across Europe – to offer their memories of the 25-year-old striker. “There are a lot of people, who may have met him a few days ago, who bask in the light he sheds,” Gutierrez said.
Still, the wide arc of his journey is familiar, back and forth. Díaz had a disadvantaged upbringing in the most disadvantaged region of Colombia. As a teenager, he had to leave home and travel six hours by bus to train with a professional team. He was so thin at the time that John Jairo Diaz, one of his first trainers, nicknamed him “noodle”. His first club, believing he was malnourished, put him on a special diet to help him gain weight.
While its contours may be a bit more extreme, this story is not all that different from the experiences of many of Díaz’s peers, an overwhelming majority of whom faced hardship and made remarkable sacrifices to reach the top.
What makes Díaz’s story different, however, and what makes it particularly important, is where it began. Díaz does not know any other Wayúu players. “Not at the moment, anyway, not the professional ones,” he said.
There’s a reason for that. Scouts do not often travel to La Guajira to look for players. As a general rule, Colombian clubs do not commit resources to finding future stars among the country’s indigenous communities. This is what gives Díaz’s story its power. It’s not just a story about how he did it. It’s also a story about why so many others don’t.
As far as Gutierrez can tell, Luis Díaz wasn’t just the best player in the tournament, he wasn’t even the best player on his team. That honor instead went to Diaz’s friend, Daniel Bolívar, an inventive and shimmering playmaker. “Luis was more pragmatic,” Gutierrez said. “Daniel was a fantasy.”
In 2014, the organization for which Gutierrez works, ONIC – the official representative group of the indigenous populations of Colombia – had set up a national football tournament, intended to bring together the different ethnic groups of the country.
“We saw that the one thing they all had in common, from the Amazon basin to the Andes, was that they spent their free time playing football,” Gutierrez said. “Some were playing with boots and some were barefoot. Some were playing with a real ball and some were playing with a ball made out 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 a year. His goal, Gutierrez said, was to “demonstrate the talent of these communities, to show that all they lack is opportunities.”
The message was meant 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, savage. There is a long legacy of colonialism, a deeply rooted prejudice. The tournament was a way to show that they are more than folklore, more than “exoticism”, more than headdresses and paint.
By the time the final – held in the capital, Bogotá – took place, Gutierrez was involved in another project. In 2015, when Chile was set to host the Copa América, a parallel championship was held to celebrate the continent’s indigenous groups. The Colombian team would be made up of the best players in its national tournament.
The La Guajira team, representing the Wayúu community and featuring Díaz and Bolívar, had made the final, and its two standout 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 Díaz. “That he saw me play and liked me is a beautiful thing,” he said. “I didn’t know him at all, but I admired him a lot. It is a reference for all Colombian football. It was a huge source of pride that Pibe Valderrama could choose me for a team.
Valderrama wasn’t quite as practical as he’s often been portrayed, though (a misconception he doesn’t seem keen on correcting). “He was an ambassador,” Gutierrez said. “We knew that where the Pibe goes, 50,000 cameras follow. It was a way of ensuring that our message was heard.
Díaz shone in the tournament, playing well enough that Gutierrez received at least one approach, from a club in Peru, to try to sign him. It would be a turning point. There were, according to Díaz, a lot of good players in this team. “The problem was that some of them were a bit older, so it was difficult to turn professional,” he said. He would turn out to be the exception.
Valderrama’s stamp of approval, along with the media coverage generated by the tournament, led to a transfer to Barranquilla FC, a farm team for Junior – the first step on the road to the top flight, to Europe, to Liverpool. That was the start of Diaz’s story.
And yet, as Gutierrez points out with a laugh, Díaz was not exceptional. “He wasn’t the best player in this tournament,” he said. “He wasn’t even the best player on his team.” By consensus, it was Bolívar.
Bolívar’s story is not as well known as Díaz’s. It doesn’t have an emotional ending, after all: Bolívar now works at Cerrejón, South America’s largest open-pit coal mine, in La Guajira.
But his story is much more typical of indigenous communities in Colombia: not that of a discovered and nurtured gift, but that of a lost talent. “There’s no reason why he can’t play for Real Madrid,” Gutierrez said of Bolívar. “He was not lacking in talent. He lacked opportunity. »
Despite all the challenges he faced, the obstacles he had to 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 smiles at the memory of his father’s quality. “Really good,” launches his assessment.
By the time Díaz was a child, his father ran a football school – La Escuelita, everyone called him – and was able to give his son the benefits of a more structured sports education than he had received. . “You could see he was a bit more professional even then,” Gutierrez said. “He was a bit more advanced, and the credit goes to his father.”
His father’s dedication to his career is what made the difference, which turned Díaz into a unicorn: not only did he help him train, but his decision to run the football school meant that his son had competitions to play. This allowed him to earn a place. on the Wayúu team for the aboriginal championship at the age of 17, which positioned him to earn his place on the national team a year later, which led to his transition to professional play.
Not everyone, of course, can benefit from this constellation of factors. “In these areas there is no support in place,” Díaz said. “There are a lot of good players there, but it’s hard for people to leave, to take that step and pursue their dream. They can’t leave for money reasons or for family reasons. And it means we lose a lot of players with a lot of talent.
Gutierrez hopes Díaz can be an antidote to this pattern. “For a long time, the view has always been that indigenous peoples don’t exist,” he said. “It’s the legacy of colonialism: that they’re not seen, or they’re only seen as something exotic, something folklore.”
Díaz’s presence on football’s biggest 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 in immediate danger of extinction,” he said. “And now, because of Lucho, it’s in the light of the cameras of the world. He sends a message that his community cannot send.
There is no doubt in Díaz’s mind about where he comes from, who he represents. He doesn’t speak the language, but it’s the blood in his veins, the beating of his heart. Díaz is the exception, the talent that was found when all the others were lost. His hope, Gutierrez’s hope, is that he won’t be alone for long.