Barrancas is a town like many others across Colombia. From the early hours of the morning, motorbikes and tuk-tuks dart up and down the small town’s high street, beeping past pedestrians and zipping around street vendors as they line up their plantain and fresh produce under the shade of mango trees to shelter from the scorching sun.
Locals cluster around monitors on the pavement and try their luck at a digital version of roulette. In reality though, there is only one number that locals have their hopes on: Luis Díaz’s number 23.
Liverpool’s new star was formed and forged on the streets of Barrancas and his mark on the town is evident. A large mural along the high street features the player celebrating a goal in a Colombia shirt, alongside the phrase “Barraquero pride”. “It’s a great pride because we do not have any opportunities here, and to see your friend doing what he always dreamed of is huge,” says Brayan Gómez, Díaz’s childhood friend and neighbor.
That same pride is evident among the Díaz family, which is an incredibly tight-knit unit. Many of them still remain in Barrancas and live in the player’s childhood home. “You can not imagine the happiness,” his father, Luis Manuel Díaz – who was also his son’s first coach – tells the Guardian. “I feel very happy, proud and satisfied with the job that we did as a family so that Lucho could achieve what he wanted. This was his wish. ”
However, not all in the Díaz household shared that wish. “I did not want him to be a football player,” his mother, Cilenis Marulanda, confesses. She was worried her son would spend too much time out on the streets and away from his school books, and was also concerned that the small, skinny Díaz would get hurt by bigger players.
Luisfer, as his family also call him, was raised alongside his grandparents, cousins and aunts in an austere home built with traditional mud and wood walls, which were replaced by more sturdy brick and plaster walls when he was young. This was not necessarily a reflection of his family’s poverty but more a mirror of the harsh reality that many families across the northern state of La Guajira face.
The family home remains humble yet is now adorned with a large, colorful mural of the Liverpool star, featuring the badges of the clubs he has represented throughout his career. A misspelt “Yuo’ll Never Walk Alone” can be spotted on the Liverpool crest, though the family are not too fussed about that. Pride abides in the Díaz household.
“Our family has always been constantly fighting, supporting and working together to get ahead with that family love that characterizes us. Today he is the reflection of a united family, ”says Díaz’s older cousin Josher Brito.
La Guajira is one of the most underdeveloped and neglected regions of Colombia. It is riddled with hardship as many communities have long been cursed by drastic rates of child malnutrition, poverty, lack of water and institutional neglect. Opportunities for a better future are few and far between.
“There was no belief in football here, so much talent has been lost. There have been thousands like Lucho. “It’s very tough for people here in Barrancas to find a way out,” Brito adds.
The family’s humble origins never deterred Díaz, who played barefoot or in mismatched boots on the dirt pitch directly opposite the family home. It was his first stage, and on it Díaz was often found imitating his idol, Ronaldinho.
Díaz had always been a standout player growing up, shining at the various local tournaments his father took him to. However, he did not get his big break until he was 18, when his uncle took him to the open trials held by Atlético Junior, a top-flight team on the northern coast.
“Some coaches weren’t convinced because he was short and thin,” his father recalls. “But Luis had a lot of talent – he could dribble, had speed and could score, too – so some coaches took a gamble with him.”
The young Díaz was among 3,000 players who showed up at the trials and was one of the lucky few who secured a professional contract. Due to his age and skinny build, he was drafted into Junior’s reserve team, Barranquilla FC, where an under-18 side was set up to accommodate him and help him develop before taking the step to the top flight.
“It is not that he arrived malnourished but it was understandable that due to his age and his build he arrived at the weight he did. It was our obligation as coaches to give him the work he needed at that stage, so he was put on a gym program and given a double intake [of food]”Roberto Peñaloza, one of his coaches at Barranquilla, tells the Guardian.
Peñaloza compares Díaz to chess masters, saying his approach to the game was always tactful and exuding confidence and quality. So much so, that his daughters asked him for a photograph with the young Díaz as they were convinced he would go on to become a star.
After impressing at Barranquilla he was promoted to Atlético Junior’s first team, where he went on to win the league in one of his two seasons at the club. “At that time we did not imagine that he would get to where he is now, but we did know that he was a good player. When he became a regular starter we started to imagine that he would be a star, but we did not imagine that he would reach this moment, ”Peñaloza admits.
With his status as a footballing star consolidated, the town of Barrancas has found hope in their local hero and follow his games closely. During Liverpool’s final game of the Premier League season last weekend, many tuned in across the town in hopes of seeing Lucho crowned champion.
“He’s a normal person who until recently had the same shortcomings as many in this town and is now the one who stands up for us at a national and international level, opening the door for others,” says the young Luis Fernando Arzuza, sitting at his workstation in a knock-off Liverpool top.
A group of fans gather at a local bar to watch the game on a large screen. Off to one side, a cluster of men soon shift their attention to a bottle of whiskey and shots are being passed around. They seem perhaps more concerned with having a good time.
The atmosphere at Casa Díaz is considerably more tense. The family are lined up along the wall of the small living room intently watching the game. A cutout of Díaz in his Junior days stands by the entrance.
The family dog - named Toni Kroos – is also among those watching. He jumps and barks excitedly with each Liverpool goal, spinning and catching his tail in ecstasy. Belief is high in the household. “It’s still possible,” a relative says as the clock winds down and Liverpool’s chance to secure the title slowly slip away.
They are all passionately engaged in the game except for his grandad, Jacob, who is sitting outside in the garden sewing and repairing some trousers under the shade of a tree.
This weekend Díaz will play in his biggest game yet, facing Real Madrid in the Champions League final in Paris. The local Barrancas will be playing in front of more than 80,000 people, more than twice the population of his home town.
“Lucho is very humble, and that’s what I most like about him and it’s what makes him great,” says fan Arzuza Cueto. “He knows where his roots are and he’s never forgotten them. He’s my idol. “
Iñigo Alexander is a Colombia-based freelance journalist whose work focuses on Latin America, Spain and social justice