Luis Diaz’s family gripped by his son’s football odyssey as they watch from afar in Colombia

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Barrancas, Colombia
CNN

The Diaz-Brito family home sits at the end of a leafy road in a major mining town in northwest Colombia, but it might as well be a stone’s throw from Anfield Stadium for the passion that it breathes when Liverpool play.

For this town, Barrancas, is the birthplace of Luis Fernando Diaz, a 25-year-old Colombian winger who has taken the Premier League by storm this year, playing a starring role in Liverpool’s FA Cup triumph and the tight race for the Premier League. Title.

On Saturday, Diaz will have the chance to do something no Colombian footballer has done before: both play in a Champions League final and win it, as Liverpool take on Real Madrid at the Stade de France in Paris.

Luis Diaz is immortalized in graffiti on the exterior walls of his family home in Barrancas.
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Luis Diaz's family watch the FA Cup final between Liverpool and Chelsea on TV at Barrancas.

At home, the signs of Diaz’s triumphant march are on every wall, from a series of cups and trophies in the living room to a life-size cardboard figurine of the winger in action.

Outside, graffiti of the prodigal son wearing the Colombian national team shirt catches the eye of passers-by, while his clubs’ crests are painted on the side.

Diaz’s footballing odyssey took the 25-year-old from humble Cluballer FC to Colombian powerhouse Atletico Junior, Porto FC in Portugal and then Liverpool FC.

Having played 25 games for the club earlier this season, Diaz is eligible for two winners' medals after Porto won a league and cup double.

Since joining Liverpool, Diaz has already won the League Cup and the FA Cup.

Diaz’s ability to keep tight control of the ball while running at a blistering pace quickly made him one of Europe’s most admired players.

Often clipping the left wing onto his stronger right foot, Diaz’s technique and finishing mean he’s always a threat in front of goal – but he also has the vision and skill to pick out a pass.

“To be honest, for the family and the whole community, we still may not have realized the growth he’s had,” Robert Fernandez, one of Diaz’s former coaches, told CNN.

“It was so fast: he played a season at Barranquilla FC, then two seasons at Junior as champion and vice-champion of the Sudamericana.

“[He] goes to Porto and wins everything there is to win, goes to Liverpool half season and he just won another one [trophy].

“This Saturday he plays Champions against Real, like you do… I mean for us it’s still inexplicable.”

Barefoot children play soccer on the sandy pitch outside Diaz's family home in Barrancas earlier this month.

Stefano Pozzebon/CNN

During games, the whole family gets together to watch Diaz’s every move on TV. Friends and neighbors, most of whom refer to Diaz with a series of nicknames referring to his nervous physique, such as “noodles” or “skinny”, also pass.

Someone can sport an original jersey signed by the champion, but for most a simple red t-shirt will do.

Every time Diaz wins the ball – regardless of his position on the court – a flurry of “gasps” and “hee! to burst.

Here everyone has a story about the champion: someone remembers that he played in flip flops, others saw him score 17 goals in one game against the nearest city team.

At one point they all played with him on the dusty pitch in front of the house, a small pitch with not enough rocks and boulders to discourage local youth from replicating the likes of Ronaldinho or Lionel Messi on timeless afternoons.

Diaz's father, Luis Manuel Diaz, on the sandy pitch where the soccer star started playing in Barrancas.

Diaz’s father – Luis Manuel – was his son’s first coach and biggest supporter. An avid footballer and amateur player, he coached local coal mine teams after miners’ shifts and brought his sons to watch and learn.

After Luis Fernando, two other sons became footballers.

Barrancas is a typical rural town in the Colombian countryside. The surrounding region, La Guajira, is one of the poorest in the country, wedged between the sea, the desert and the mountains that mark the border with Venezuela.

La Guajira suffers from a chronic lack of employment opportunities. In Barrancas, the biggest job provider is the same mine where Diaz’s father taught football. It’s called Cerrejon – the big hill – and it’s the largest surface coal mine in South America.

Three times a day, groups of miners from surrounding towns jump on buses and enter the mine.

One of Diaz's former coaches is Robert Fernandez.

It is a dry and contaminated world. It’s not an easy place to grow up, let alone become a professional athlete. Hundreds of children of the indigenous Wayuu people live here, settling in the area before the arrival of the Conquistadors.

Diaz himself has Wayuu heritage and although his family say they have never faced extreme poverty, a charity to help local children access better opportunities has already been established.

It is run by Diaz’s cousin, Jose Brito, who has a technical degree in mining engineering, but said he was lucky enough to avoid the coal mine by working for his cousin.

Diaz still returns to Barrancas as often as he can, says Fernandez – and not much has changed since his days here as a boy.

“Every time he comes back here, one of the things he asks for is to play with his close friends, those who played with him at Cluballer FC, the local club here in Barrancas,” he said. .

“The last time he came just after the Copa America, even his father played, then cousins, friends, neighbors, former teammates.

“I coached one team and another friend coached the other. Who won? Who do you think, of course he won, he destroyed the other team. We won five zero.

From local hero to global football star... Luis Diaz is pictured in an Instagram photo.

Big plans are afoot as Diaz’s career has helped catalyze political and economic support. The Colombian Ministry of Sports helps Diaz’s foundation provide physical education coaches and teachers.

The family wants to build a new facility with fields, gymnasiums and classrooms on land outside the city center.

Brito believes the mining town, which has supplied Colombia’s coal for generations, could soon start producing a new generation of footballers inspired by his cousin’s career.

On the day Liverpool won the FA Cup after beating Chelsea on penalties – a game where Diaz was named Man of the Match – his grandfather threw a firecracker skyward.

New sparks to light up the same pitch where his grandson took his first steps in a remarkable football career.

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