It is just after 7am at Cancha Bombona, the simple training ground of Barranquilla FC, but already a group of ambitious teenage footballers are hard at work. One young man, with No 28 on his shorts and a distinctive haircut, catches the eye.
As the temperature soars, he stays cool in possession and the calmness he has on the ball, with his left foot, is a welcome distraction to the constant roar and rumble of wagons on the adjacent highway.
His name is Jesus Diaz. He is 17 and comes from a gifted footballing family. He has two brothers. One is called Roller and he plays in Portugal’s third division. The other also had a spell in Portugal but he has moved on to such an extent that, this weekend, he will try to win the Champions League with Liverpool.
And this is the reason Sportsmail is in this industrial city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It was on these pitches — and with this proud club — that Luis Diaz, one of the stars of the Premier League season, began to hone the talent that, in time, may see him become one of the best in the world.
To say the people of Barranquilla are thrilled by what Diaz is doing is an understatement. The Coliseo Sport Bar in the middle of town hums when the Premier League is being broadcast and a Liverpool Supporters’ Group has seen its membership balloon since he moved to Anfield in January.
Diaz, with his electric pace and trickery, has a skill-set that makes him stand out from the crowd and it quickly becomes apparent that’s always been the case. He was born in Barrancas, a town 200 miles and a six-hour drive to the east of here, but football changed the direction of his life in January 2015.
Sportsmail headed out to Colombia to retrace the route taken by Luis Diaz that has seen him rise into a Liverpool superstar and a Champions League finalist – here, the training ground of Barranquilla FC, where Diaz honed his talents, is pictured
Diaz rapidly cemented himself as a key man in the Liverpool setup after arriving at Anfield in a January transfer from Portuguese giants Porto
Jesus Diaz, Luis’s promising 17-year-old brother, is on the books at Colombian side Barranquilla
‘He came to try out,’ Francisco Sanchez, an administrator at Barranquilla, explains.
‘There were 3,000 players but all we could see was Luis. It was his speed, the velocity and technicality of his play. It was his mentality: practise, practise, practise. He was so humble but he was clearly so special.’
Magia (magic) is a word that comes up often in conversations about Diaz. He was skinny as a boy but he dreamt of emulating his hero Ronaldinho, with fast feet, skills and electric changes of pace and it was immediately obvious to all at Barranquilla that there was something different about him.
Quickly the club moved him over and he lived with his uncle in an apartment. Nicknamed ‘Lucho’, he would be picked up at sunrise each morning on the equivalent of a school bus, transporting him over to Bombona, on the outskirts of town, on a journey that would take the best part of an hour.
‘Lucho always had a smile on his face in training because football comes easy to him,’ Arturo Reyes, the knowledgeable and respected head coach of Barranquilla, says.
Reyes is one of the most important figures in Diaz’s life. He was assistant coach when Diaz arrived in Barranquilla and even gave him his first Colombia senior cap in September 2018 — against Argentina in New Jersey — during a brief stint as caretaker coach of the national side.
Coach Arturo Reyes (centre) is an incredibly significant figure in Diaz’s career path
Reyes tells Sportsmail how Diaz learnt to blend his individual skill with the demands of a team
Reyes very quickly saw the traits in Diaz that have made him into a key player for Liverpool
DIAZ’S ROAD TO PARIS
2016-17: Barranquilla — 42 games, three goals
2017-19: Junior — 108 games, 20 goals
2019-22: Porto — 125 games, 41 goals
2022-present: Liverpool — 25 games, six goals
Diaz has won 21 of his 25 games for Liverpool, losing only one — when he played seven minutes as a substitute in defeat to Inter Milan in the round of 16 second leg
‘From the first day I saw Luis, I could see he was very skilful and could dribble past players,’ Reyes says when training is over.
‘But he was “individualista” — he played on his own but over time he understood he had to play with his team-mates. He learned very quickly. The greatest quality Luis has is his ability to adapt.’
Resilience, it seems, is another huge asset. Some of the coaches at Barranquilla questioned whether he was physically strong enough to withstand the intensity of work but there was a transformation when games started.
‘Luis was 18 when he arrived here,’ says Fernel Diaz, who is Barranquilla’s minor divisions director but is no relation. ‘A coach called Juan Carlos Cantillo started telling people a player had come who was special so we all headed for this pitch to watch him.
‘He was very skilful, loved to dribble. He was skinny though, very thin. He was tall and he was strong — tough, too. But above all he showed he could beat people. What he is showing at Liverpool he showed here from day one.’
Laionell Polo, the master of education and psychology, started working at Barranquilla around the same time as Diaz made his move. ‘He was a joyful player, very spontaneous,’ says Polo, his eyes lighting up as he casts his mind back.
‘Lucho had a way of playing, but a way of living too that was based on the values he had been taught by his family. We always say it is very important that the players have those values for us.
‘They can then build on that and make sure they forge a winning mentality, too. We are forming young men, not just footballers. In that sense, he fits perfectly with the philosophy of our institution. He was able to take on board all that we taught him and the playing ideas the coaches have here.
‘Lucho finds it easy to adapt to the needs of the team. Aside from his incredible individual talent, he was able to strike up a good relationship with his team-mates and it explains why he has been able to adapt so quickly to Liverpool. It’s part of his personality — to get on with the players around him.’
This observation chimes with everything that people at Liverpool say about him. Diaz doesn’t speak English yet but, somehow, he has formed a close bond with Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones.
Diaz’s coaches fondly recall the skills and application that saw him settle so fast in Liverpool
Diaz (right) is good friends with Curtis Jones (centre) even though he can’t yet speak English
One thing they have noticed most about Diaz on Merseyside is the fact he comes into work each morning with a permanent smile and a desire to work relentlessly. When this is explained to Polo, there is a telling nod of the head.
‘It’s got a lot to do with the attitude he has to life,’ says Polo. ‘We all have our way of dealing with things and he had a tough upbringing. There were certain things he went without but he has always used those experiences in a positive way. It’s why he has not allowed success to change him.
‘He is still the same person. What he went through has helped him appreciate what he has now. He has come through adversity. There will be other difficulties to come, but his attitude helps him.’
The talk of adversity relates to Diaz coming from the Wayuu community of indigenous people in northern Colombia where cases of extreme poverty are common.
He was malnourished as a child and when he arrived at Barranquilla to the extent that he was put on a special diet. He grew up with very little but a fire raged inside to maximise the chances that came his way.
‘His talent is clear for everyone to see,’ Polo adds. ‘You have to take into account his genetics, his biology. The fact that he’s a natural athlete… then, on top of that, all the values taught to him by his family and then all that he learned at this institution.’
Diaz joined Liverpool in a £37.5m switch from Porto in the January transfer window
When Diaz arrived at Barranquilla, he was malnourished and went on a special diet
To be at this facility is to understand the sense of pride that one man can bring. In Liverpool, they look at Diaz, who arrived in January for an initial £37.5million from Porto, as a present because his signing was so swift and unexpected.
But in Barranquilla, they regard him as an icon and inspiration. Mention him to any of the youth players and there is an instant smile, thumbs up or they will sing his name — they hope he will one day be regarded as his country’s greatest player.
Time will tell but his legacy in these parts is already secured. Barranquilla, who play in Primera B, are the feeder club for the city’s leading team Atletico Junior and Diaz was elevated to the senior ranks within two seasons.
For a sense of how highly regarded he is, consider this: in the president’s suite at the stadium where Junior — and the Colombian national team — play their home games, there are three signed, framed shirts. One is from the pop star Shakira, another Lionel Messi — the last belongs to Diaz.
‘He went from the Under 21s of Barranquilla to the first team and he immediately became an important player,’ says Reyes. ‘When he went to Junior from Barranquilla he never needed to adapt. He arrived and started playing straight away.
‘At Porto it was the same. He always starts well because he doesn’t need to adapt as his football is all about the joy of playing.
‘We think that players have a better chance of adapting to England if they arrive at the start of the season because they have pre-season. But Luis doesn’t need that period of adaptation, he’s never needed a period of adaptation. What he does at Liverpool and what he did at Porto, he did with the Under 21s in Primera B here. It’s what he is. The essence of his football has not changed. He’s authentic.’
He is also special. There have been six goals in 25 games so far at Liverpool for Diaz, but the sense is that the last four months have simply been a ‘getting to know you’ exercise. Jurgen Klopp has not tried to overload him with information about how his team defends and presses, he has been allowed to adapt in a natural way.
It is next season that Liverpool believe there will be genuine fireworks and Reyes, a man who is evidently a tough taskmaster, smiles at the possibility but then suddenly starts slapping his left leg and wagging his finger in that universal gesture that shows improvement is required.
‘There is no limit to how far Lucho can go,’ he says. ‘He can still get better in certain things. When he plays out on the left and he is right on the chalk line, he has to improve his crossing with his left foot, he has to improve his finishing. He can still get better at those things, always!
‘I have not spoken to him since he went to Liverpool because he changed his number and I want to leave him alone because I know that a lot of people call him. He needs to relax and focus on his football and continue being himself. But he can get better.’
Diaz could become the first Colombian to start a Champions League final this weekend
It’s early days still in Diaz’s Liverpool career and a strong the sense that the best is yet to come
Reyes will be watching on Saturday, when Diaz could become the first Colombian to start a Champions League final. Jesus — who is now under Reyes’s guidance — will be in Paris, too, to see his big brother along with his mother, father and 12 other family members.
This, potentially, could be the most spectacular development in a remarkable individual story but whatever happens against Real Madrid, you sense that a footballer has emerged who will dominate conversations for many years to come. In Barranquilla, they will be watching and bursting with pride.
‘It’s going to be crazy,’ says Fernel Diaz, who provides the last words.
‘We can’t wait. Everywhere here that you can see the final, will be full. And everyone in Barranquilla will support Liverpool. There are a lot of Madrid fans in Colombia but I think everyone will be for Liverpool because of Luis.
‘The fact that he came from here is an inspiration to all the kids coming through. They all want to be Luis Diaz.’