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

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

At home, signs of Diaz’s triumphal march can be seen on every wall, from a series of cups and trophies in the living room to a life-size cardboard cutout of the winger in action.

Outside there is graffiti of the prodigal wearing the jersey of the Colombia national team to catch the attention of passers-by, while his clubs’ shields are painted on the side.

Diaz’s football odyssey took the 25-year-old from humble Cluballer FC to Colombian powerhouse Atletico Junior, to FC Porto in Portugal and then to Liverpool FC.
Making 25 appearances 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 control the ball while running at breakneck speed quickly made him one of the most admired players in Europe.

Diaz often cuts down the left wing onto his stronger right foot and his technique and finishing ensure he’s always dangerous in front of goal – but he also has the vision and skill to nail a pass.

“To be honest, for the family and the wider community, maybe we still haven’t realized the growth he’s had,” Robert Fernandez, one of Diaz’s former coaches, told CNN.

“It happened so quickly: he played one season with Barranquilla FC, then two seasons with Junior as champion and runner-up in the Sudamericana.

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

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

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

During the 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 related to his wiry frame, like “noodles” or “skinny,” also stop by.

Someone might wear an original jersey signed by the champion, but a plain red t-shirt will do for most.

Every time Diaz gets the ball, regardless of where he is on the field, there’s a barrage of “gasps” and “Hee!” breaking out.

Here everyone has a story about the champion: someone remembers that he used to play in flip-flops, others saw how he scored 17 goals in a match against the team from the next town.

At one point they all played with him in the dusty front plaza, a small plot of land with not enough stones and rocks to keep the local youth from imitating Ronaldinho or Lionel Messi on timeless afternoons.
Diaz' ​​father Luis Manuel Diaz on the clay court where the soccer star started the game at Barrancas.

Diaz’s father – Luis Manuel – was his son’s first coach and biggest supporter. A football enthusiast and amateur player, he coached teams at the local coal mine after the miners’ shift and brought his sons along to watch and learn.

After Luis Fernando, two more sons have become soccer players.

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 sea, desert and the mountains that mark the border with Venezuela.

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

Groups of miners from nearby towns board buses and enter the mine three times a day.

One of Diaz's former coaches is Robert Fernandez.

It’s a dry, contaminated world. Not an easy place to grow up let alone become a professional athlete. Hundreds of Wayuu Aboriginal children live here and have settled in the area since before the arrival of the conquistadors.

Diaz himself is of Wayuu heritage, and although his family says they have never faced extreme poverty, a charity has already been set up to help local children achieve better opportunities.

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 he was a boy.

“Whenever he comes back here, one of the things he wants to do is play with his close friends, the ones who played with him at Cluballer FC, the local club here in Barrancas,” he says.

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

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

From local hero to global soccer star... Luis Diaz can be seen in an Instagram photo.

Big plans are being hatched as Diaz’s career has helped provide a catalyst for political and economic support. The Colombian Ministry of Sport helps Diaz’s foundation to provide coaches and physical education teachers.

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

Brito believes the mining town that provided coal for generations in Colombia could soon spawn a new generation of soccer players inspired by his cousin’s career.

On the day Liverpool won the FA Cup after beating Chelsea on penalties – a game that saw Diaz named Man of the Match – his grandfather set off a firecracker into the sky.

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

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