By Stefano Pozzebon, CNN
The house of the Diaz-Brito family stands at the end of a leafy road in a large mining town in northwestern Colombia, but it might as well be a stone’s throw from Anfield Stadium for the passion it breathes when Liverpool is playing.
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 leading role in Liverpool’s FA Cup triumph and the close run for the Premier League title.
On Saturday, Diaz will have a chance to do something no Colombian footballer has done before: both play in a Champions League final and win it, as Liverpool faces Real Madrid in Paris’ Stade de France.
At home, signs of Diaz’s triumphant march are present on every wall, from a series of cups and trophies in the living room to a full-size cardboard figure of the winger in action.
Outside, there is graffiti of the prodigal son wearing the Colombian national team jersey to grab the attention of passersby, while the shields of his clubs are painted on the side.
Diaz’s football odyssey has taken the 25-year-old from the humble Cluballer FC down the road onto Colombian powerhouse Atletico Junior, to Porto FC in Portugal and then Liverpool FC.
Diaz’s ability to maintain close control of the ball while running at blistering pace quickly made him one of the most admired players in Europe.
Often cutting in off the left wing onto his stronger right foot, Diaz’s technique and finishing mean he is 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 entire community, we still haven’t realized perhaps the growth he had,” Robert Fernandez, one of Diaz’s former coaches, told CNN.
“It was so quick: he played one season at Barranquilla FC, then two seasons at Junior as champion and vice champion of the Sudamericana.
“[He] goes to Porto and wins everything that there is to win there, goes to Liverpool for half a season and he has just won another [trophy].
“This Saturday he plays the Champions (League final) against Real, as you do … I mean for us it’s still inexplicable.”
During matches, the entire family joins together to follow Diaz’s every move on television. Friends and neighbors, most of whom refer to Diaz with an array of nicknames referencing his wiry physique, such as “noodles” or “skinny,” also swing by.
Someone may sport an original jersey signed by the champion, but for most, a simple red t-shirt will do.
Any time Diaz gets the ball — regardless of his position on the pitch — a flurry of ‘gasps’ and ‘hee!’ erupt.
Here, everyone has a story about the champion: someone remembers he used to play in flip flops, others witnessed him scoring 17 goals in one match against the team from the closest town.
At some point, they all played with him in the dusty pitch in front of the house, a small plot with not enough stones and rocks to discourage the local youth to replicate the likes of Ronaldinho or Lionel Messi on timeless afternoons.
Diaz’s father — Luis Manuel — was the first coach and his son’s biggest supporter. A football enthusiast and amateur player, he used to train teams from the local coal mine after the miners’ shifts and would bring his sons to watch and learn.
After Luis Fernando, two more sons have become football 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 the sea, the desert and the mountains that mark the border with Venezuela.
La Guajira suffers from a chronic lack of job opportunities. In Barrancas, the largest job provider is the same mine where Diaz’s father taught football. It’s called Cerrejon — the big hill — and is the largest open-pit coal mine in South America.
Three times a day, groups of miners from the surrounding towns jump on buses and enter the mine.
It’s a dry, contaminated world. Not an easy place to grow up in, let alone to become a professional athlete. Hundreds of children from the Wayuu indigenous people live here, settling in the area since before the arrival of the Conquistadores.
Diaz himself has Wayuu heritage and, while his family says they never faced extreme poverty, a charity to help local kids reach better opportunities has already been set up.
It’s run by Diaz’s cousin, Jose Brito, who holds a technical degree as a mining engineer, but said he was lucky enough to avoid the coal pit by working for his cousin.
Diaz still returns to Barrancas as often as he can, Fernandez says — and not much has changed since his days here as a boy.
“Whenever he comes back here, one of the things he asks is to play with his close friends, those 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 dad played, then the cousins, friends, neighbors, former teammates.
“I coached a team and another friend coached the other one. Who won? Who do you think, of course he won, he destroyed the other team. We won five nil.”
Big plans are being drawn up as Diaz’s career has helped provide a catalyst for political and economic support. The Colombian sports ministry is helping Diaz’s foundation provide coaches and physical education teachers.
The family wants to build a new facility with pitches, gyms, and classrooms on a patch of land outside the city center.
Brito believes the mining town, which furnished Colombia’s coal for generation, could soon start turning out a new generation of football players inspired by his cousin’s career.
On the day Liverpool won the FA Cup after beating Chelsea on penalties — a fixture where Diaz was awarded Man of the Match — his grandfather launched a firecracker towards the sky.
New sparks to light up the same pitch where his grandson took his first steps in a remarkable football journey.
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.