Soccer

Liverpool: Darwin Nunez almost QUIT football at 17 back in Montevideo… now he's an £85m star


He has become the most expensive signing in Liverpool’s history but as a 17-year-old prodigy in Uruguay Darwin Nunez almost quit football after he struggled to come back from a serious knee injury.

As he pulls on a Liverpool shirt for the first time he’ll spare a thought for former Uruguayan international and Penarol youth team coach Jose Perdomo who discovered him and later helped convince him to keep going.

To the former Uruguay U-20 coach Fabian Coito who kept picking him for the national youth side when others, including Darwin himself, had doubts.

Darwin Nunez put injury hell as a teenager behind him to become Uruguay's latest superstar

Darwin Nunez put injury hell as a teenager behind him to become Uruguay’s latest superstar

Nunez's form at Benfica has been recognised with a £85million summer switch to Liverpool

 Nunez’s form at Benfica has been recognised with a £85million summer switch to Liverpool

And to his parents Silvia and Bibiano who inspired his persistence, and who when he moved to Spanish club Almeria he brought six hectares of land for so they could build a new home.

‘I called him the other day and said: “you have forgotten about the old man!”, says Perdomo. The joke was met with a promise to send a signed shirt soon. Perdomo understands that this is a busy time for Liverpool’s record signing.

It was nine years ago when he went to the small town of Artigas on the Uruguay-Brazil border to scout Nunez in an under-13s tournament.

When he told the family he wanted to take him to Montevideo his mum Silvia resisted: ‘Not Darwin too!’ she said having already seen son Junior move to Penarol to try to make it.

Nunez struggled to cope at first with the transition from family life in his small hometown where his mother worked cleaning houses and his father as a builder. The move took him 400 miles south, at first living in shared digs with other young hopefuls in the bustling capital.

And just when he finally began to adapt and advance to Penarol’s B-team he tore the cruciate ligament in his right knee playing in the national league’s second tier.

All progress ground to a halt, all the promise was cast into doubt.

In February 2017, he had surgery on the injury and so tough was the road to recovery that he nearly turned around and headed back home with his parents who by now were with him in Montevideo.

Brother Junior, an attacking midfielder, had by this time given up his dream of playing professionally and would eventually become a policeman. Darwin began to wonder whether his fate would be the same.

He had originally expected to be back from that injury in six months, but it was closer to 18-months before he played regularly again.

Nunez (right, pictured playing for Penarol) struggled to cope with the transition when he was first plucked from his small home town of Artigas to live and play out of Montevideo

Nunez (right, pictured playing for Penarol) struggled to cope with the transition when he was first plucked from his small home town of Artigas to live and play out of Montevideo

Perdomo, who played for Uruguay at Italia ’90 and briefly for Coventry in 1990, has been bringing young talents through at Penarol for 18 years.

Of the recovery from that injury in 2017 he says: ‘He had been promoted to the first team and he wanted to prove himself but he couldn’t because his knee still hurt.’

It was November 2017 when he made that first team debut as a substitute. But it was played through knee-pain and self-doubt and he soon relapsed needing more surgery.

He wanted to go back to Artigas but was talked down. ‘I told him if he was dedicated he would make it,’ says Perdomo. ‘Along with his team-mates we convinced him. And it’s to his huge credit that he kept going, and also that when he left us he chose to move to a second tier team in Europe.’

That second division side was Almeria in Spain where he scored 16 goals in 32 games and put himself on the watch list of most of Europe’s directors of football.

Chelsea’s former Uruguayan international Gus Poyet was soon urging his former club Brighton to sign him. Dan Ashworth was the club’s technical director at the time and tried to make it happen.

Having been convinced not to turn his back on football, Nunez soon became a hot prospect

Having been convinced not to turn his back on football, Nunez soon became a hot prospect

Luis Suarez had seen enough of him as international teammate to tell Barcelona to sign Nunez as his long-term replacement at the Camp Nou. To their regret the advice was not taken.

Núnez was happy down in the south of Spain and he bought his parents land with the money he earned. ‘It’s a gift for everything you did for me,’ he said to them as revealed in an interview with UEFA earlier this year.

Neither Barcelona nor Brighton could match the money offered by Benfica where Nunez moved next, enduring a difficult first season before getting his full Eagles’s wing in his second campaign.

By now he was an established international, a far cry from days when his selection for the U-20s was called into question.

Penarol youth team coach Jose Perdomo (pictured during a spell with Coventry) has spoken to Sportsmail about Nunez's development since being spotted as a teenager in Uruguay

Penarol youth team coach Jose Perdomo (pictured during a spell with Coventry) has spoken to Sportsmail about Nunez’s development since being spotted as a teenager in Uruguay

It was U-20s coach Coito who picked Nunez for the South American U-20 Championships at the start of 2019 even though he was still struggling post injury.

He says: ‘It was tough to get the injury out of his head. Injuries can be hard on a psychological level too.’

He missed chances in that tournament and there was more criticism on social media but Coito persisted and a few months later at the U-20 World Cup in Poland, Nunez was one of the stars.

The now-Liverpool striker never forgot the part his former U-20s coach played sticking by him.

‘I went to coach the Honduras team and we played Uruguay and he came looking for me in our dressing room and we shook hands and he gave me a hug,’ Coito recalls.

‘I just thought: that’s great because it could have been different. As the coach I could have blamed him, pointed the finger at him. But he had positive memories of it despite not scoring the goals.’

How close does Coito believe Nunez came to quitting?

‘He never said it to me but I got the feeling that at one time it had crossed his mind,’ he says.

‘Uruguay is small but the capital can still seem a long way from home. Young players can get frustrated and want to go home quickly especially if they get a major set-back like an injury.’

Coaches needed to keep on top of Nunez as he would regularly doubt his own capabilities

Coaches needed to keep on top of Nunez as he would regularly doubt his own capabilities

He spent time in Spain's second division before honing his talents even more when at Benfica

 He spent time in Spain’s second division before honing his talents even more when at Benfica

Fermin Mendez is a Uruguayan football writer for La Diaria who has followed Nunez’s rise and understands how he began to doubt himself.

‘In Penarol there was a real obligation to deliver,’ he says. ‘You don’t score goals and they might wait a couple of games for you but no more. The younger players can end up hostages to the expectations.’

His move to Almeria came at the same time he earned a call-up to the Uruguayan senior team and he scored within five minutes of coming on against Peru in October of 2019.

He had dreamed of playing alongside Suarez, now he is his international teammate and the new signing of Suarez’s former club.

Does Coito believe there are any similarities? ‘Suarez is more competitive,’ he says. ‘Darwin has a greater natural athleticism. He is quick and he scores goals.

The figure paid for Nunez (right) surpasses the £75m the Reds paid for Virgil van Dijk (left)

The figure paid for Nunez (right) surpasses the £75m the Reds paid for Virgil van Dijk (left)

The 22-year-old Uruguay international joins an extremely talented attack under Jurgen Klopp

The 22-year-old Uruguay international joins an extremely talented attack under Jurgen Klopp

‘He needed to go to Europe to keep developing. Learning about using the space and conserving energy because in Uruguay the strikers run a lot, sometimes too much, although he already had that intelligence of movement and that capacity to get up to top speed very quickly.’

La Diaria journalist Fermin is a Liverpool fan. Not the Merseyside Liverpool but the Montevideo club of the same name who have just won the league in Uruguay. He likens the player more to Suarez’s international team-mate Edinson Cavani.

‘His development with Almeria was tremendous,’ he says. ‘He seems more like Cavani now. He is very complete.’

Nunez will need to adapt at Liverpool, just as he did in Spain with Almeria, and then in Portugal.

But the lessons learned when he was a teenager, far from home, and with a fledgling career in the balance, will only serve to help him do that.





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