Can Darwin Nunez evolve his game to survive in the Premier League?
Nunez has defied poverty and abusive fans to reach the top with Liverpool but doubts still persist
Even as a slight 13 year-old, there was little doubt where Darwin Nunez would end up. “I still remember the first time I saw him play,” says Jose Perdomo, the man who first discovered Liverpool’s record signing. “Darwin was taller than most kids of his age, very skinny - a player made for Europe.”
Perdomo, who had driven 450 miles through the night to see Nunez playing in a district game, immediately knew he had struck gold. “Over all my years scouting, I had never recommended signing anybody without watching them four or five times,” he says. “But Darwin? No, he was different. I only had to watch him that day. As soon as his game ended, I went to talk to his parents because we had already taken his older brother, Junior, to Penarol.
We couldn’t afford losing any time. He was that special.”
Nunez’s path to the top, however, was not without its bumps. Having been raised in a humble neighbourhood in Artigas, a small town in Uruguay next to the border with Brazil, his main concern was the Cuareim river. Whenever it rained heavily, the river would flood and take with it the few things those around had in their homes.
The Nunez family had little and Darwin would watch his mother, Silvia Ribeiro, collect bottles in the streets for money. She would sometimes skip meals to ensure that her children had something to eat. It became clear very early for the 22-year-old striker that football was the only hope of a better life for them.
Despite some initial hesitation, he ended up upping sticks and moving to Penarol, the Uruguayan big-hitters in Montevideo. By the age of 16, he was already taking part in first-team training sessions.
Nunez brought his parents to live with him, but then he tore his cruciate ligament and was out for almost a year, a cruel blow for a teenager finding his way in the game. In his first game back, he abandoned the pitch in tears and spent six months out. He wanted to quit football.
“People referred to him as the new [Edinson] Cavani for his goalscoring prowess, so the injury was a real blow for him. His self-esteem was very low back then,” Perdomo says.
Nunez, though, resisted the temptation to give up. His brother had already returned home to help their family - the younger sibling’s job was to stick at it. It worked and by 2019 he had been called up to the Uruguay side for the South American under 20 Championship.
The injury problems may have been behind him, but the obstacles kept coming.
Criticism from social media had become such an issue for him during the competition that he was advised by the team’s psychologist, Axel Ocampo, to avoid using his mobile phone after games. Even though he had not been at his best in Chile, Almeria soon came knocking. He was soon off to Spain for €8 million.
“When we bought the club, we wanted a young striker and looked at plenty of options, but Darwin stood out among them,” Almeria’s sporting director, Joao Goncalves, says. “I already knew that he had overcome a lot earlier in his life and concluded that we could use a player with so much hunger to win.”
Goncalves was right. Nunez scored 16 goals in his first and only year in Spain’s second division before being sold to Benfica for a club-record transfer of €24 million in September 2020.
“His future had not been decided when our campaign ended so he went to Ibiza to take some time off. Five days later, my phone rang; that was him asking me to find a physical trainer to work with him because he needed to prepare for the season ahead. That’s his mentality,” Goncalves says.
Unlike in Spain, however, Nunez initially struggled in Portugal and was heavily criticised for his decision-making, and for holding on to the ball too much. Such was the pressure that, after scoring against Pacos de Ferreira in April 2021, he cried.
A year on, though, Nunez defied the odds yet again, scoring twice against Liverpool in the Champions League, finishing last season with 34 goals and convincing Jurgen Klopp to part with €100 million for him. Surely, then, he departs an idol of Benfica?
Not quite. The lasting memory for many fans in Portugal is of a player erratic in his decision making, too often caught offside, with a poor first touch and questionable link-up play. There is a feeling in Lisbon that this deal is even better for the club than the eyebrow-raising €126 million fee that they secured from Atletico Madrid for Joao Felix. Doubts persist among supporters that he is a “Liverpool player”.
That is not a feeling shared by the man who has been there from the start, however. “Uruguayans can adapt to any place,” Perdomo says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the Russian winter or the Saudi summer. Darwin is no different and will show that once again.”
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