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 the red 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.
And to former Uruguay U20 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
Nunez’s form at Benfica has been recognised with a £85million summer switch to Liverpool
‘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 Perdomo 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 to a move 400 miles south, 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 to his mum, and brother Junior, who by this time, had given up his dream and was back working in Artigas.
Nunez originally expected to be back from that injury in six months, but it was closer to a year 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
It’s hard enough for a teenager to adapt to life far from his family but take away the reason he’s there – playing football – and it can become insufferable.
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.’
Nunez was back in action in November of 2017 making his debut for Penarol’s first team as a substitute. But it was a debut 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 he chose to move to a second tier team in Europe (Almeria where he scored 16 goals in 32 games and earned a move to Benfica).’
Another who never lost the faith was Coito who picked Nunez for Uruguay’s Under-20s and stuck with him until his self-belief returned.
Having been convinced not to turn his back on football, Nunez soon became A hot prospect
Coito had wanted to pick Nunez for the U20 World Cup, won by England, in June 2017 but that knee injury ruled him out.
When Nunez slowly returned to fitness Coito selected him for the South American U20 Championships at the start of 2019.
He says: ‘It was tough to get the injury out of his head. Injuries can be hard on a psychological level too. He was young and it came at such a key moment in his early career.’
He missed chances in that South American U20’s tournament and there was more criticism on social media. But Coito persisted and a few months later at the U20 World Cup in Poland, Nunez was one of the stars.
The now-Liverpool striker never forgot the part his former U20s coach played. ‘I was with him during a very important part of his career because it was a time when he was not at his best,’ Coito says.
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
‘We had a lot of long conversations. He was frustrated because he had not had the tournament he wanted.
‘In Uruguay the U20s team is a big thing because it’s what projects you into a whole new market. If you have a good U20 tournament you get a big move. He started to think that his career was not going to be what he’d imagined.
‘Later that year, when I was by this time coaching the Honduras team, we played Uruguay and he came looking for me in our dressing room and we shook hands and he gave me a hug.
‘By now he had played a great U20s World Cup for Uruguay scoring a brilliant goal against Norway. 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. ‘I think he spoke about it in an interview too. I think he missed his brother and he thought about whether or not he should continue in Montevideo.
‘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
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. ‘There’s no time given to you. 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.’
Having finally met those expectations there was no stopping Nunez. A call-up to the Uruguayan senior team and a goal within five minutes of coming on against Peru followed in October of 2019. Now he looks set to play alongside Luis Suarez in the Qatar World Cup and it’s Suarez’s former club Liverpool who have made him theirs for a fee rising to £85million.
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. He has so many good qualities.
‘The first time we saw him it was his ability to get away from defenders that stood out. I wouldn’t want to be a defender against Darwin because of the mobility and movement that he has.
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
‘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. He’s a very intelligent player.’
La Diaria journalist Fermin is a Liverpool fan. Not the Merseyside Liverpool but the Montevideo club of the same name. They have just won the ‘Apertura’ in Uruguay – a good omen maybe. He likens the player more to Suarez’s international team-mate Edinson Cavani.
‘His development in Spain’s second tier was tremendous,’ he says. ‘He seems more like Cavani now. He is very complete.’
He’ll 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.