When the spotlight flashed on his face, his trembling hand finally signing the contract that will make him a Liverpool player until 2028, Darwin Nunez’s thoughts will likely have drifted back into his past.
He will have remembered his childhood in El Pirata, a humble working-class neighborhood in Artigas, in Northwestern Uruguay located in an area next to the Cuareim River that’s prone to flooding. He will have remembered all the nights he went to bed without dinner and the daily struggles of his mother, who collected bottles she found in the streets to sell so she had enough money to eat. He will think of his father coming home tired after the daily grind at the construction site, hoping to be able to buy boots for his son.
The newest Liverpool striker arrives at Anfield with a story worth telling, one of sacrifice and overcoming obstacles, not to mention that Nunez almost quit football twice.
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Nunez’s first experience with big-time football came as a teenager running around the streets of El Pirata. One afternoon in 2013, as he played on a remote pitch in Artigas, legendary Uruguayan midfielder Jose “El Chueco” Perdomo, a former star player at Penarol, showed up and stood on the sidelines to watch.
As soon as the match ended, El Chueco headed straight for the parents of the skinny kid who had caught his attention. A few days later at the bus station, 14-year-old Darwin said a tearful goodbye to his parents, Silvia Ribeiro and Bibiano, as he headed off to Uruguay’s capital.
Once in Montevideo, Darwin stayed at the Penarol academy; however, he was cut after the first few training sessions.
“I don’t know what happened, but I didn’t stay there,” Nunez told me in an article for Uruguayan newspaper El Observador. “I went back to Artigas. I returned after a year, and [Juan] Ahuntchain was the coordinator. We talked, and he said I would be needed at Penarol. Then, I told my parents I was staying.”
At the time, Nunez’s older brother was already at Penarol but, not long after Darwin’s struggles, Junior Nunez returned to Artigas to help his family. Darwin tried to follow in his footsteps, but big brother told him to stay put.
“Stay here. You have a future. I’m out,” Junior said, a gesture that Darwin will always remember.
The striker stayed in the Penarol academy for two-and-a-half years until manager Leonardo Ramos promoted him to the senior team at 16. At the time, he asked his agent Edgardo Lasalvia to bring his parents to Montevideo.
Young Darwin’s career began to flourish, and he was promoted to play a match against Sud America at Fossa Park. In the middle of the match, Darwin jumped while challenging for the ball and twisted his knee as he fell. Subsequent examinations revealed a torn ACL, which required surgery. He spent 18 months without stepping on the pitch, his world crashing down around him.
“It was a difficult moment. I wanted to quit football back then,” he recalled. “I was going to work at Artigas; there was no other way for me. I had to start thinking of [life as] an eight-hour shift.”
Darwin remembered the sacrifices his older brother made for him, and that was the one thing that kept him going. Darwin recovered and eventually played again, but another crushing blow was just around the corner.
Fernando Curutchet, Penarol’s manager at the time, called him up to play against River Plate in November 2017. In the 63rd minute, Darwin was called on as a substitute for former Liverpool player Maxi Rodriguez. Nunez would leave the field in tears, not because of the 2-1 loss, but for the pain in his knee. He had to undergo surgery again, this time on his kneecap.
Darwin returned the next year, and in October 2018 he scored his first goal in a 2-0 victory over Fenix. A few months later, Nunez was called up to the Uruguay under-20 squad that played in the 2019 South American Championships and the World Cup in Poland. He was also a member of the team that participated in the Pan American Games. He had arrived as a national team player and, a year after scoring his first senior club goal, he debuted with the senior Uruguayan national team in a friendly match against Peru, and scored to seal a 1-1 draw.
In August 2019, Penarol confirmed his transfer to Spanish side Almeria. His future, and that of his family, were going to change forever. Nunez’s life seemed like a fairytale. Finally, he would be able to achieve his biggest dream.
“We owned a house in Artigas, but it fell apart when we came to Montevideo. Luckily, I will be able to buy a house for my parents,” Nunez said.
In September 2020, Nunez caused a stir during the European transfer window. Almeria transferred him to Benfica for €24 million, making him the most expensive incoming transfer in the history of Porugal’s Primeira Liga.
It might seem far-fetched, but Nunez’s career has progressed at a dizzying pace. In just five years he had made his debut at Penarol, got called up by the Uruguay national team, moved to Europe and became the most expensive signing in Portuguese football history. Now, he’s one of the most expensive transfers of all time, with Liverpool potentially spending as much as €100m to sign him (factoring in add-ons and performance bonuses).
Despite all that, Nunez is still the same kid he always was, and he doesn’t forget about his past. In a recent Instagram post, he shared an image of the door of his old house, writing: “My house, where I was happy for 14 years! I will never forget where I came from and always remember it fondly.”
How can you forget a place if you spent so many nights going to bed without having dinner, witnessing all the sacrifices your parents made for you?
“I went to bed with an empty belly,” he said. “But the one who went to bed with an empty belly most often was my mother, because a mother does anything for her children, so she went to bed without having dinner so many times, just to give us something to eat. I was raised in a poor neighbourhood. There, I learned by sharing things with friends; each one brought something.
“It was the same thing at school; when I didn’t have anything to eat, I went to school full-time. I got in at 7 a.m. and left at 3 in the afternoon. My parents were working, and I went to training sessions when I left school. Mom wasn’t there yet, because she went to the street to collect bottles, selling them to buy stuff for my brother and me. I don’t forget that.”