Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez: From a hospital bed to the Premier League

Fernando Curutchet can still remember the moment when he feared he had unwittingly ruined Darwin Nunez’s career.

It was late 2016. Curutchet, the director of Penarol’s academy, had been asked to take charge of the first team for the final few games of the season. His job was to steady the ship, but he had other plans: he wanted to introduce the world to the explosive, irrepressible striker who had been making mincemeat of opposition defenders for years in the youth leagues.

Nunez was only 17, but Curutchet knew he was ready. There was only one issue: the under-23 team were fighting for a league title and wanted Nunez to play in the run-in. Curutchet reluctantly assented and waited for word of Nunez’s latest exploits.

But the news, when it came, was devastating. Nunez had gone up for a header in a game against Sud America and landed awkwardly. His knee had buckled under the weight of his body, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament.

“I got a lump in my throat when I found out what had happened,” Curutchet tells The Athletic, emotion adorning his voice. “Apparently the pitch was in a poor state. It was such a bad injury at what should have been his big moment.”

Rationally speaking, Curutchet was not remotely to blame. Yet he was overcome by a feeling of unease that only subsided when he visited Nunez in hospital. He went there to offer consolation and succour; instead, it was the teenager who comforted him.

“He had such a mature attitude,” recalls Curutchet. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry. Don’t feel guilty. It’s just life. I will recover and keep moving forward. It’s just one of those things I have to get past’.”

Nunez, now a hit with Liverpool, pictured after his knee injury (@Rlima5dt/Twitter)

This was not the first obstacle Nunez had to clear on his journey to the highest level. Nor was it to be the last. Any telling of the Nunez story will touch upon the hunger pangs he experienced as a child, the homesickness, the tears shed during every training session for months because that knee still wasn’t right.

But his outlook in that hospital bed — the clear-headed, self-pity-is-for-suckers grit that bowled Curutchet over — was telling. For all Nunez’s technical and physical attributes, those who know him best agree that what makes him really special is that inner strength — the ability to face hardship and resist, as another of his former coaches puts it.

“He has this huge resilience inside him, this desire to keep going,” says Curutchet. “It is one of his big virtues.”

Nunez grew up in Artigas, in Uruguay’s rural north. The city sits next to the Cuareim, a river that separates Uruguay and Brazil over some 250km.

Artigas, jutting up into a curve in the flow, looks like it quite fancies being on the other side. Sometimes the water itself seems to like the idea, too: the Cuareim is an unruly thing and is prone to overflowing its banks when heavy rains come.

Many houses in the poorer parts of the city are built on the flood plane. Nunez lived in one of them. It was not uncommon to see families rebuilding their homes — rebuilding their lives — every few years. It is the kind of place where resolve is simply written into your DNA. At which point we should probably call the Obvious Metaphor Police before we have a real situation on our hands.

The Nunez family had to grind to make ends meet. Darwin’s father, Bibiano, worked in construction. His mother, Silvia, did some shifts as a cleaner and collected glass bottles in the street. She could sell them later, but not for much; there was not always enough money to feed everyone.

“I sometimes went to sleep with an empty stomach,” Nunez told El Observador in 2019. “But it was my mum who went hungry the most, so us kids had something to eat.”

Nunez played local youth football until 2013, when he was picked up by Penarol, one of Uruguay’s most historic teams. His first trip down south to Montevideo proved to be a false start. He was only 14 and all alone, 600km from home. Understandably, he missed his family. After a couple of months, he returned to Artigas.

A year later, he tried again, with the promise that his parents would come to the capital to accompany him for longer spells. It helped that his older brother, Junior, had also been asked to join the Penarol academy.

This time, he made it stick. Nunez joined the under-16 side and set about making up for lost time.

“He was fast and powerful, even before he started to grow into his body and put on a bit more muscle,” recalls Curutchet.

“His physical attributes allowed him to dominate opponents with ease. The other team could never really stop him. He also had a good shot from outside the area, which was a big weapon at that age.

“Darwin already looked like the kind of player who would go as far as he wanted in the game. If he had a ceiling, he would decide where it was. You could not fail to see his quality.”

In the youth teams, Nunez usually played up front in a 4-4-2. He studied videos of Edinson Cavani and tried to mimic his movements, particularly his diagonal runs in behind the defence. But Nunez’s superiority was such that he did not always have the patience to wait for a cross or a through ball.

“He was an individualist,” says Curutchet. “If nothing was happening, he would drop back to get the ball, turn and cause problems. He created a great number of goals for himself.

“I always remember a goal he scored against Liverpool (the Uruguayan team based in Montevideo) at under-17 level. He dribbled half the length of the field. At that point, I knew he had nothing left to learn in that age category. He needed a bigger challenge.”

Nunez started to train with the first team. Then came that crushing injury, which kept him out of action for the best part of a year. His positive attitude carried him through the surgery and the rehab, but the recovery did not go as smoothly as everyone had hoped: when he returned to training, he felt a nagging pain his knee.

“He said he felt something scraping inside it,” says Fabian Estoyanoff, a former Uruguay international who was one of Nunez’s mentors in Penarol’s senior squad. “For some time, they couldn’t work out what the problem was. They thought it was tendonitis. It was very frustrating for him.”

In the end, it went far beyond frustration. Leonardo Ramos, who took over as first-team coach at the start of 2017, says that Nunez was so distraught that he wanted to give football up altogether.

“He’d end every training session in tears,” Ramos tells The Athletic. “At one stage I took him aside and asked him how he was. He told me he wanted to quit football and return to Artigas. He said he could not take the pain. He said that he loved playing but that he could not give 100 per cent because of his knee. It was a lot to cope with. He was clearly feeling really low.”

Nunez, playing for Penarol, leaps for a header (Credit: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images)

Ramos refused to let Nunez walk away. “We had a father-son chat,” he says. “When you speak to a player in that way, sometimes you are gentle and other times you need to be firm. I told him to remember his dreams. In that moment, I wanted to reawaken the footballer he had inside him.”

Ramos gave Nunez his first-team debut in November 2017, asking him to play through the pain for a glimpse of what the future might look like. When further exams showed extra bone growth on Nunez’s patella, he travelled to Argentina for another operation.

He did not play again until the following June. In total, apart from that one brief substitute appearance, Nunez spent a year and a half on the sidelines.

“He had to have patience,” says Curutchet. “It strengthened him. He overcame it, but it was a time of sacrifice. He showed huge personality.”

Nunez did not immediately become a fixture in the side after returning to fitness. Ramos often used him as an impact substitute — someone who could make life difficult for tired defenders.

“Darwin’s biggest strengths at that time were the intelligence of his movement and his pace,” says Ramos. “He was very clever. He found space in the same way the great players do. And he had amazing acceleration. He knew he could outrun anyone and he used that pace well.

“Playing against Darwin was like being under siege. He was one of those players you couldn’t leave alone for 10 seconds.”

Estoyanoff is similarly effusive in his praise. “He had this really long stride,” he says. “He usually played out on the left. He’d control the ball, knock it down the line, past his marker, and then set off at amazing speed.

“And he was always, always thinking about the goal. If he scored one, he wanted two. If he scored two, he wanted three. He was obsessed. That’s Darwin. He’s a predator. He’s never satisfied.”

Nunez’s goal record in those early days suggests they sell rose-tinted spectacles in Montevideo — or at least that he must have been absolutely deadly in training. Nunez scored once in 12 matches for Penarol in 2018. He started 2019 with Uruguay’s under-20 side, playing at the South American Championships, but failed to find the net. Five goalless club matches followed.

It was only at the Under-20 World Cup that things started to click. Nunez scored a stunning volley in Uruguay’s opening game against Norway and followed it up with an instinctive finish against New Zealand. He returned to Penarol with his tail up and promptly netted a hat-trick against Boston River.

That blitz was enough to convince Almeria, newly ambitious after an injection of Saudi money, to pay an initial $4.5 million (£3.7m) for his services.

“His characteristics were exactly what I wanted,” says Pedro Emanuel, the coach who signed him. “Mobility, movement, finishing ability, technical quality… We knew that Darwin would add those things to our team.”

It was, nonetheless, a gamble. Nunez had only scored in two of his 22 appearances for Penarol. He was in the strange position of being both a relative unknown and someone of whom great things were immediately expected, thanks to what was, by the standards of Spain’s second division, a gigantic transfer fee.

Those worries soon dissipated. Nunez lent dynamism and power to the Almeria attack, just as Emanuel had predicted. The move to Andalusia allowed Nunez to buy his parents a house and six hectares of land back home, but it was clear he was not there simply to pick up an easy pay check.

“He really identified with the club,” says Emanuel. “He quickly understood Almeria’s DNA. He is the kind of player that every fan loves, because he gives his life in every match.”

Nunez’s performances for Almeria alerted leading clubs in Europe to him (Photo: Manuel Queimadelos/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

It helped that Nunez was able to add more cutting edge to his game. He compiled a highlight reel of thumping finishes — note to all footballs: don’t make an enemy of this guy — and ended the season with 16 league goals.

That put him on the radar of bigger clubs; when Almeria failed to secure promotion, his departure was inevitable. In September 2020, he moved to Benfica for €24 million.

You probably know much of the rest, at least in the broad strokes. Nunez had a mixed, COVID-interrupted first season but exploded in 2021-22, netting 26 times in 28 league games and taking the Champions League by storm.

Liverpool, of course, got a crash course in Darwinism in April. But for Nelson Verissimo, Benfica’s caretaker coach for the last five months of last season, that was just a small taster of what Nunez can do.

“Physically, he’s an animal,” Verissimo tells The Athletic. “There is a real intensity to his play. He’s really fast and very good at attacking space, making runs in behind a defensive line.

“When people talk about classic No 9s, I think about forwards who like to position themselves in that central corridor, close to the penalty area. But Darwin is a player who also likes to run into the channels, particularly down the left. He scored quite a few great goals like that, drifting left, dribbling inside and shooting.”

For Verissimo, Anfield is the perfect place for Nunez to hone his craft. “Honestly, after the season Darwin had, and particularly those performances in the Champions League, I always thought he would be a great fit at Liverpool,” he says.

“I think he suits the way they play. It was just a personal feeling, but now it has become a reality. I’m sure that Darwin will show what he can do.”

Nunez is still only 23. It makes sense that he is still sanding off some of the rougher edges of his game. What, then, should Jurgen Klopp be working on with him?

“He needs to be more objective,” says Emanuel, his former coach at Almeria. “There is an altruism to his game, but sometimes his desire to help the team means he loses his position and roams about. He spreads himself too thin. He will have to understand that Liverpool will need him to be in the penalty box, to score goals.”

Klopp will need to develop Nunez’s first touch and defensive skills to help him fulfil his potential (Photo: Getty Images)

Verissimo picks out a more technical aspect of Nunez’s game: “His first touch… making sure it takes him into space. It’s about orientation: when he receives the ball, he needs to be able to take one touch — two maximum — and be in a position to shoot. When he has the ball in front of him, he finishes brilliantly.

“But what he has to work on most is the defensive side of the game. One-on-one duels, positioning, protecting the right spaces, knowing the right moment to lead the press… he has to know his job in the team’s defensive processes.”

The Premier League is, by any metric, another big step up for Nunez. Liverpool will doubtless preach patience, but that stratospheric transfer fee will make scrutiny and pressure unavoidable.

“I’m not surprised he has joined a team like Liverpool, because I know about his quality,” says Emanuel. “But I never thought things would go so quickly. I can’t lie: it’s a lot of money for a 23-year-old. There will be a weight on him. People will look at him differently due to that fee.”

Those who know Nunez best, though, do not think he will be found wanting in terms of mentality and he showed no nerves in scoring off the bench in Saturday’s Community Shield. “He has an enormous capacity to learn,” says Verissimo, while his former mentors back home all point to his inner strength.

“Darwin has perseverance, resolve, the adaptability to deal with new things,” says Curutchet. “He’s a big personality who knows how to face adversities.”

National stereotypes are not normally very instructive, but multiple people tell The Athletic that they see Nunez as a distinctly Uruguayan footballer, exhibiting the same traits that have made some of his countrymen — Cavani, say, or Luis Suarez — such success stories at the top level.

“He embodies our football culture,” says Gustavo Ferreyra, who coached him in the Uruguay Under-20 side. “He has this ability to deal with difficult situations, to resist. The aggression, the predisposition to work, with or without the ball. If he has to press, he does it with maximum intensity — sometimes even too much. That’s a characteristic of Uruguayan players: that aggression, that solidarity with the team.”

Nunez celebrates his first competitive goal for Liverpool (Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

That view is echoed by Estoyanoff. “Determination, rebelliousness, a sense of comradeship: those are the virtues of the best Uruguayan players. Darwin has them.”

These are the attributes that seem most likely to endear Nunez to the Liverpool fans in the months ahead. His route from the floodplains of Artigas to Anfield was not always the easiest, but it strengthened him, supercharged his tenacity. If he fails, it will not be for a lack of effort or commitment.

“He knows that his has been a story of hard work and sacrifice,” concludes Emanuel. “He takes that into every training session and every game. He’s a fighter.

“The solidarity, the work ethic, the collective spirit… he fits Liverpool like a glove.”