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facing 126 is Darwin Nunez

Gonzalo de Los Santos will always remember seeing Darwin Nunez for the first time. It was the spring of 2018 at Club Atlético Penarol’s Montevideo-based training complex, and it only took a single glance at a half-fit version of the forward for the former Uruguay and Valencia midfielder to uncharacteristically intervene. “When I saw him train after his patella injury, I immediately spoke to the first team coach and told him to include him in the main squad,” Los Santos, the former Penarol sporting director, tells the ECHO. “He had a strong mentality and a strong desire to grow.” While the Uruguayan was recovering from a second major injury to his left knee, Los Santos had become aware of the prodigy’s potential less than a year after joining Penarol’s board of directors. READ MORE: Man City transfer highlights Liverpool problem as FSG sale search continues READ MORE: Five other Liverpool transfer targets in the wake of Jude Bellingham and Konrad Laimer updates On that particular occasion, the recommendation came from the club’s academy director, who wanted to familiarize the 46-year-old with the unconventional frontman who would soon ascend to supremacy in his homeland. “‘Remember this boy because he will go far!'” Los Santos adds, quoting advice given to Nunez as he hobbled around the perimeter of the club’s training pitches in the final stages of his rehabilitation. Nunez has had a breathtaking journey within the professional ranks since such optimistic back-and-forths were exchanged in the depths of Montevideo over four years ago, commanding close to £100m in transfer fees and following in the footsteps of compatriot Luis Suarez in making the move to Liverpool after a brief stint at a European side engrossed in their brilliance of yesteryear. However, on Thursday evening, the boy from the impoverished neighborhood of El Pirata, Artigas, will see his career reach a climax when he dons the sky blue shirt of Uruguay for their World Cup opener against South Korea. It will also be the final classes of Nunez’s unparalleled apprenticeship for La Celeste, as the illustrious duo of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, who have a combined 126 goals in 267 appearances for their country, are set for their international swansongs following the conclusion of this year’s finals in Qatar. The match at Education City Stadium will thus mark the start of a new era for the plucky South American underdogs, who have become masters of defying the odds in international tournaments and are one of only eight countries to have lifted the sacred trophy. Both victories were achieved in less than a decade. The first of the conquests came on home soil in 1930, when Uruguay won the inaugural FIFA World Cup, defeating South American rivals Argentina in a six-goal thriller thanks to four goals in the hosts’ favor. “Those two World Cup victories, as well as the Olympics and Copa America, carry a tremendous amount of weight,” football historian Martin da Cruz, author of From Beauty to Duty, tells the ECHO. “Being the first hosts and winners fuels pride and aspiration, with every Uruguayan hoping to repeat such feats.” It tells the players and fans that anything is possible, with 1930 demonstrating that they can be leaders and 1950 instilling the belief that, while they are never favorites, they can beat anyone.” Football is central to all Uruguayans’ lives. They are obsessed with football. It’s commonplace, and you’ll see it during the World Cup, when the entire country comes to a halt and puts differences aside. For Uruguayans living abroad, the game serves as a source of pride as well as a means of staying connected to their homeland.” The now prosperous municipality of Montevideo holds a special place in the hearts of every native after hosting all 18 matches across only three venues in the inaugural showpiece event 92 years ago. However, the Liverpool striker’s affection for the capital city is understandably heightened. At 14 years old, it was Montevideo that offered the dream-chasing whiz-kid an escape from his origins and later authorized Nunez to migrate 350 miles away from his north-western home in order to pursue his professional dream. “Being a boy from the outskirts of the country, his adaptation was slower than usual,” Los Santos says of one of Penarol’s most successful exports. “Montevideo represents a significant shift! He comes from a humble family who always supports him.” Nunez is hoping for an unexpected return to Montevideo later this year, but this time with the gleaming 18-karat gold World Cup trophy in tow. He, Federico Valverde, and Ronald Araujo are the young leaders of La Celeste, tasked with leading an unlikely quest for glory as all 26 members of Diego Alonso’s squad strive for immortality in their homeland. The 23-year-old is expected to be given a starting spot on the left side of a three-man attack shortly before dusk settles over the Qatari desert on Thursday evening. While Suarez is expected to spearhead the attack, Nunez’s athleticism, bullish practice, and undeniable mastery in disrupting opposing defenses will be hoped to assist his 35-year-old counterpart. Of course, the Liverpool forward is expected to relieve Suarez of the goal-scoring burden that has weighed heavily on his shoulders since Diego Forlan’s retirement in 2014.

Penarol’s Darwin Nunez in action

Regardless of collective or individual success in the Middle East over the next four weeks, Nunez’s participation will be a far cry from the life he led during Penarol’s 2018 title-winning season, when his eye-catching cameos drew an influx of European scouts to the Estadio Campeon Del Siglo to catch a glimpse of a 20-year-old forward quietly forging a promising reputation across the Primera Division, leaving his meteoric Speaking to those who have had a hand in Nunez’s development, the sentiment is one of admiration for the skillset he possesses, with many believing he has the credentials to develop into one of the most complete strikers to arrive in Europe in recent times. That was the impression David Badia had as he returned to his office after his first encounter with the towering Uruguayan in November 2019. At the time, Badia was working as an assistant manager at UD Almeria in Spain’s second division after being invited by the club’s newly appointed manager, and Real Madrid legend, Guti, to help steer the club up the division following a series of chaotic managerial appointments. Despite Nunez’s 16 league goals, the Spanish duo would only last less than a year at the club after failing to achieve promotion, and Badia looks back on his time working with Nunez with great admiration. “He was an extremely talented player,” Badia tells the ECHO. “Nunez had incredible speed and vision in front of the goal.” He was humble at the same time. Guti saw him as a player with a lot of potential. He was always pleasant, friendly, and eager to learn. He knew he had a good chance of progressing in his career with the Spanish second division team and a good coach like Guti.”

Darwin Nunez joins Luis Suarez in celebrating.

After only a few weeks of working with Nunez, the 46-year-old admits that he and Guti were prepared to lose Uruguay’s most compelling prodigal son, even if they did secure an unlikely promotion to La Liga. “We all knew he’d be in a big club and that Almeria would be a short step for him,” Badia adds. “He is a very quick player with an exceptional one-touch finish.” Most importantly, he works hard in the defensive phase. The 48-year-old, who now manages Akritas Chlorakas in Cyprus, will be keeping a close eye on events in the Middle East, hoping his former scholar can steal the show over the next four weeks. When asked if Nunez has the mentality to become the face of Uruguayan football, Badia responds, “Of course.” “He is now beginning to believe in himself and demonstrating to the football community that he is an incredible player.” His former Uruguay directors’ message is also straightforward. “If he puts his mind to it, he has all the potential to be one of the most important soccer players in Uruguay and Europe,” Los Santos says, beaming with pride ahead of La Celeste’s Group H opener. “I want him to go his own way and not be compared to Luis, Edi, or Diego.” People in Uruguay are overjoyed because Liverpool is a massive institution with a long history where Darwin can flourish!” READ NEXT: Kylian Mbappe just demonstrated Liverpool’s potentially dangerous new attacking strategy FSG is stunned by Manchester United’s announcement regarding the sale of Liverpool. Luis Diaz of Liverpool explains his ‘childish’ transfer wish and his meeting with Lionel Messi. What Declan Rice told Jude Bellingham prior to England’s World Cup victory amid Liverpool transfer speculation What Salah and Nunez have accomplished in only ten games is almost unbelievable.