Darwin Nunez: Benfica striker wanted by Barcelona who could return to haunt Catalans
Barcelona host Benfica on Tuesday knowing they must avoid defeat to ensure their hopes of reaching the Champions League knockout stages remain in their own hands.
This is a problem, however, that could have been avoided had the club’s board been able to heed the advice of their former striker Luis Suarez.
While Darwin still played for Almeria in the Spanish second tier, Suarez urged the Barca hierarchy to sign his compatriot.
“I have 15 years of international experience, so I know a thing or two about forwards,” Suarez revealed. “And I told them, ‘pay attention to this one, he’s very good, he has very interesting things’.”
Barcelona did push for a deal. But amid the financial crisis the club still faces now, ultimately they could not come to an agreement and watched Benfica spend a club record transfer fee of 24m euros (£20m) to take the forward to Lisbon in September 2020.
“Barcelona, indeed, showed a strong interest in Darwin. We discussed how the operation would be and outlined it, but they were already going through a tough time back then and that complicated things,” Almeria’s sporting director Joao Goncalves explained to BBC Sport.
“I’m convinced that, had those talks happened in a less turbulent period for them, he would have moved to Barcelona.
“What was on the table was the possibility of them signing Darwin and leaving him with us for another season on loan. Pretty much like they had done before with Pedri at Las Palmas.”
None of this materialised, though, and now the 22-year-old will head to the Nou Camp for the first time with the chance to haunt them again.
‘No, you’re not taking my other son’
For someone who grew up on the Brazilian border in the small town of Artigas and fearing, for much of his childhood, that a river flood would destroy his house, playing Barcelona away is no pressure at all.
Despite the struggles the humble Nunez family experienced, they have always stayed together.
The first of them to leave home was the eldest son, Junior, who impressed Uruguayan powerhouse Penarol and packed his things to the capital Montevideo after former international Jose Perdomo came for him.
The former midfielder, who played four times for Coventry City in 1990 and had spells with Genoa and Real Betis, worked as a scout covering the north of the country for his former club Penarol. Perdomo remembers joking on his way out that, a couple of years later, he would be back for their youngest son, Darwin, too.
He was not kidding, although things ended up not being as simple as he had hoped.
“When he turned 13, I got in touch again with the father [Bibiano Nunez] about bringing Darwin to Penarol and he agreed,” Perdomo recalled.
“But then, when I arrived in Artigas, the mother [Silvia Ribeiro] was there and told me: ‘Perdomo, you have already taken Junior from me, but Darwin, no, you will not take. Let’s wait a bit more because he’s still too young and I don’t want to lose him. I already miss Junior a lot.’
“It was a very difficult situation. It took three, four months to convince the mother. And when we finally did, you can say that she wasn’t very friendly to me. She got very angry.”
Darwin got to Penarol in 2013 and quickly rose through the ranks at the club. By 2015, at the age of 16, he took part in a senior team training session for the first time. He couldn’t have been happier.
At the beginning of 2017, he was forced to have surgery on his cruciate ligament and was sidelined for a year and a half. It was a huge blow and even made him consider retiring from football.
However, his family and colleagues stood by his side and so, in 2018, he returned in time to secure a place in the South American Under-20 Championship the following year.
His performances in Chile were hugely criticised on social media, which became an issue for Darwin, who took advice from the team’s psychologist. From then on, he stopped checking his phone after matches.
Despite that, he still managed to get himself on the radar of Almeria. The Spaniards needed a young striker and decided to take a gamble on him, paying 8m euro to Penarol in 2019. He was an instant hit, going on to score 16 goals in his first and only season for the club.
“It was a matter of timing – perhaps if we had gone for Darwin six months later, we wouldn’t have been able to purchase him,” said Goncalves.
“Fortunately, we did it in a moment when he was starting to score at Penarol, but hadn’t become a sure thing. Even though he had not done well for the under-20 side, we believed there was something special about him and were rewarded for that.
“When he left for Benfica, we were all wondering how he would perform in normal circumstances. If he did what he did in a pandemic context, imagine what he’s capable of.”
Perdomo shares the same enthusiasm as he added: “If you consider Diego Forlan, Edinson Cavani and Suarez, they all have different characteristics, so I don’t think you can compare them.
“What actually excites me about Darwin is that I think he still has a lot to evolve, he has no ceiling. He’s Uruguay’s future number nine.”