As a kid growing up in Colombia trying to turn pro as a footballer, Luis Muriel promised his father, a taxi driver in Barranquilla, that were he ever to make it big the first thing he’d do would be to buy his old man a brand new cab. “I kept my promise,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “I invested the first real money I earned like that in a Chevrolet for him.”
Turns out Muriel senior doesn’t have to work anymore. He has moved the family to Italy to be closer to his son, who is playing for Udinese. The 22-year-old will soon become a father himself. His partner Maria Paula is due to give birth. She was the one who first recognised something in him that many have done since. Muriel looks a lot like the original Ronaldo. The resemblance is uncanny.
“One day I was sat in front of the television,” Muriel explained to Sportweek. “I was watching a programme about World Cups. Maria Paula looked up and jumped from the sofa: ‘That player is identical to you!’ she said. Then she took a photo of the screen and showed it to me. She was right: we look like brothers.”
Ronaldo was Muriel’s childhood idol. “I can’t deny it,” he confessed. Around the age of 10 or 11, he was a ballboy when Colombia played Brazil in a World Cup qualifier in Barranquilla. “At the end of the game I ran towards him to at least say hello but the policemen stopped me.”
While “almost all” his friends supported Juventus or Milan, “to distinguish myself” he rooted for Ronaldo’s Inter. “I still follow them.”
“I always repeat that if I were to do 50% of what [Ronaldo] did, I’d be a happy footballer,” Muriel insisted. To put things into perspective, by his age O Fenômeno had already twice been named FIFA World Player of the Year and had received his first Ballon d’Or too. But Muriel shouldn’t be judged by that standard.
Proclaiming a player ‘The next so and so’ is a reductive exercise. No two players are ever exactly the same. Muriel is his own man and should be appreciated as such rather than through a Ronaldo template or prism. “They tell me that I have his explosiveness but I don’t see similarities,” Muriel argued. “I swear that I don’t think about him on the pitch”
Many in the stands do, though, when they watch him. While not a carbon copy of Ronaldo by any means, there are certain parts of Muriel’s game that call to mind his own. Often he gives the impression that he is unbridled, that no one can hold him. Ronaldo used to push the ball beyond defenders as they converged upon him and burst through the gap like someone jumping on the tube right before the doors close. There’s an element of that in Muriel’s play.
When he’s on the ball the pitch might as well be on a downward slant. Opponents become like poles for a skier to slalom. Writing of Ronaldo, the former Argentina international, Real Madrid technical director and great football aesthete Jorge Valdano remarked upon “his ability to create the illusion of danger even when he starts 50m from goal.” Muriel possesses this too.
Witness, for instance, the run he made against Siena while on loan at Lecce last season. Muriel came short to pick up the ball just inside the opponent’s half. He turned one marker, who gave chase, beat him and then another down the touchline before stepping inside another and then another as he entered the penalty area. Once there he went outside one of the poor souls who he’d already done and drew a foul. The referee pointed to the spot.
It was a case of ‘Now you see me. Now you don’t.’ That’s Muriel. Another trick he pulled against Napoli while still at Lecce was also exemplary of this. Shown away from goal and towards the byline, he dragged the ball back, flicked it around the defender with his heel, went the other side of him to collect it and then pulled a pass back to the edge of the box only for his teammate to see his shot saved. It left many a jaw on the floor.
Destabilising opponents. Wreaking havoc. Spreading panic. This is what Muriel shares with Ronaldo. Incidentally, another thing they have in common is their yo-yoing weight. Brought back to Udinese after the apprenticeships served at satelite club Granada and Lecce, Muriel turned up for summer training camp looking, maybe not like El Gordo, but certainly like he’d overindulged in the off-season.
“If I stop [training] even for just a week,” Muriel explained, “I immediately put on weight. I can only eat salad...” Resisting the temptation of a plate of Sancocho, his favourite dish from Colombia, had obviously been a challenge.
Coach Francesco Guidolin was furious. Not even scoring four goals in a pre-season friendly against Arta Cedarchis was enough for Muriel to escape his wrath. “If he wants to talk to me, he has to lose at least five kilos,” the Udinese boss said. “As long as he doesn’t have an athlete’s physique he won’t be talking with me. He has to work a lot.” And Muriel did just that.
A raw talent, Guidolin has slowly refined him, smoothing the edges to make a more rounded footballer. “I have learned to defend,” Muriel revealed. “Before I only played when I had the ball between my feet. Now I help the team. I cover the spaces.” Above all, though, he scores goals: 11 in 22 matches for Udinese last season.
Yet another player of vast potential discovered by the club’s renowned scouting network, Muriel is also the latest in a long line of Colombian players to emerge after Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez and Jackson Martinez. Talk about a golden generation to rival that which made it to the 1994 World Cup.
And where does Muriel rate among Udinese’s other great finds of recent years? Well who better to ask than striker and captain Antonio Di Natale. He still considers Alexis Sanchez to be the best. “That said, make a note of the name Luis Muriel. He’s got all the qualities needed to become a phenomenon,” the veteran told FIFA.com.
Unsurprisingly, Muriel has already caught the attention of some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Towards the end of the season, he was linked with Atletico Madrid as a replacement for Falcao. Their signing of Léo Baptistão from Rayo Vallecano may have put an paid to that, though. Liverpool have been mentioned too as they face up to the possibility of losing Luis Suarez.
But Udinese aren’t about to cash in on Muriel. Not just yet anyway. “He’s still young,” owner Giampaolo Pozzo said. “I believe that he still has to get more experience in Udine. He has an important price. Let’s not talk money now but 20m euro for a striker of great worth is nothing. For [Edinson] Cavani the price is 60m euro and [Napoli president Aurelio] De Laurentiis is trying to keep him. I don’t put clauses in contracts but if it’s possible we keep them here as long as possible. If the circumstances don’t allow for it, we won’t keep anyone against their will. If someone doesn’t want to stay we need to reach an agreement and do a deal.”
Muriel does want to stay, however. When asked by La Gazzetta dello Sport what the future holds for him, he told the pink paper: "Another year in Udine. It's better for my development." No need then for his father to get behind the wheel of his taxi again and take him to the airport.
James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.