Europe has always been known to feed on the innumerable talents in South American’s top football leagues, but Colombia has never been a popular hunting ground for European clubs. Yet, we’ve seen the Serie A poach a fair number of talented youngsters from the Categoría Primera A over the last few years, not a comparably large number though.
Although the Categoría Primera A has witnessed the rise of a few new clubs, Deportivo Cali, a powerhouse in the 1960’s and 70’s, has continued to produce some notable talents over the last few years. Former Udinese center back, Cristain Zapata, and Milan’s Mario Yepes are two of the more famous players to have made the shift from Cali to Italy.
In 2008, Deportivo Cali signed a 16-year-old striker from Junior. He spent his first season in Cali’s youth squad, and was promoted to the senior side at the ripe age of nineteen. Goal scoring seemed to come very naturally to this young lad, as he managed an impressive tally of nine goals in just eleven games. The boy remained relatively inconspicuous – Luis Muriel was far from being heralded as a future superstar.
A few years before Muriel started playing competitive football, fellow countryman Cristian Zapata arrived in Friuli after he was signed by Udinese from Deportivo Cali. Sadly for Zapata, the Zebrette went through an unexpectedly unstable phase over the next few years. The Colombian defender was used all across the defensive line, and eventually managed to build a name for himself. Versatility, composure, solidity and an eye for goal – he had it all. Udinese had managed to find themselves a partial solution to their defensive woes. His career defining season came in 2010-11, with the arrivals of coach, Francesco Guidolin, and defensive partner, Mehdi Benatia. Under the tutelage of Guidolin, Zapata and Benatia forged one of the best defensive partnerships in the Serie A. Having conceded just 43 goals in the Serie A last season, it was clear that Udinese had found a gem in Zapata. Zapata used this breakthrough season as a pedestal. It allowed him to make the jump to a more regular Champions League competitor, Vilarreal. Sadly for Zapata, he hasn’t been able to adapt to the La Liga’s more fluid style. Putting aside this failure in Spain, Zapata had proven that Cali did have talent and Udinese were to reap from this. A partnership had been formed. Udinese now knew that the Colombian side could possibly be a storehouse for talent.
In Zapata’s final season at Udinese, the club signed Muriel from Cali. Having seen their previous Cali product become one of Europe’s most highly touted youngsters, one would have expected Guidolin and Co. to show a good deal of faith in Muriel. But with the likes of Antonio Di Natale, Alexis Sanchez and Antonio Floro Flores in attack, and a large number of non-EU players already at the club, Muriel was left unregistered. With the situation not working in favour of the young striker, he was loaned out to Spanish club Granada.
Granada had a remarkable season in 2010-11, as they managed to secure promotion to Spain’s top division. Sadly for Muriel, he had a very small part to play in this memorable campaign. Ironically it was another loanee from Udinese, Alex Geijo, who was instrumental in the Filipinos return to the Spanish La Liga. After a frustrating start to his career in Europe, Muriel returned to Udinese in the summer of 2011. The departure of Alexis Sanchez to Barcelona meant that Guidolin now had a striker less and a non-EU spot had been freed. Having remained goalless in Europe, Udinese decided to loan Muriel out once again – this time to Lecce. Complications popped up with respect to the number of non-EU players that Udinese had, so they sold Muriel to Lecce. With a spot going vacant in January, the Bianconeri signed him back, only to loan him to Lecce once again. Confusion seemed to prevail in the career of Luis Muriel.
Udinese knew that this boy was a prodigious talent. Typical South American dribbling skills, a lethal finish and a creative eye as well, Muriel was one for the future. Sadly, his term at Lecce started on a dull note. It took Muriel a while to catch the eye of then-manager, Eusebio De Francesco. His first four appearances were extremely average showings, as the Colombian failed to test defenders and goalkeepers alike. In De Francesco’s last game in charge of Lecce, Muriel grabbed that elusive European goal. The goal may have been merely consolatory, but it was a sign of what this youngster had to offer. Muriel’s rise to fame was fueled by a sensational solo effort against big boys, Internazionale, although this was once again an unimportant goal in Lecce’s bid to stay in Italy’s top flight.
Lecce’s slump continued, but Muriel was unfazed. Assists and goals began to come with utmost ease to the “Colombian Ronaldo”. In mid-February, Lecce hit top form and began to dig their way out of the relegation cellar and it was Muriel’s ubiquitous influence that was central to this rise. It was during this fruitful period that Muriel scored three goals and provided an assist in just three games, helping Lecce earn seven out of a possible nine points.
Lecce’s struggles were reborn, as they went on a four game winless streak. One would have expected this run to continue against a rejuvenated Roma side, but the Lupi had other plans. Lecce completely undid the capital side as they took a four goal lead within the hour mark and there are no prizes for guessing who was at the heart of all this destruction. Muriel opened the scoring with a neat finish as he rounded the keeper and tapped into an open net. He then went on to score the third goal of the night after he jinxed past two Roma defenders and launched a venomous strike from range. The young Colombian was making inroads in Italy and another season at Lecce was seeming less and less likely. Where Lecce end up next season seems inconsequential to this gem’s future.
Interest in Muriel is rife, with Milan, Inter and Arsenal keeping a close watch on him. He has publicly stated that his future is undecided at the moment, but a return to Udinese is guaranteed. An analysis on whether Muriel would fit into the aforementioned sides is completely redundant. Given the immense talent that this boy has, settling into any system in Europe should prove to be a fairly simple task. Goals shall continue to flow from the Colombian’s boots and he will become a threat to defenders all across Europe. It will be scaling heights comparable to the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo that will be the real test for Luis Muriel. Some may call this a bold prediction, but this young lad has impressed me beyond means understandable to most – Muriel will shine.