Luis Muriel: Colombia's fallen star now taking Serie A by storm with Sampdoria
Some footballers define eras so much, it becomes an obsession to find anyone like them. In Argentina, for example, any youngster who showed great upper body strength and a fleet of foot with the ball would instantly be called the ‘new’ Diego Maradona, in France, it was the new Michel Platini and in Brazil, the new Pele.
Not only is such a need to compare and reminisce insulting, but it is also a fruitless endeavour. Every one of those legendary players has had a number of pretenders to their throne and most of them failed to perform.
The tag of next in line to their country’s greatest ever, which comes as early as a player’s teenage years, is understandably too much for some and they crumble.
But when someone genuine appears, with not only similar traits but a similar ability to transmit them on the pitch to mimic or even better their predecessor’s achievements, they soon get a name of their own. Lionel Messi is no longer the new Maradona, Zinedine Zidane is not the new Platini, and Ronaldo de Lima cannot be named simply as the new Pele.
They once were, but their own stamp on the game was enough to pull them away from enormous shadows of the former legends.
Funnily enough, these are just the strongest examples, other players apparently need heirs too. It is an odd but natural phenomenon of daily life, the need to quantify everything. Football is no different, and the search is well and truly underway for the next generation.
Numerous Messis, Ronaldos and Zidanes have come and gone, just as they did with Maradona et al. Though it is unfair to cast these shadows, it also means a lot of really talented youngsters can go under the radar if they fail to hit similar milestones.
Luis Muriel is only 25 years of age, but it feels like he is playing catch up for his career. The forgotten man of Colombia’s golden generation, Muriel has been overshadowed by James Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao and Jackson Martinez, to name but a few.
He arrived in Europe seven years ago, joining Serie A side Udinese as a 19-year-old. His skinny frame but quick feet, burst of pace and exceedingly good composure in front of goal brought with them the dreaded tag – the new Ronaldo.
Expecting a similar explosion at the top level was completely unrealistic and not all helpful. By Muriel’s age, Ronaldo had been on the continent two years, conquered Holland by scoring 30 goals for PSV Eindhoven and repeated the feat in Spain with Barcelona.
The medals around his neck did not weigh heavily either, not even the World Cup one, which he’d won as a non-playing member of the Brazil squad at USA ’94, aged 17.
Muriel, by comparison, had scored nine goals in ten Categoria Primera A games for Deportivo Cali in his homeland. There was no suggestion he would ever be able to live up to the reputation he’d been given, but he went to Udinese and the league in which Ronaldo was perhaps at his best, during a spell at Inter.
It took two years for him to make his debut, after loan spells with Lecce and Granada in Spain. When he finally took to the pitch for Udinese, he settled in well, signing a new five-year contract at the Stadio Friulli.
That year, aged 21, he was named the Serie A Revelation of the Year. Clubs were reportedly queuing up for his signature, but at this point, under Francesco Guidolin, Udinese were battling for Europe. Muriel was developing as many thought he would and it looked like the perfect marriage of club and player.
Things soon turned sour, though. Muriel certainly didn’t possess Ronaldo’s ability to bounce back from injury, and after a subsequent loss of form and confidence, not to mention the constant presence of the evergreen Antonio Di Natale in the goalscoring charts, Muriel’s stock collapsed. His work ethic and his diet were non-existent.
By the time he joined Sampdoria on loan in January 2015, following the sale of Manolo Gabbiadini to Napoli, he’d not scored a goal in 371 minutes of football. A respectable tally of 15 goals in just 34 league starts across three years told its own story, one of a troubled, but undoubtedly, talented young striker.
But he did originally fail a medical, telling a slightly different, less uplifting tale about his situation.
So often a change of scenery can make all the difference to a player with problems such as Muriel’s. During his first six months at Sampdoria, he scored four times in 16 games. It was a slow start in terms of minutes, but the Colombian was coming back from the brink and it would take time.
He’d shown, at least, that he was worth sticking with. Muriel and Andrea Coda joined permanently in a €12million deal the following summer.
Progression has been slow. In the last campaign, Muriel hit just six goals, but this year he looks like something close to his very best, netting nine times already. An exquisite volley against Roma in January reminded many of his talents, helping his side to a stunning 3-2 win at the Stadio Olimpico.
Juventus are next for ninth-placed Sampdoria, who beat neighbours Genoa 1-0 in the Derby della Lanterna last time out, and the stage is once again set for a huge performance.
Clubs are on the phone again, according to Muriel himself. Juve, Roma, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea and West Ham are all said to be keen, but for this ‘new Ronaldo’, life looks good right where he is.
It may be his off-field traits more than those on the pitch that draw links with the legendary Ronaldo, but Luis Muriel is a reinvigorated former protege. It is easy to forget that he is just 25 years of age, and with just 12 caps for Colombia in five years, he may never reach his potential, but it is not too late for him, not at all.