The first time I properly got to see Darwin Núñez in action I was not impressed to say the least. At the start of 2019, Uruguay’s U20 side were competing for World Cup qualification in the Sudamericano tournament which was held in Chile. Núñez, at the time 19-years-of-age, led the line for Uruguay. The player had made a great name for himself in Penarol’s youth academy and this was predicted to be his breakout time by those who followed him closely.
Standing 6ft2 high and having the body of an athlete, comparisons were soon made with Edinson Cavani. The latter earned a move to Europe after shining in the Sudamericano back in 2007. Núñez was chasing the same destiny.
However, from the very start of the tournament it didn’t go well for the striker. Every time Núñez entered the area he seemed to simply freeze. A multitude of chances fell to him during the tournament, but it wasn’t to be as he ended the Sudamericano with no goals in seven outings. Núñez ran and fought like no other, but failed the number one task of a No9. Regardless, Uruguay qualified for the U20 World Cup. For many, including me, Núñez had to make way if Uruguay were to have any chance of success at the World Cup.
A few months later, Uruguay travelled to Poland with the World Cup on their mind and manager Fabian Coito decided to insist with Núñez as his first-choice striker. Coito obviously knew something that many had forgotten. When you doubt or write off an Uruguayan, he or she will come back like a catapult and show you different. To silence you. Núñez did exactly this.
In Poland, the young man from the city of Artigas led the line in emphatic fashion. He scored two goals in four appearances, with one of those being a goal of the tournament contender. It demonstrated his finishing abilities and confidence, attributes that were nowhere to be seen in Chile a few months earlier.
Soon after the tournament, Núñez attracted plenty of interest from Europe. In the end, it was Spanish Segunda side Almería that secured his signature for a club record fee. Núñez quickly settled down in Andalusia and started firing in goals from all angles. Besides the goal scoring, Núñez surprised the fans with his tremendous physical and defensive contribution. The defense starts in attack is a saying in football which the Uruguayan certainly takes to heart.
Like he did for Uruguay U20, Núñez played as the lone striker for Almería. Núñez has been able to fill in this role in different ways, which underlines his versatility. He can operate as a target man, go in behind with his pace or even link-up with his teammates. On the floor, his game can still improve a lot, but his pace, power and competitive edge were a nightmare to deal with for Segunda defenders.
His good performances for Almería even led to a first-ever Uruguay call-up. In October 2019, Núñez was summoned by Uruguay manager Óscar Tabárez but he had to wait until the following month for his first minutes in the sky blue of Uruguay. It was worth the wait, though, as the striker scored a beautiful header five minutes into his debut. ‘Here I am’, said the young star.
Núñez ended the 2019/20 season with 17 goals in 33 games. It didn’t prove to be enough for promotion to La Liga with his club, but Núñez was always going to play on the highest level in the upcoming season as his quality simply exceeds the Spanish second division. Wolfsburg, RB Leipzig and Brighton & Hove Albion, to name a few, all reportedly placed bids during this transfer window but Portuguese giants Benfica have come out on top and have all but secured the signing of Darwin Núñez on a five-year deal.
With Núñez, they sign young player on the rise with a genuine desire to get the most of himself. He is a hard-worker with a talent for scoring goals. Add to that, his pace, strength and improving overall game, and Benfica could have their star striker for the upcoming years. 25 million euros is a lot of money – in fact the record fee for Benfica – but I believe it’s a gamble that will pay off.