BRIGHTON, England (Reuters) - Family tragedy and lack of progress as a teenager caused Jose Izquierdo to come close to giving up on football, but through sheer hard work the Colombian has become a leading figure in Brighton and Hove Albion’s success story.
The south-coast club have exceeded all expectations, sitting 12th in the Premier League in their first season in England’s top flight since 1983, with help from tricky winger Izquierdo. His career almost ended before it had even begun, however, following the death of his older brother Diego Julian when Jose was 14 years old.
Diego Julian was a talented footballer himself, but “preferred the party” as Jose puts it.
Izquierdo admits his brother’s association with the game initially put him off pursuing football as a career, but after some soul searching, he decided to work hard to honour his sibling.
“The level I have reached in football is because of inspiration from him. Everything is a gift to him,” Izquierdo told Reuters.
“He is in heaven. I believe in God and I know he is watching me and he is very proud of the things I am doing until now. I have a tattoo, which means ‘Resilience’. It was inspired by him.”
Izquierdo stumbled on football by accident and when pushed into the sport he fulfilled a very different role in the team. “My Mum chose tennis for me,” Izquierdo said. “I went to see the coach, but I did not hit the ball with the racket, I just kicked it. Coach Wilson (Sepulveda) sent me to play soccer. I have Wilson to thank for my football life.
“I didn’t want to be a goalkeeper, but there were some famous Colombian goalkeepers at the time - Rene Higuita, Faryd Mondragon, Oscar Cordoba - and us kids just wanted to jump and fly like them.
“I started to play as a goalkeeper, but when I got the ball I dribbled past everyone else to score goals myself - I was always going to be a winger.”
Izquierdo’s fleet-footed skills earned him plenty of attention, with local club Deportivo Pereira snapping up the precocious talent, but four years went by with him struggling to make a significant impact in the first team.
“I could not see how things were going to get better,” Izquierdo added. “I felt frustrated and started to study management at university. I was ready to give up football. Then, the coach of (Colombian top division side) Once Calda asked if I could go there.
“I left my studies and went to play there. If that move didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Thirteen goals in under two seasons at Once Calda sparked interest from Europe and Belgian side Club Bruges offered Izquierdo a chance and he wasn’t going to give up.
He stuck motivational notes all over his apartment in Belgium, labelling everything in English to help him learn the language. “You just have to keep going forward and create your own future,” Izquierdo added.
“Football gives you the opportunity to help your family, friends and people that you love.
“It is all in the mind. The weather in Colombia is 25, 30 degrees, and you arrive here (Europe) and receive that cold, your mind tells you to go back to Colombia where you have your food.
“You are alone and if you don’t have your clear goals in your mind - where you want to go and where you want to stay - it is difficult to get it.
“I almost gave up football, then I was the best player in Belgium.”
After winning the Belgian Golden Shoe award in 2016, Izquierdo became an even more attractive proposition, and Brighton broke their transfer record to bring Izquierdo to England.
Now, after initially struggling to find his feet in the Premier League, the 25-year-old Izquierdo is excelling.
Leicester City are next up for Brighton as they look to continue their fine home form.
“We know we are at home against Leicester, but we have to respect them,” Izquierdo said.
“There is no guarantee we will win. The league is not finished. We keep saying it, I remind myself as I have always done - the job is not done. I will always keep trying - we must stay in this division.”
Editing by Ed Osmond