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      Daniel Muñoz: The story of a fascinating footballer


      “El hincha en la cancha”: ‘the fan on the field’. Daniel Muñoz’s nickname at Atlético Nacional stemmed from his popularity at his former club – but is a title which, as Palace’s indefatigable right-wing-back explains on his 28th birthday (26th May), tells just a fraction of a fascinating footballer’s story…

      This interview originally appeared in the Crystal Palace v West Ham matchday programme. You can shop for programmes by clicking HERE.

      Some of us glean satisfaction from our day jobs. Others see them as a means to get by. Regardless of which camp you fall into, if you want to progress in life, you ultimately have to be resilient, and hold onto your belief that all your hard work will amount to something greater.

      For some of us, that could just be a single job in our career ladder; for others, it’s a road stretching back 22 years long.

      When Oliver Glasner was asked about Daniel Muñoz at a recent press conference, he smiled: “Daniel has an outstanding training mentality. Every session he’s the guy running the most, sprinting the most. Every game, he plays with the most intensity. It’s the wish of every manager to have such a player.”

      Some praise. It’s fitting that, on the day we’re due to speak to Daniel in the aftermath of an open training session at Selhurst Park, he is last into the canteen to eat. It follows that he was either the last player to leave the gym before heading to lunch, or the last to finish greeting the young fans waiting for autographs in the stands. With Muñoz, neither event would surprise you.

      “I like being an example to young people,” Muñoz explains. “I tell them you should never stop dreaming, because it’s never too late. I made my dream come true at such a late age – nothing is impossible.”

      We start, then, in Amalfi, a modest town in north-east Colombia. Muñoz was born there and grew up supporting Atlético Nacional, his local club and the nation’s most successful side.

      At five-years-old, he moved to Bello, a surburb of Medellín. “That’s where my dream of becoming a footballer began,” he nods. “Medellin is a tropical city. The people are very friendly and the food, the landscapes, the weather… it’s fantastic, all year round.

      “Football is played in the streets. You played games with two stones, which were the goalposts. You played five against five, six against six, and when cars or buses came along, you stopped the game. When they passed, you started again. That was a huge part of my childhood.

      "As a kid, I grew up watching Atlético Nacional. I started going to games when I was 10-years-old with my mother and my friends. I’d play my own matches every weekend, and then I would go to the stadium to cheer for Nacional.

      “That was a time which taught me a lot. It motivated me. I always saw myself becoming a professional footballer. It gave me the motivation to play my matches – and fight for my dream.”

      Quote Icons

      I didn't want to be a goalkeeper anymore!

      Daniel Muñoz

      As a teenager, Muñoz joined ‘Los Del Sur’, Nacional’s most famous supporter group. Pictures would later emerge on social media of him as a shirtless teenager in the stands, roaring on his heroes – but little did he imagine he would one day join them.

      Before then, he started playing with neighbourhood club Los Paisitas. “I wasn’t there long!” he laughs.

      “When I first started playing, I loved goalkeepers’ gloves and goalkeepers’ shirts. I wanted to play as a goalkeeper. But in my first game, the other team scored six or seven goals – and I didn’t want to be a goalkeeper anymore!”

      Muñoz became a winger, joining Cosmos Soccer School as a six-year-old.

      He moved to Marcos, in nearby Envigado – the youth department which was home to the likes of James Rodríguez, Freddy Guarín and Jhon Córdoba – at 12-years-old, before joining Arco Zaragoza Medellin, where he played in youth leagues until he was 16.

      Teenage Muñoz was often identified by visiting scouts, but despite a handful of trials both home and abroad – Mexico, Brazil, even Spain and Italy – he reached 20 years of age without having made his professional breakthrough.

      The stark reality of academy football is that precious few young players, in that situation, forge a professional career in the game – not least at the top-level. Muñoz contemplated quitting.

      “I saw that my career was passing me by. I hadn’t had a good opportunity in professional football. As an adult, at 20 years old, without a professional club… that’s when you start doubting if you’re going to continue or not.

      “But I got my opportunity just when I was reaching the end of my hopes of becoming a professional: a chance to play for Águilas Doradas – one last opportunity to fulfil my childhood dream. It was part of the process. It was something I had to face. It made me strong enough to get here today.”

      Having briefly turned out for a regional club, FC Total Soccer, Muñoz was scouted by the top-flight Águilas Doradas and, in early 2017, at long last made his professional debut.

      His extraordinary journey to the elite was underway.

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      They saw me as the fulfilment of a dream.

      Daniel Muñoz

      "It was very demanding,” he recalls. “I was playing against people who had been playing professionally since they were 17. It was difficult – but I think I adapted quickly. I knew I had to work very hard, sacrifice a lot of things, and show a lot of discipline – and I noticed that change on the pitch. I was able to start realising my potential.”

      Muñoz became an instant starter, appearing 94 times during three years in Rionegro. He caught the eye once more – earning him a move, remarkably, to boyhood club Nacional in 2019.

      “For my friends, it was a joy to see me become their player. They always wanted me to represent them on the pitch.

      “They saw me as the fulfilment of a dream. I was the happiest man in the world.”

      His impact was, again, immediate. Scoring a remarkable seven goals in 20 league games in his first year – not a bad record for a full-back (“I always liked being where a striker should be on the pitch!”) – Muñoz earned the nickname ‘el hincha en la cancha’: ‘the fan on the field’.

      He was named Nacional captain at the age of 23, just six months after joining the club. “That was a great responsibility for me. Then, I wasn’t just a fan, but the representative of the group.

      “If things didn’t go well, I knew that the weight would fall on my shoulders – but I tried to face it with responsibility, with professionalism. I think that made me stand out.”

      Muñoz’s remarkable rise was, like so much else, halted by the global pandemic in 2020, and after being without football for six agonising months, Nacional returned to action facing reputed economic difficulties; Muñoz knew his departure would help keep his boyhood club afloat.

      “It wasn’t easy to leave after everything we had experienced together – but I also had a great opportunity to have my first experience in Europe, in Belgium, with a great club like Genk. I decided to take that step with my family.

      “It was a lot of pain to leave Nacional – to leave my people, my city, my family. But it was an opportunity I knew I had to take. The truth is, I learned a lot. I grew a lot as a professional and as a person. I made the right decision. It’s why I have the opportunity I do now.”

      Muñoz played in every one of Genk’s Jupiler Pro League fixtures in his maiden year, helping his club bounce back from a seventh-place finish to end up second, as well as win the Belgian Cup.

      In June 2021, he made his Colombia debut, helping Los Cafeteros finish third at the 2021 Copa America. In 148 games with Genk, the full-back scored 19 goals and assisted 20 more – some record.

      It speaks volumes that, just as when he left Águilas for Nacional, and Nacional for Genk, Muñoz’s transfer to Crystal Palace in January was accompanied by a lengthy farewell statement from player to supporters, and supporters back to him, on his former club’s website.

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      I have something special with every fan because I know how they live football.

      Daniel Muñoz

      Why is he able to build such strong affinities, wherever he goes?

      “I think it’s because I was, and I am, a football fan,” Muñoz suggests. “I have something special with every fan because I know how they live football; just as I lived it in the stands with Nacional, I can feel them living it in the stadium.

      “I like to talk to them from the pitch. They deserve it, because many times they leave their homes, they leave their jobs, or they give up a number of things to follow their team.

      “That has to be appreciated, that has to be thanked – and what better way to thank them than by giving my best for every one of them?”

      Muñoz has made a flying start – once again – to life in a new country, catching the eye with his energetic displays on Palace’s right flank, and registering four assists in his first half-season in English football.

      So why Palace, why England, why now? He smiles: “It’s a great club. I have a compatriot here and after playing for my national team, my goal had always been to play in the Premier League.

      “When Palace’s interest first came up, it felt special to me…. but it has been even better than I expected. Being on the pitch, I’ve realised that this is the best league in the world.

      “London has welcomed me, as well as my family, in a special way. Adapting to living here has been very easy – this is a football city.

      “When I first stepped onto the pitch at Selhurst Park, the first thing I saw was a stadium full of fans who never stop cheering, who are always there for us. That’s motivating for you as a player – you feel the support of your people. That always encourages you to give more.

      “The manager here is a great person and he’s going to empower us to take a step further. We’re going to achieve great things with him.”

      Quote Icons

      When I first stepped onto the pitch at Selhurst Park, the first thing I saw was a stadium full of fans who never stop cheering.

      Daniel Muñoz

      The Premier League is another chapter in Muñoz’s extraordinary career – but when he sits back and recalls the differences between stones for goalposts and the bright lights of Premier League stardom, what reflections come to mind?

      “I think it’s a merit,” he considers. “I give myself the compliment, because it’s not easy, much less for us from South America, to leave our countries and make a step as big as the Premier League.

      “I think that’s worth celebrating. But more than celebrating it, it’s important that I know where I am today, and that I keep working day in, day out. It’s not that I’ve arrived and I want to stand still and be satisfied with what I have. It’s that I’ve arrived and I want to keep moving forward.

      “When you work hard, with discipline and humility, I believe that, in the end, you always get your reward.”

      We return, then, to Glasner’s original observation: “It is the wish of every manager to have such a player.”

      Crystal Palace – meet your new ‘hincha en la cancha’. We have a feeling you’ll get along pretty well.