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      Lerma: My journey, sacrifice & connection with Palace


      At 29-years-old, having represented Colombia at three major international tournament finals; bettered Andres Iniesta, Luis Suarez and co. in La Liga; and helped his first English bounce back from relegation to restore Premier League status, Jefferson Lerma’s career has run the full gamut of footballing experiences... but until this season, he'd never faced a former club.

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

      For the so-called ‘global game’, football is a surprisingly small industry – a production line of crossed paths, surprising connections and intriguing sub- plots for supporters and media alike to feast upon.

      Try it for yourself: see how long it takes you to connect two top-flight footballers by their mutual associations with clubs or international teams.

      The likelihood is… not long.

      It seemed inevitable, therefore, that Joachim Andersen’s connection to Jefferson Lerma would be seized upon when the latter made his switch to Crystal Palace last summer.

      It was referenced in Lerma’s arrival announcement – the Colombian sporting a pair of boxing gloves providing all the context you need – but it is a visual he quickly laughs off.

      “It was kind of a joke, to make the signature moment a bit of fun,” Lerma laughs. “What happens on the pitch, stays on the pitch. Maybe the crowd felt the incident was more dangerous than it was. We’re teammates now. We’re obliged to defend our jersey.

      “We have a nice friendship; we defend the same colours. It’s now an anecdote, an experience we both shared. Now, we must fight our rivals to defend our team.”

      As anybody who has followed Lerma’s career journey would attest, here stands a man up for that fight.

      At the time this interview was originally published in December 2023, no other Premier League midfielder had averaged more successful aerial duels per game than Lerma – “a salmon” was captain Joel Ward’s astute statistical summary – whilst only Ebere Eze and Michael Olise averaged more key passes (leading to shots) for Palace.

      It is an industrious style of play which harks back to Lerma’s origins in Colombia, born in El Cerrito, a small town of 25,000 residents in the Valle del Cauca Department. “One day, a match was held in my village, and a football recruiter attended it,” Lerma explains.

      “I was eventually selected to have a trial in Huila. There were around 120 players, from which only 23 could be chosen. I was one of those 23.

      "I was just a kid with many dreams, hoping to bring about a change.”

      Lerma rose through the youth ranks but, offered a faster route to first-team football elsewhere, moved to nearby Once Caldas and, soon after, Deportivo Pasto.

      Neither promises transpired, so Lerma returned home – and was once again called up by Huila.

      He explains: “Their coach – Alvaro de Jesus Gomez, called ‘el Loco Gomez’ – wanted me to have a trial. I went back – and played the whole year as a professional footballer.

      “My coach played a very important role in my career, especially at the beginning. He was the one who was brave enough to give me a chance to play.

      "He had the courage to entrust me with such responsibility, and I took it on.”

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      I think we must make people aware of all that. Players are not here by chance. It’s thanks to hard work and consistency.

      Jefferson Lerma

      Bursting onto the scene as an 18-year-old, Lerma’s professional debut arrived in March 2018; such was his desire to make an impact, he started nine of Atlético’s next ten games.

      “I think a great deal of talent has been missed – not because of the lack of quality, but because of lack of discipline,” Lerma notes. “It’s not all about talent, but also about ambition and hunger for glory, and to bring about changes in our lives.

      “What’s clear is that many footballers coming from South America have a very humble background. We were not rich, and every step we took towards glory was hard. Yet nobody cares about the process, people only give importance to the result: success.

      “But nobody knows whether you had to go to training sessions by foot, whether you had the cash to take a taxi or not, or if you had to play with ripped boots… there are many situations you can imagine.

      “I think we must make people aware of all that. Players are not here by chance. It’s thanks to hard work and consistency.

      “My family means everything to me, and so do my friends and everyone who supports me in Colombia. We’re human beings and we’re sure to go through tough moments in life, but when you realise you have a united family, people who push you to keep growing… that’s an extra reason for you to give it your all under any circumstance in life.”

      Despite being coveted by fellow Spanish side Getafe, Lerma joined Levante in August 2015.

      “At that time, I had to make a decision: going to Spain or staying with my first new-born,” Lerma recalls. “In the end, I had to compromise the birth of my child to chase my dream.

      “[It was tough] because every parent’s fondest dream is to witness the birth of their child, and I didn’t. That did affect me. I had to join Colombia’s Under-23s squad for the pre-[2016 Summer] Olympics tournament. We had a lot of work to do to qualify – so I was only able to see him for a few hours after he was born.

      “I believe all that sacrifice has been richly rewarded. It was tough at first, but I made the right decision for the future. In any case, it was a difficult moment for me, but after some time, you realise that the decision you made led you to success.”

      It was in La Liga where Lerma cemented his elite footballing credentials.

      Despite being just 20-years-old, he started 31 times in his maiden season for Levante as they lost their top-flight status, before helping them bounce back immediately as Segunda División champions.

      The following season, Lerma helped Levante finish 15th to retain their top-flight status, twice holding Real Madrid to draws, and featured in one of his club’s greatest-ever results: a 5-4 win against a Barcelona team starring Andres Iniesta, Luis Suarez and Sergio Busquets.

      Lerma playing for Levante
      Lerma playing for Levante

      After making his senior debut in November 2017, Lerma featured in all four of Colombia’s matches at the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals.

      He became Bournemouth’s club-record signing in August 2018 and remained with the Cherries when they were relegated in 2019/20, restoring them to the top-flight in 2021/22.

      A career-best five goals last season, plus consistent, all-action displays, saw him named Bournemouth’s Player of the Year weeks before his move to south London was announced. At the age of 29, he recently experienced a personal first – facing a former club – when Palace took on the Cherries in December.

      “It was a strange feeling,” Lerma admits. “In my entire career I have never done this… but hey, that’s life. I knew when I made the decision to come here it was going to happen.

      “When I decided to leave Bournemouth, I discussed it with my family, with my wife, with my family in Colombia… My wife wanted to stay in England for the kids’ futures.” Lerma is a father of two. “Her priority was for our kids to be native speakers of English.

      “Life on the coast in England is very different compared to London. For instance, I’ve realised that I have to leave home super early to get to places on time! But it’s a great opportunity for my family to do different things.

      “It has been a period of changes, of beautiful moments with different aspirations. Whenever you make a change, you arrive excited with a new feeling of success, to achieve new goals. That was the challenge I took when I decided to leave the south of England."

      The strength which Lerma draws from finding a home wherever his varied career has taken him is apparent.

      Reflecting on his first few months as a Palace player, Lerma reverts the conversation back to our initial topic: connection.

      He smiles: “I’ve enjoyed every game I’ve played here to the fullest.

      "Not only do I feel the connection with the fans, but also with my teammates and all the staff who work at the club. I have felt the fans’ warmth and harmony – I’m happy.

      “Games we have at home are interesting. We play in front of our people. We know they will always support us, but perhaps having that echo, that strength, will also drive us to give more in the moments we falter.

      "They are there, giving us the courage to draw out that strength and that bravery, and to go for the three points. Our matches are not only played by 11 of us: all of the fans play them, and that is important to every one of us.”

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      Our matches are not only played by 11 of us: all of the fans play them, and that is important to every one of us.

      Jefferson Lerma

      Jefferson Lerma speaks with the passion reserved only for the genuine – a man who speaks not empty words for the cameras, but truly does relish every aspect of his career.

      “I wouldn’t give any advice to my younger self,” he nods. “I’m still the same kid with other experiences. That’s important: I still have the same motivation, the same hard-working spirit.

      “Things are more difficult now. I mean, I’m living the dream. But if I saw a kid coming from Colombia, I’d tell him to aim high, as it’s free; everything is possible.

      "I’d tell him that work and discipline are the keys to breaking all barriers you encounter. It’s not easy, but it’s not difficult either.

      “In Colombia, it’s widely believed that players earn money easily, but that’s not true. Nobody knows the story behind each person. You don’t know the pain they endure.

      "People believe football players make money easily, but that’s a lie. If you’re here, you’ve got to leave your family, in case you’re transferred away from Colombia, for example.

      “Many people have a normal job and know the time they’ll be back home. They own their weekends; they take some time off to rest and enjoy their families. That’s the price we pay, and we do it, as we’ll have the reward sooner or later.

      “That’s the life we’ve chosen, and we try to enjoy it. We’re doing what we love – and that’s a real privilege.”