BOGOTA (Reuters) - When Yerry Mina, Colombia’s top scorer at the World Cup in Russia, was a chubby, shy child in the small sugar-growing town of Guachene, he dreamed not of scoring goals but of saving them.
The eager soccer student first tried his hand at goalkeeper, wanting to follow in the footsteps of his father and uncle, who had played the position professionally.
But Mina was so terrible that his first coach, Seifar Aponza, moved him to outfield positions.
Now aged 23, defender Mina may be Colombia’s break-out player at the World Cup. Though he did not appear in the first match against Japan, he scored a header against both Senegal and Poland, earning the nickname “Mina de Oro” or gold mine.
The whole of Colombia will be hoping for a repeat against England in the last 16 on Tuesday.
Mina follows in the footsteps of injured midfielder James Rodriguez, who himself shone at the 2014 finals when key striker Radamel Falcao was out with a knee problem.
Mina, who towers over many of his fellow Colombians at a height of 195 centimetres (6 feet 5 inches), often trained barefoot and always arrived very early for practice as a child.
“Training was at 4 in the afternoon and he would go at 1,” his mother, Marianela Gonzalez, told Caracol Radio. “He would say: ‘No mom, I want to be first always.’”
He once proposed training on Christmas Day, according to Aponza. “That made me think Yerry would be great,” he said.
Besides that enthusiasm, the young Mina, whose first name ‘Yerry’ was chosen by his mother from the mouse in the ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoons his parents liked to watch, was also famous for a less illustrious trait - his tendency to get car sick.
“He was really bad at travelling, when we would go to inter-municipal games he would almost always vomit,” said Aponza.
Mina was especially vulnerable on long journeys to visit his father, who was playing in neighbouring Ecuador.
“He threw up the whole way,” his mother said.
Mina’s obsession paid off. He became the first Colombian to play for Barcelona when he moved there at the beginning of the year after more than five years with various Colombian clubs.
He played in international tournaments at youth league level, hitching dangerous rides to Cali on construction trucks.
Mina had offers to play for clubs in other cities even as a teenager, but his mother made him stay in his home town of Guachene until he finished high school.
After graduation, Mina joined Colombian professional team Deportivo Pasto but he was deeply frustrated not to be in the main squad and nearly quit to return home. His mother and Aponza talked him out of it and soon he was promoted.
His girlfriend of five years, Geraldine Molina, is also from Guachene. He first asked for her number when they were in high school but failed to write down the final digit.
She told Caracol he called all the possible configurations until he got to the correct one - number 8.
Despite Mina’s success, Aponza still sees some of the shy little boy in the Colombia player. “When you scolded Yerry the first thing he would do was cry, and I think he still has that - when he makes a mistake, he closes in on himself.”
Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb, additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne