Jose Izquierdo, Colombia's next star, leading Club Brugge to brink of title

On Sunday, Jose Izquierdo scored one of the most beautiful goals Belgian football has seen in recent years. Receiving the ball near the penalty area, he humbled two Gent defenders before sending a phenomenal ball into the roof of the net with his weaker left foot. The effort gave Club Brugge the lead in the all-important clash against the reigning champions and fierce local rivals.

Brugge went on to win 4-1 and the tricky Colombian winger was instrumental in all the goals. Gent scored early but Izquierdo provided a superb assist for lanky playmaker Hans Vanaken before half-time. After netting for the seventh time this season himself, Izquierdo then set up Vanaken for another easy finish and started the attack that led to an own goal.

Brugge coach Michel Preud'homme, a former Belgium goalkeeper, was quick to praise the 23-year-old Izquierdo, whose performances in 2016 have been absolutely superb.

"Izquierdo is playing at a very high level. He was still a rough diamond last season, but has gradually improved. He is an intelligent boy who has learned a lot tactically, and we should hope that he keeps this form for the next few weeks," Preud'homme said.

In fact, just a few days would be enough. Brugge host Anderlecht on Sunday, and a win would secure the elusive championship title that has avoided them for more than a decade since 2005. The dream has never been closer, and Izquierdo is writing his name in club history as one of the biggest stars of the season.

His form has been so outstanding that Colombia coach Jose Pekerman should have seriously considered taking the youngster to the Centennial Copa America next month. That Izquierdo's name was missing from the 40-man preliminary roster that was announced last week was a major injustice.

The meeting with James Rodriguez, Izquierdo's role model even though the Real Madrid star is just one year older than him, will probably have to wait. At the current rate of progress, though, it is only a matter of time before the winger's talents are fully recognized back home.

It would be a great achievement for someone whose career path was far from smooth. Jose's parents didn't want him to become a footballer, sending their youngest child to play tennis instead. However, Izquierdo constantly preferred to kick tennis balls with his feet rather than use rackets, and his teacher promptly advised him to switch to his natural sport. Surprisingly, despite being a short player (Izquierdo is just 5-foot-7), he started out as a goalkeeper before moving to midfield.

Then disaster struck: His elder brother, Diego Julian, fell asleep while driving and was killed in a traffic accident. It took Jose a long time to recover from the loss, and he abandoned football for a while. Upon returning to the pitch, he spent three years at Deportivo Pereira, mostly in the second division. The small club was in dire financial straits and Izquierdo considered quitting football again, this time after his salary went unpaid for several months. At his parents' advice, he studied business management and was quite good at it, but then came an unexpected call from Once Caldas, and Izquierdo swiftly made a name for himself in the top division with his remarkable speed and dribbling skills.

River Plate were reportedly very keen on signing the winger and Verona considered luring him to Serie A, but Once Caldas refused to sell. The offer that changed everything came out of the blue -- or, to be more precise, blue-and-black.

Club Brugge initially became aware of Izquierdo after reading an interview with him in El Tiempo newspaper in August 2014. The Belgians were delighted with what they saw; after all, their previous gamble on a little-known Colombian proved to be a masterstroke as burly striker Carlos Bacca scored at will in the Pro League before moving on to Sevilla and AC Milan. That was one of the reasons Brugge didn't hesitate to pay €3.5 million for Izquierdo, who was delighted to move to Europe.

The first thing the Belgians noticed about the Colombian was his big smile. Het Laatste Nieuws journalists were amazed and amused when interviewing him; he simply couldn't stop laughing and joking.

"That is my attitude. I would rather be happy than gloomy," he said in an interview. "I had experienced some tough times in the past, but that only makes me more thankful for what I have now."

Despite his sunny disposition, it took Izquierdo time to adjust to European football, something he readily admitted: "The tactics are different here because everyone has to attack and defend. In Colombia there are three or four players who don't have any defensive duties."

Naturally, Izquierdo was one of those stars back home, and it is especially impressive that he became known for his hard work along the wing from his very first days in Brugge.

Coaches worked hard with him on various tactical aspects of the game. True to his name ("Izquierdo" means "left" in Spanish), Jose plays on the left wing but mostly uses his right foot: Cutting into the center has always been his trademark move. Club manager Devy Rigaux explained their work in an interview with Het Laatste Nieuws: "We taught him to go left, as well, and he became unpredictable for defenders."

Last season was moderately successful, with 13 league goals, and Izquierdo became one of the crowd favourites thanks to his dedication, skills and funny dances after scoring, but he was too inconsistent. This term started rather disappointingly: The Colombian missed the Champions League qualifiers against Manchester United because of injury, and then Preud'homme rotated the squad steadily through the autumn, which meant a lot of substitutions for Izquierdo. The result, though, was positive in 2016, as the Colombian has still been fresh and full of energy for the most important games of the season.

He has also adopted a more mature approach to the game, partly thanks to his dog Lucho, whom he took home a year ago. "I am more responsible now because I have to feed and wash Lucho and take him to the vet if he is sick. That is why I am more responsible on the field as well," he told reporters. That doesn't mean the Colombian has lost his sense of humor. When asked about a girlfriend, he immediately replied, "No, I prefer Lucho. He might chew everything around him, but at least he listens to me."

If everything goes according to plan, Lucho might have to move to another country sooner rather than later. Izquierdo has always dreamed of playing in Italy, while La Liga seems to be ideal for his style. Bacca starred in both of those leagues after Brugge gave him the chance to shine, and Izquierdo could easily follow in those footsteps, especially if he makes his mark in the Champions League next season. On Sunday, he could become a champion for the first time in his life.