First published in January 2018
Yerry Mina was born to stop goals, but not necessarily as a centre-back. The player who is this week set to sign for Barcelona is the son and nephew of former goalkeepers, but he has made a name for himself as a defender. An extraordinarily good defender, in fact.
His footballing journey began in Guachené, the tiny little town on the outskirts of Cali that the Colombian calls home. It was there that his father José Eulises Mina advised him to play outfield, rather than beneath the sticks. “When I started playing football I played as a goalkeeper, but my father insisted that I played another position,” Mina recalled. “Both my father and my uncle always advised me, making sure I remained focussed, that I didn’t stop thinking about the match and that I stayed motivated.”
It was his uncle, Jair Mina, who helped young Yerry take his first steps in professional football, taking him along to a trial with Deportivo Pasto’s Under-20s team after failing to find his way at América de Cali and at Deportivo Cali. The coach Giovanny Ruiz was immediately impressed by his build – he now stands at 1.95 metres, but has always been tall for his age – and by his technique, speed, strength in the air, leadership and expert ability to usher the ball out for throw-ins and goal kicks. Mina was accepted and it wasn’t long before he made his first-team debut, coming on for his debut in a cup game against Deportivo Cali, the club he’d once been on trial at. Before long, the then-19-year-old was one of the team’s key players, starring both as a defensive midfielder and as a centre-back, before coach José Flabio Torres ultimately decided he was most effective in the centre of defence.
His impressive performances with Deportivo Pasto earned Mina a move to Independiente Santa Fe, one of the best teams in the country, for a fee of around €170,000. Although he was still just 19 years of age, he again played with poise which was well beyond his years, forming a solid defensive partnership alongside Francisco Meza and making his transfer fee look like a bargain. In just two years at the club, Mina helped the team towards three titles – one league championship, one Colombian Super League and one Copa Sudamericana.
Not only was he excellent in his own penalty area, but Mina also showed a knack for scoring at the other end too, bagging 12 goals for Los Leones during his couple of years in Bogotá and unleashing his now-famous dance moves. As one of the tallest players on most football fields, it was little surprise that he became such a threat from set pieces.
By the summer of 2016, the then-21-year-old was one of the most promising defenders in all of South American football and was signed by Palmeiras for €3.2m, as well as being called up for the senior Colombia squad for the Copa América in the USA. Although he only featured in a couple of matches at that tournament, he was marked as one for the future and he would soon become a regular in José Pékerman’s Los Cafeteros starting XI.
In Brazil, he quickly slotted into central defence for Palmeiras and helped the São Paulo-based team to their first league title in 22 years. His arrival after the season had started, combined with injuries and international call-ups, meant he only made 11 league appearances that 2016 season, but Mina was so good that he still made the Brazilian league’s dream XI of the season. On one occasion when Mina was away representing Colombia, the Palmeiras president even loaned him his private jet so that the player could fly back as quick as possible, to be available for his club’s next fixture. Yes, he was that good.
The centre-back then started 10 of the first 12 matches he was available for in the 2017 league campaign, before a metatarsal injury during a Copa Libertadores match ruled him out for three months, which was most of the rest of the 2017 season. He was, though, able to return for the final three matches of Palmeiras’ league campaign, but may now have made his final appearance for the club. Having signed a pre-contract agreement to join Barcelona in the summer of 2018, his Brazilian adventure was always approaching its expiry date, but Javier Mascherano’s desire to leave the Camp Nou is set to bring forward Mina’s arrival in Catalonia by six months.
It has, then, been quite a journey for a player who only celebrated his 23rd birthday last September, both on the pitch and off it. Mina’s life has already changed so much from his days back in Guachené, a run-down town with little infrastructure or investment. Given that he would only earn pennies while he was a teenager on trial with Deportivo Cali, he had to scrimp and save, so he’d often catch a ride to training by clinging to the back of moving vehicles up until the checkpoints, at which point he’d walk the rest of the way. On one occasion, he cried himself to sleep because he didn’t have the funds to help his mother, at which point he vowed to work even harder and, when he did collect his first significant paycheque at Deportivo Pasto, he gave two thirds of it to her and kept on walking to training to save cash.
Now, he’s on the verge of a move to one of the biggest clubs in the world, where he will reportedly earn €3.7m per season. That should be more than enough to afford a car of his own, but don’t expect Mina to become a diva any time soon. He’s still the same humble kid from Guachené, even if he now finds himself 9,000km away.