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In 2013, Mexico was named the 16th happiest country in the world according to the World Happiness Report. The rankings include data that come from the Gallup World Poll and are based on answers to the main life evaluation question asked in the poll.
Respondents are asked to rate their own current lives on a scale from 0 to 10. If you’d asked this same question to a 13-year-old Diego Lainez Leyva that day back in 2013, when his mother was driving him back home from school, his answer wouldn’t reflect Mexico’s 16th position in the rankings.
“One day, the two of us were alone in the car and [Diego] told me: ‘mom it’s ok, I am going to stay and you have to know that I will be the unhappiest kid in Tabasco,” recalled years later Mary Carmen Leyva.
Tabasco is one of Mexico’s 32 states, located in the southeast of the country. Lainez was born and grew up in the state’s capital Villahermosa.
His father, Mauro, used to buy plastic balls and spread them around the house in order to “kick them, play, laugh and have fun in a natural way.”
Diego was a huge fan of horses until the age of four, when kicked a football for the first time and forgot about everything else. Along with his brother, Mauro, who is four years older, they would spend numerous hours playing with their father, who was a PE teacher and football coach.
As they were growing up, their skills would stand out and their talent would be spotted by Pachuca’s scouter Angel Gonzalez.
The man who had also unearthed the likes of Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Hirving Lozano, insisted that Pachuca should take a closer look at Diego. The club were hesitant due to his height, but Gonzalez convinced them give him a trial.
As Gonzalez forecasted, Diego shined during the trial and Pachuca offered him a spot in their academy. His brother had already joined the club a few years ago and in 2013 he would be called up to the preseason preparations with the first team.
Everything seemed to be falling into place for Diego, who dreamt of becoming a football player at the moment he kicked his first ball.
Gonzalez was excited about his new discovery, but when he asked Diego to enrol for his first tournament with Pachuca, he didn’t get the answer he expected.
Lainez begged him to let him leave and join Club America, the most successful and most popular club in Mexico.
Gonzalez promised that he wouldn’t stand in his way, but the main obstacle was yet to be overcome.
The 750 kilometre trip from Villahermosa to the capital and Club America’s home, Mexico City, takes about nine hours by car and Mary Carmen wouldn’t let her son leave their house at the age of 13.
Their rides to and from school would suddenly become silent, sometimes awkward. That day back in 2013, Diego decided to break his silence, accept his mother’s decision and warn her that she would have to take care of the “unhappiest kid in Tabasco.”
Mary Carmen, alike Gonzalez, was surprised by her son’s mature approach. “No son, I will support you as always,” she replied, giving him the green light.
“I told her that I had to go, because I had to follow my dreams, fight for myself,” Diego recalled years later.
Mary Carmen called Diego’s aunt Irma who lived in Mexico City and would be more than happy to host her beloved nephew, while he tried his luck at Club America. Diego, however, refused to stay with Irma. He opted for Club America’s sports city, known as Casa club, where he would live among strangers, who however, had something in common; their love for football.
“I wanted to live the experience,” Diego explained.
“It was something very interesting being there and [being able to] play with the ball at any moment.
“I used to wake up very early and the first thing I wanted to do was play football.
“I wanted to take advantage of every moment and that’s why I refused to stay at my aunt’s house.
“I didn’t go [to Club America] for a stroll; I went to fight for what I wanted.”
And fight he did. Diego climbed up the ranks of Club America’s youth teams and four years after joining the team, he made his official debut with the seniors in a Copa MX game against Santos Laguna.
Aged 16 and eight months, Lainez would become the third youngest player to ever debut with the historic Mexican club.
“When we separated, I told him: ‘I do want you to go, but make this separation worth your while’,” remembered Mary Carmen.
“[After the game against Santos] he called us [to go close to him].
“People were actually making way for us to get there.
“Then he came and said to me: ‘you see, I didn’t let you down, it was worth it’.”
In October 2017, The Guardian published a list consisting of the best talents in the world born in 2000. Lainez was one of the prodigies included in that list, as European clubs were starting to take notice of his talent.
A left-footed player, mostly playing at the left-hand side of the pitch although remarkably versatile, Lainez’s ability to go past opponents, as well as his dribbling skills would stand out even if he’d step on the pitch for 10 minutes.
His national team came knocking on his door at an early age. In 2018, he travelled to France to participate in the famous Toulon Tournament with Mexico.
Lainez took the tournament by storm and although his team were defeated by England in the final, he was named the best player of the tournament, also being part of the best XI.
As fate would have it, on August 5, 2018, he scored a brace in Club America’s game against Pachuca; the club he turned down to chase his dream in Mexico City.
“I was super excited, [as] it was something indescribable, because Diego has struggled a lot to be where he is and the goal is something that wouldn’t come easily,” stressed Mary Carmen.
“When he scored the second I couldn’t hold my tears.
“Hearing people chanting his last name [is a feeling] I can’t describe.”
Club America would go on to win the title and Lainez would play 10 games and net three goals in total, at the age of 18.
“[Going to Europe] is my dream,” he revealed a few weeks after the Pachuca clash.
“That’s what the [Club America] directors are looking at. My dream is very close. Hopefully, it comes together.”
Ajax came calling, while Roma, RB Leipzig and Monaco were all interested in signing him. Lyon saw their offer turned down and Real Betis decided to make an approach.
Betis may not have the financial power or the fame of developing young players as the aforementioned clubs do, but their main advantage was the presence of one of their captains, Andres Guardado.
Lainez’s compatriot helped Betis to convince the 18-year-old to join the Verdiblancos and took him under his wings straight after he stepped foot on Spanish soil.
Diego signed for the Andalusian side in exchange for 14 million euros, for 80 percent of his rights.
The Mexican prodigy became the third most expensive signing in Betis’ 110-year history, as well as the youngest player to ever depart the Liga MX and the second most expensive sale of a Mexican player to a European club after Lozano.
He made his official debut 10 days after signing his contract with Betis in a 3–2 home win against Girona and scored his first goal for the club in a 3-3 draw with Rennes.
Lainez became the youngest Mexican player to score in the Europa League and the second youngest to net across all European competitions.
Adapting to a new environment, however, is not an easy of a task for a 19-year-old kid and the youngster has struggled to find playing time in the ongoing campaign.
Lainez has played 441 minutes of football so far this season across all competitions. He has featured in 10 league games, but has started in just one, a 3-2 victory over Athletic Club.
Suddenly, there were rumours that the club contemplated to part way with him in January, but his coach, Rubi, wouldn’t hear of it.
“At no time have I considered Lainez’s departure,” he noted back in December.
“There are three games in a row where he has helped a lot.”
A couple of months earlier, Lainez would tick another box. The youngster made his debut with the Mexican national team in September in a game against Uruguay. A few days earlier, he would get more playing time in their match with the United States.
In the 65th minute of the game, US defender Matt Miazga mocked Lainez over his height, making a gesture with his hands to highlight their height difference.
Lainez, who is 1.67 metres tall, stared Miazga straight into the eyes. But his look wasn’t one of anger. Neither of sadness.
“We aren’t all going to be the same height,” he said after the game.
“Some of us are smaller, others very tall and others in the middle, but [the incident] is nothing, totally to do with football.
“It doesn’t offend me in any way. Everyone has their own way of thinking.”
The US won 1-0 and one of his opponents had made fun of him. Lainez wouldn’t care less. He departed the pitch with a smile. That smile of happiness.
Once, he was very close to be deprived of that happiness. However, he didn’t give in, he followed his instinct, he fought for what he wanted and he has made his dreams come true.
“He has his values well cemented by our parents, by our family,” explained his brother, Mauro.
“He knows what he wants and he is willing for anything; that’s what my dad prepared us for.
“My mom [taught us] mostly humility and how to work, [reminding us] where we came from and we must continue like this.”
His talent, work-rate and humility took Lainez from Tabasco, to Mexico City and now Seville. It remains to be seen which his next stop will be on his way to the very top.