In the early stages of his Polish adventure, Wisla Krakow defender Junior Diaz must have wondered just what he had signed up for. Having joined his new side in the midst of the bitterly cold Polish winter, and trying desperately to adapt to surroundings and a language far removed from that of his native Costa Rica, only Diaz's fierce determination to succeed in Europe saw him through.
Fast forward seven months, and the persevering Tico defender found himself rewarded with a visit to Barcelona's mythical Camp Nou in the preliminary round of this year's UEFA Champions League. And despite his side being dealt a comprehensive 4-0 defeat by their Azulgrana hosts, the Wisla No15 put in a solid display at the heart of the visitors' defence, competing fiercely for every ball and battling away throughout.
A difficult start
After the whistle had sounded, FIFA.com caught up with a relaxed Diaz in the Camp Nou's Mixed Zone, where the Central American had one eye on a screen replaying the night's encounter.
"It's a privilege," he replies when asked how it felt to be rubbing shoulders with the world's top players in Europe's most prestigious club competition. "It wasn't much fun losing like that and we expected a lot more. Even so, it's experiences like this that help you progress out on the pitch."
What made Diaz's performance all the more commendable was that it was only his second game in a central role. "My natural position has always been left-back, but when we played Beitar Jerusalem in the previous round, one of our central defenders got injured and the coach asked me if I could cover. I said I could and I feel very comfortable there."
With his long hair tied into a ponytail, the usually cheerful defender grimaces when the discussion turns to his first few weeks in Poland. "I arrived in the middle of winter and I found it really hard to adapt. It was so cold I thought I was going to die and I didn't understand the language at all. Not that I've learnt very much since then!"
"You just have to deal with those kind of problems, though," he continues. "I want to succeed in Europe, and I knew I'd have to make sacrifices. So I stuck it out and I'm delighted with the work I've been putting in at Wisla."
Junior's fine form has not gone unnoticed back home, with newly installed Costa Rica coach Rodrigo Kenton calling him up for the Ticos' next South Africa 2010 qualifying match. "I'm really happy I made the squad. It's made me even more motivated and when I travel to Costa Rica on Sunday I'll be giving my all."
As Junior goes on to explain, he and Kenton have known each other for many years. "He's a wonderful person and a great trainer. He was involved with the U-23 squad that qualified for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. I was part of that team and he's the ideal choice as coach."
Costa Rica's first rivals in their CONCACAF qualifying group are El Salvador, and although the Ticos start as favourites, Junior knows full well that over-confidence could be fatal, as Panama found out when they were ambushed by the Cuscatlecos in the second knockout round. "El Salvador have improved a lot of course, and it's a game we know we have to take very seriously. The fact we're playing at home increases the pressure because you can't afford to drop points on your own patch at this stage of the competition."
Junior adopts the same cautious tone when sizing up the threats posed by the Caribbean duo of Haiti and Suriname, the two other teams in Group 3. "We shouldn't forget what happened against Granada, who made life hard for us. Every team is dangerous and we need to be completely focused."
While there is little doubt that Junior is ready for the challenge, what remains to be seen is whether he will be patrolling the centre of defence or the left flank. "I'm ready to play wherever they want me to. In fact switching roles has been a great experience for me and the more positions I learn to play in, the better for me!"