x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Falcao's focus turns to Colombia

The forward is the latest success from the Atletico production line, and his home nation are also benefitting, writes Andy Mitten.

The Colombian striker Falcao prepares for the World Cup qualifying game against Uruguay. Reuters
The Colombian striker Falcao prepares for the World Cup qualifying game against Uruguay. Reuters

No team in world football has honed the practice of buying emerging strikers or developing their own world-class strikers like Atletico Madrid. Fernando Torres, Sergio Aguero and now Radamel Falcao are the obvious names from the last decade, but there have been far more.

The Argentine Basque striker Garate was Spain's top scorer three times in succession as the Atletico won three league titles, five Copa del Reys and the European Cup Winners' Cup in the 60s and early 70s.

The Mexican Hugo Sanchez was another who crossed the Atlantic to star at the Calderon, La Liga's top scorer with Atletico before he moved to Real Madrid and won the Pichichi a further four times.

Atleti began to reluctantly lose their best strikers to bigger clubs, yet kept replacing them.

They found another Pichichi in the Brazilian Baltazar in 1989 and yet another in 1992 when Manolo's formidable partnership with Paulo Futre clicked. Cristian Vieri was yet another Atletico Pichichi star in 1998, while their Uruguayan forward Diego Forlan won the award in 2009.

Atletico can be a chaotic club, yet they consistently get it right with strikers. They can possibly be excused for letting Atletico fan Raul slip through the net in the early 90s. Real Madrid did not make the same mistake.

Atletico's new striking star is the Colombian Falcao, a powerful 26 year old signed from FC Porto a year ago to soften the blow of losing Aguero and Forlan. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo grabbed the headlines last season, but Falcao netted 36 times in a weaker side.

That total was more than any of Atletico's previous illustrious strikers and included 12 in Europe as Atleti won the Europa League. Two incredible Falcao strikes graced the final against Athletic Bilbao.

Football took notice, Falcao's eye-watering €40 million (Dh185m) fee appearing justified within a year.

Born on Colombia's Caribbean coast, Falcao's started out in his country's second division before Argentine giant River Plate signed him in 2004 aged 18. Falcao had begun to study journalism, but his studies took a back seat when he made his first team debut at 19.

A star in his five seasons in Buenos Aires, River Plate rejected an €8m bid from Deportivo La Coruna in 2008. He ended up moving to Europe for half that a year later, FC Porto the shrewd purchasers.

Falcao scored a record 18 European goals in his second season in Oporto as they won the Europa League. Interest soared and so did his buy out fee - hence Atletico's club record transfer fee.

Atleti had called it right again. After scoring a first half hat-trick in a man of the match performance against Chelsea in last week's European Super Cup, his stock rose further.

"His movement killed Chelsea," said The National columnist and former striker Andrew Cole. "Defenders couldn't stay with him and he always appeared to have an extra metre of pace than anyone who came near.

"He's the absolute top level and will go for big money when he leaves - and he will leave because Atletico sell their brilliant strikers."

At least they can take solace in their club's track record with replacing strikers.

Atletico's star man is not in Madrid this weekend as he's on international duty for Colombia. With Falcao up front, Colombia have risen to 22nd in the world rankings, yet they sit sixth in the nine team South American group - with only the first four teams qualifying automatically for Brazil 2014.

The schedule does not get any easier. Colombia face the unbeaten second placed Uruguay at home today and then group leaders Chile away on Tuesday.

The World Cup finals are a suitable stage for a player of Falcao's immense talents. First, he has to use them to help his country get there for the first time since the France 98 side of Rene Higuita, Carlos Valderrama, Faustino Asprilla.

Falcao could be a bigger star than all three, if he isn't already.

 

sports@thenational.ae