x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

World Cup Cult Heroes: Carlos Valderrama

In the run-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, The National’s Gary Meenaghan looks back at the figures of World Cups past who, while not necessarily the greatest the game has ever seen, were among football’s most interesting characters.

Illustration by Mathew Kurian / The National
Illustration by Mathew Kurian / The National

In the run-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, The National’s Gary Meenaghan looks back at the figures of World Cups past who, while not necessarily the greatest the game has ever seen, were among football’s most interesting characters.

CARLOS VALDERRAMA

The Colombian, with the mound of tight blonde curls and wrists adorned with colourful bracelets, remains one of the most-recognisable players in history. His elegant, unhurried style contrasted with the passionate determination he used as fuel to lead his country to three successive World Cups.

El Pibe

Initially, Valderrama’s distinct hair prompted people to dismiss him as a novelty before he had even kicked a ball. When his chance arrived, though, he took it. A free-kick specialist who combined pinpoint passing with flamboyant trickery, he played football with a juvenile enjoyment. His unrestrained style and spontaneous celebrations resulted in him earning the sobriquet “El Pibe” (The Kid).

Pivotal Playmaker

A star at Deportivo Cali, he captained Colombia to the 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cups, scoring on his tournament debut against the UAE. In the same campaign, against eventual winners West Germany, Colombia needed a point to progress. Valderrama picked up the ball in the 93rd minute, took a series of quick touches, bypassed three Germans and fed a perfect through-ball for Freddy Rincon to equalise. A nation erupted. “I still get emotional whenever I watch it,” Valderrama told Fifa.com earlier this month.

Tragedy

At the 1994 World Cup, Valderrama was one of the reasons so much was expected from Colombia. They were eliminated in the group stage, however. The defender Andres Escobar scored an own goal against the United States and was shot dead outside a Medellin nightclub 10 days later. Even two decades later, Valderrama says it was his worst experience in football.

Immortalised

Spells at Montpellier and Real Valladolid were followed by a return to Colombia and then a move to Major League Soccer, where he played for three teams in Tampa Bay, Miami and Colorado. Since retiring in 2002, he has been voted Colombia’s Player of the Century, inspired a TV series based on his life and had a statue – complete with a shiny perm – erected in his home city of Santa Marta.

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