Last year’s World Cup in Brazil gave the footballing world a new star – James Rodriguez. Colombia’s best player received the Golden Boot for having scored the most goals in the tournament – six. His goal against Uruguay was voted the best of the tournament. But, perhaps the biggest prize he received was when he was dubbed the new Valderrama.
Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama, known for his unique hairstyle and incredible technique, is considered one of the football greats.
Valderrama’s career began in 1981 in Colombian First Division club Unión Magdalena. In 1984 he moved to Millonarios, before completing his move to Deportivo Cali the following year. Deportivo Cali turned out to be the team he would play most of his matches for.
He made 131 appearances and scored 22 goals for the club before moving to Europe – he signed for Montpellier in 1988. Although he was already considered a great player, he never quite managed to make a success in European football – he scored only four goals in 77 appearances during his three-year stay in France. He was sold to Real Valladolid in 1991, where he spent one disappointing season, scoring one goal in the 17 matches he played.
He decided to return to his home country, making Independiente Medellín his next club. In 1993, he moved to Junior, where he spent two years before replacing Colombia with USA’s MLS. He spent 6 years in MLS playing for three different clubs.
In 1985, Colombia offered then 24-year-old Valderrama a chance to play for the national team. When asked how he felt about having to wait for his call-up, he remained positive and said that the important thing was that he received the chance and took it. He would move on to become Colombia’s most capped player in history, with 111 appearances. He retired from international football in 1998, after scoring 11 goals for the nation.
He was a vital part of national squad during the period Colombians like to call ‘the Golden Era of the ’90s’. In that period, Colombia played in three consecutive World Cups (1990, 1994, 1998). Colombia played the “Toque” style of football (toque is Spanish for touch). The style was based on technically gifted players passing the ball around and thus causing confusion in the opposition – it was before word “tiki-taka” made its entry into football. This style of play needed a player with extraordinary passing ability and a playmaker with vision – something they had in Valderrama. England’s manager at the time, Bobby Robson, after a friendly in 1988, commented on Toque as a unique style of play, saying: “We haven’t got players who play that way in England. Their football was different, short and compact… in clusters of threes and fours. Little one-twos, nice triangle work – you don’t see that in English football.”
Valderrama won only two titles in his career – the Colombian First Division title with Junior in 1993 and 1995. He also won the French Cup with Montpellier (1990) and MLS Supporters’ Shield with Tampa Bay Mutiny (1996). In 1987, when he was 26-years-old and at his peak, he received the Copa America Best Player award and was voted South American Footballer of the Year. This was a year when certain Diego Armando Maradona played for Argentina and Romário for Brazil. He was also the South American Footballer of the Year in 1993, and made the South American Team of the Year in 1987, 1993 and 1996. He was a part of the squad that made a historic result – they beat Argentina 5:0 in Buenos Aires in 1993, and qualified for the 1994 World Cup as first-placed in the qualification group.
In 2000, Valderrama made 26 assists, becoming the first player to make 20+ assists in the MLS season. In a 2012 article, MLS mentioned this as an unbreakable record. In 2004, Pele made a list called FIFA 100 – 100 best living footballers by his choice, and the only Colombian to be on the list was Valderrama. He also received the Golden Foot award as a legend in 2013, alongside Didier Drogba, Jean-Pierre Papin and Osvaldo Ardiles. In Santa Maria, Colombia’s oldest city and Valderrama’s hometown, a 6.7-meter statue of his was erected in 2006. The bronze statue is grey, with the exception of the golden hair.
Valderrama played in a similar position as James Rodriguez – the “classic number 10”. Although he was always perceived as such, his role would often be a deeper one, with him coming back to take the ball. His passing ability was regarded as a top drawer, rivaling many European superstars. But, what was maybe his best feature was his ability to keep the ball. He had quick feet and a great dribbling technique, which is usually attributed to players of smaller stature. With his 1.75m frame, the opposition could not simply shrug him off the ball, and when the ball needed to be kept, his teammates knew they could rely on him. His teammate from Montpellier, Laurent Blanc described Valderrama by saying: “In the fast and furious European game he wasn’t always at his ease. He was a natural exponent of ‘toque’, keeping the ball moving. But he was so gifted that we could give him the ball when we didn’t know what else to do with it knowing he wouldn’t lose it… and often he would do things that most of us only dream about!”
His passing ability combined with great vision and creativity meant that he would always be consistent in assisting for the goal and would be a part of most goals for the national squad and his club. He would remain disciplined throughout the match, always selfless and hardworking, which allowed him to continuously make great passes and assists, for which he is best known for.
Valderrama never allowed his success to get to him. He continued to live a family life with no need for the spotlight, and never made egoistic comments – something incredibly common for players of his quality and fame. When asked how he was able to keep the ball the way he did and where he learned to play like that, he simply replied: “I learned to play like that in my neighbourhood. Just playing.”