Eight by Eight“s Ian Walker reflects on one of Colombia”s greatest footballers, on the 25 year anniversary of his international debut. 

Carlos ValderramaTwenty-nine years ago this week, Carlos Valderrama, at the age of 24, finally got the chance to represent Colombia on the international stage. It had been a long time coming for the man with the moustache and the blond, curly afro. Players as talented as Valderrama aren’t usually kept waiting—they’re plucked from their club by the national team manager, thrown into the deep-end of the pool, and told to sink or swim.

I would like to tell you of how Valderrama dazzled the Paraguayan opposition, or how he single-handedly propelled Colombia to victory and ignited the international career that would see him become the most capped player in Colombian history—but I can’t. Colombia fell to Paraguay 3-0.

But the player who had been nicknamed El Pibe (the kid) did enough to maintain a spot in the Colombian team. Valderrama would become the face, and captain, of the national team during Colombia’s golden era. His wild hair and flamboyant playing style came to represent everything that was so fun and endearing about the Colombian team that would become one of the early 90s’ best sides.

At club level, Valderrama’s 22 year career would take him to 11 different clubs. In 1988 he finally would get a chance to play in Europe, transferring from Deportivo Cali to Montpellier where he would play with current PSG coach, Laurent Blanc. Blanc said that the pace of the European game meant Valderrama wasn’t always at ease, but that “he was so gifted that we could give him the ball when we didn’t know what else to do with it.” Valderrama could do things “most of us can only dream about.”

Blanc’s assessment of his playing style was simple, but spot-on. Since Valderrama wore the number 10 shirt, it was assumed that casino he was a traditional South American playmaker, sitting just behind the two strikers and scoring and assisting at will. In today’s terms, however, we probably would refer to him as a deep-lying playmaker, someone that can drop deeper into the midfield and single-handedly manipulate the defense. Valderrama was one of those players; his feet were lightning quick while the rest of his body looked relaxed, his touch was so delicate it looked like the ball never wanted to leave him, lest it be mistreated by someone else.

Valderrama only spent four years in Europe—he briefly transferred to Real Valladolid after his time at Montpellier—before he returned to Colombia for three years and then ended his career on an eight-year run in Major League Soccer, where he was named an all-star three times. His club career was a rather quiet one, probably because he spent so much of it in the Americas, but on the international stage, he was a star.

One of his best moments in a Colombia shirt came in the 1990 World Cup against West Germany. It was the last game of the group stage, and Colombia were playing for the draw that would send them through to the last 16. It was 0-0 with two minutes to go, until Rudi Voller went past one Colombian defender, and then another, and then flicked it to Pierre Littbarski who hit it into the top left corner of Rene Higuaita’s goal.

Play resumes, and Valderrama receives the ball just beyond the halfway line in German territory. There are three German players surrounding him. He spins to his left away from the pressure and passes it to Freddy Rincon an instant before another German player dives at his feet. Rincon one touches it back towards the middle to Luis Fajardo who then lays it off to Valderrama. And then this happens:

It would be easy to go on and talk about the tragedy and sadness that would engulf Valderrama and Colombia in the next World Cup, to talk about cartels and cocaine and Escobars, but that’s not what Valderrama is about. The hair isn’t quite as big anymore, and his face is a little more weathered, but when you see him talk about playing, and about his days spent in a Colombia shirt, you still see the joyful young boy in Carlos Valderrama — you still see El Pibe. 

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