There are two distinct things that can help a player standout in football. One is the ability on the pitch and his exploits, the second one is the way he looks. Over the years, many players have had striking hairstyles and they’ve gone down in history for that.
But not all players with such attributes have become known for the way they play though. They’ve had flashes of brilliance, but football is a tough game to make an impact despite the constant satiation of fans. Not all players go on to become greats. Some, unwillingly so, never reach the heights they wanted to touch.
A prime example of a player who stood out for his looks is Carlos Valderrama, bar the fact that he stood out for a lot more too. A casual football fan would instantly find the Colombian unique for his afro-blonde hair. But for someone who has watched him play during his heydays, they’d remember him for his guile and almost artistic flair in midfield. The distinctive look would be a mere compliment for the brilliance.
While his appearance stood out and screamed out for him being a solo performer like what South American football has become renowned for ever since the game caught up there, Valderrama was on the opposite plane. His approach to the game reflected selflessness and a style that helped the team more than his own personal objectives.
He would strut about the pitch, helping his side stamp over control their dominance in midfield despite even scoring too much. A lot of what Valderrama did seemed effortless, thanks to his impeccable intelligence and technical ability. His hairstyle was untamed and wild, but it was in stark contrast to his playing style, which oozed grace and class.
Valderrama’s birth at Santa Marta- a Colombian city that borders the Caribbean sea, could be a big reason for his flamboyant appearance. Santa Marta is an exotic tourist destination that is known for the resorts close to the sea and the high-end hotels for the wealthy. The place is a mix of natural beauty and exuberance – something that Valderrama will forever be known for. Life there is easy going and calm, with little rush and hullabaloo.
Ever since he made his debut at the age of 20 for local club Union Magdalena, everyone knew about the natural talent this local possessed. His father had been a professional footballer and it is believed that some talent was passed down to his son, who played in the streets of Santa Marta before being spotted by people from Magdalena.
Playing on the streets had worked to Carlos’ advantage. As Johan Cruyff states in his autobiography ‘My Turn’, Valderrama had learned how to stay on his feet when he was on the ball. The fear of falling on the ground and splitting something open helped him improve his technical ability and the longer he stayed on the ball, the better he became on it. Over the years, he acquired an intelligence that was rare to find even at his then-tender age.
The spell at Magdalena helped Valderrama gain the attention of bigger clubs in the country and four years later, a move to Millionarios followed. The Bogota-based side became Valderrama’s home for one season. By this time, his artistic approach to the game caught the eyes of many – so much so that his nickname, El Pibe (The Kid) became something he came to be known for.
The next season, Deportivo Cali came calling for the midfielder. Cali is the second biggest city of Colombia and it was at Deportivo that Valderrama became a part of the national team and also became a key aspect of his club side.
His debut for the national side came months after joining Deportivo. It was 1986 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Paraguay. It didn’t go well for the Colombians, who endured a 3-0 defeat. The qualification campaign for the 1986 World Cup didn’t yield success. Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay made it to Mexico, while Colombia managed to win only one game in the qualification stages. They beat Peru 1-0 at home, but lost two other games and drew just as many.
But this wasn’t a sign of things to come. Valderrama’s performances for Cali helped establish himself as a regular in the Colombian national side and it was the most he ever played at a club in his career. It was a springboard to stardom.
So much so that the frizzy-haired star captained Colombia in the 1987 Copa América and he claimed the global spotlight for the show he put on in Argentina. He scored once but was the chief creator for a Colombian side that reached the semi-final of the tournament, losing to Chile in extra-time. Valderrama had scored in Colombia’s 2-0 win over Bolivia in the group stages and was named as the Player of the Tournament for his performances. From here on, the European spotlight was a matter of time.
If that wasn’t enough, a superb display against Bobby Robson’s England in the Rous Cup helped Valderrama establish himself as a star. It was a 1-1 draw at Wembley which saw Gary Lineker score first. Valderrama came up with a trademark show against a side that consisted of the likes of Tony Adams, John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, and Bryan Robson, as he walked about the pitch picking the ball in deeper areas and helping the side motor forward.
It was a showing typical from him, as the Three Lions struggled to keep his immaculate creation and runs quiet. In the end, Andrés Escobar’s goal that saw Colombia draw the game.
Europe had now taken notice. Valderrama’s magic had cast a spell on many. Months after the show at Wembley, Louis Nicollin took a punt at Valderrama for his club Montpellier. The club had finished third in the French league in the 1987-88 season and Valderrama was seen as a big push towards a possible trophy.
Initially, it wasn’t smooth sailing at La Paillade. The European game was a bit quicker, physical and less technical for El Pibe’s liking. His languid approach was sometimes called into question in France and he was often dropped from the style for failing to adjust to the more demanding approach in the continent.
Montpellier defender Laurent Blanc best described his Colombian teammates’ struggles 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.”
One thing was inevitable, though: Valderrama could change games at will on his day.
He still sometimes seemed to have more time and space on the pitch than anyone else because of his intelligence. His ability to keep the ball glued to his feet and move it about across the pitch at will still stood out. But how much his body worked was never enough.
Marseille went onto win the league in the 1988-89 season, as Jean-Pierre Papin scored 22 goals. Montpellier finished ninth and without a cup. This was seen as an underachievement.
But Valderrama won his first trophy in Europe at Montpellier the very next season. Some of the attention now focused on summer signing Eric Cantona, who had arrived on loan from Marseille. Valderrama wasn’t exactly a complete mainstay in the side because of his stylistic struggles but he had a key influence in the march to the trophy.
They finished 13th in the league but Montpellier beat RC Paris in the final of the Coupe de France to win the gilded crown, as Marseille won the league but got knocked out of the cup in the semi-finals by the eventual finalists from the French capital. This was the first trophy Valderrama won in his career. For many, it wasn’t special. But for this boy from Santa Marta, it meant much more.
With the World Cup of 1990 approaching, the glory came at the right time for Valderrama. For the first time in 28 years, Colombia had qualified for the World Cup and their best player had a key role to play in that. Valderrama scored to help his side beat the United Arab Emirates 2-0 in their first game of the campaign, but they lost the second game to Yugoslavia. A clash against West Germany beckoned and Colombia needed a point to go through.
Thanks to Valderrama’s wizardry, Colombia got that one point. Pierre Littbarski had given West Germany the lead in the 88th minute but it was Freddy Rincón who had scored in stoppage time to hand the South American’s a passage into the next round. Valderrama had supplied Rincón with the assist.
The rest of the tournament became all about René Higuita’s madness. The round of 16 clash against Cameroon would forever go down in history for the eccentric Colombian goalkeeper’s error that cost them a goal at the hands of Valderrama’s Montpellier teammate, Roger Milla.
Higuita was out to take a touch on a loose ball way out of the box – like he always loved to. For a goalkeeper who had done the same all his career and had become famous for it, the opposite happened at one of the biggest stages of his life. Higuita lost the ball, leaving Milla to roll the ball into an empty net.
Cameroon went 2-0 up, but Valderrama led the side to keep them calm despite that. Colombia pulled one back but equalising was a task too far. They got knocked out and while it was disappointing, the county was proud of their side. They had won more than just a qualification to the World Cup finals – they had won Bogota’s hearts. It was heartbreak but the world now knew who this afro-haired, jewelry adorned genius of a player was.
In 1991, Valderrama joined Real Valladolid and has a one-year-long spell in Spain before moving back to Colombia. He stayed at Independiente Medellín for a season and sparkled at Atlético Junior for the next two years, winning the Colombian Championship with them in 1993 and 1995. These were the second and the third trophies that he won.
At the age of 32, Valderrama was part of the Colombian World Cup side of 1994. This was seen as the last possible chance for the golden generation of the nation to somehow lay its hands on silverware. Valderrama had won the South American Player of the Year accolade in 1993 and was the second senior-most player of the side.
Colombia had picked up a historic 5-0 win over Argentina in the qualifiers to reach this far and Valderrama, who had suffered an injury in the build-up to the tournament, somehow regained fitness just in time to play in it.
It wasn’t the best tournament by any means for anyone in the side. So much was expected from them and Valderrama was a big reason for it. After a 3-1 loss to Romania in the opening game, Colombia lost 2-1 to the United States and what followed was one of the most harrowing incidents in the game’s history.
Andrés Escobar’s own goal was the USA’s second goal of the game. He stretched out a leg to block a cross from John Harkes but ended up directing the ball into his own net. It all but confirmed the nation’s elimination in the group stages of the competition. Ten days later, Escobar was shot dead outside a Medellín nightclub. Colombian football’s connections with the drug overworld were said to be behind this incident, which Valderrama has described as his ‘worst experience’ in football.
In the twilight of his career, Valderrama took a decision that the likes of Pelé and George Best had taken – move to America. He played for three clubs: Tampa Bay Mutiny (twice), Miami Fusion and Colorado Rapids.
It hardly seemed as though Valderrama was a man playing his trade with clubs in a low-pressure environment because his career was approaching the end. He spent as many as seven years in the United States and started his stint off by winning the MLS Supporters’ Shield with Tampa Bay Mutiny, claiming the MLS All-Star of the Year and the MLS MVP award in 1996.
In a slower-paced league in a country which was emerging on the international front, Valderrama was seen as that identifiable star who could take Major League Soccer to another level. He certainly did help the nation grab some headlines. Not just because of his appearance or jewelry, but because of how he lit MLS up.
In 2000, this frizzy-haired 38-year-old created a record that no one has come close to shattering till date. In one single season with Mutiny, Valderrama racked up as many as 26 assists – a fitting way to prove to the world what he has always been about.
In 1999, he was also bestowed with the Colombian Player of the Century award – a deserved accolade for one of the game’s best creators.
For many who have watched him play during his peak years, Valderrama would rank in the top ten South American players’ list. Being in the esteemed company of the likes of Pelé and Diego Maradona isn’t a small feat for anyone but Valderrama is someone who was a genius in his own right even though he won only three trophies in his career.
But for any Colombian kid growing up in the streets of any city, it would be a dream to play like El Pibe did. The effortless swagger and grace that enmeshed in the footballing intelligence can only be acquired by playing on the streets and developing one’s technical ability. That ability could be something that some players could be born with, but Valderrama’s roots made him such a graceful player who captured the world with abilities so unique that they’ve not been seen till date.
And rightly so, the nickname ‘El Pibe’ or the ‘The Kid’ encapsulates whatever Carlos Valderrama was throughout his career. He was always the boy from Santa Marta who played like the football pitch was the streets of the town he grew up in. And it was all about enjoying himself.