Few people would have forgotten Carlos Valderrama and his appearance in 3 World Cups for Colombia. His trademark blonde afro made him one of the most recognisable World footballers in the 1990’s but his extravagant appearance belied his immense footballing ability.
Valderrama captained Colombia during their golden period in which they qualified for 3 World Cups (1994, 1998 and 2000) and boosted their FIFA rankings to as high as 4rth place in 1996. In this time Columbia also claimed two 3rd places in the Copa America and qualified in 1st place in the CONMEBAL 1994 World Cup qualifiers (courtesy of a historic 5-0 triumph over Argentina, in Buenos Aires).
This was in no small part due to their captain who had the ability to control the midfield with skill and inventiveness rather than violence and aggression. His lilting runs and deft passes opened many defences and supplied chances to the likes of Valencia and Asprilla. Although not a proficient goal-scorer Valderrama was also an accomplished free kick taker and assisted many of Colombia’s and his various domestic team’s goals.
You can watch Valderrama’s labyrinthine displays on youtube, where with deft touches he seems to glide past midfielders and defenders alike. For me he was similar to Ruud Gullit all being with a more languid, relaxed style and usually positioned in a deeper lying position. He also appeared to be strong in possession and difficult to harass.
However it was his passing ability that really attracted admiration. His slide rule short layoffs and through balls to the attack were executed with pin point precision. He seemed to be the creative focus of the team with the entire attacking force flowing throw his neat interlinking one twos.
During his lengthy career he blessed pitches in South America, where he won South American player of the year twice (1987, 1993), Europe (Montpellier) and a fledgling MLS (Tampa Bay, Colorado Rapids) but it is with Colombia that he is best remembered.
Although christened “El Pibe” or the Kid, Valderrama was not a child prodigy and had to wait until he was 24 for his first cap. Even then it was in a 2-0 defeat to Paraguay. Despite this inauspicious start Valderrama quickly cemented his place in the squad and later became captain at age 26. Under his command Colombia claimed 3rd place in the Copa America in 1987 then qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1962.
Colombia were grouped with the United Arab Emirates, Yugoslavia and West Germany and were not expected to progress out of the group. They started their tournament with a 2-0 defeat of a limited but determined UAE. Valderrama had controlled the midfield without impressing or meeting his pre-tournament expectations. In 85 minutes he finally announced his attendance with measured shot from 30 yards low past the stretching Arabian keeper to double his countries lead.
A disappointing 1-0 defeat to Yugoslavia meant that Colombia were looking at an early flight home unless they could muster a result against a strong West Germany. Colombia struggled against a typically pragmatic and defensive German side but matched them until 88 minutes when Pierre Littbarksi smashed past a confused Rene Higuita. As the game tailed to the final whistle Valderrama conjured up one final piece of magic to slide through to Freddy Rincon who nutmegged Bodo Ilgner for the equaliser. It was a vital goal as the extra point ensured Colombia’s progress as a best 3rd place qualifier.
Their reward was a last 16 match against Cameroon and Roger Milla. Again Colombia suffered from their goalkeeper’s slackness when “El Loco” was robbed of possession far from his goal. Milla needed only to roll the ball into a gaping net to secure the win and the Columbian’s elimination.
Columbia’s World Cup 1994 will always be remembered for the death of Andres Escobar as a supposed punishment for his own goal against the United States. It is still unclear whether his assailant had sick retribution in mind when he gunned down Escobar or if it was more a reflection of the Uber- violent times of a post Pablo Escobar Colombia.
Nevertheless, the death of his close friend had a profound effect on Valderrama who later said;
“It’s very difficult for me to talk about him, ‘It’s very painful. He was very close to me. We were very good friends, very good friends. That has been my worst experience playing the sport.”
Colombia 1994 World Cup team
The World Cup USA was a disaster for Colombia. Before the tournament they were being touted as genuine favourites especially as they had topped the CONMEBAL qualifying table above Argentina. But they failed to meet expectations.
A 3-1 humbling to Romania was followed by the 2-1 loss the USA and while they beat Switzerland 2-0 it was not enough and they were eliminated bottom of Group A.
France 98 was to prove not much better for Valderrama. At 37 and now plying his trade for Miami Fusion in the MLS “El Pibe” was in the twilight of his career along with many of his team-mates. The Colombian squad look aged, tired and probably still shaken from the Andres Escobar experience in France.
As captain of his national team in 3 World Cups Valderrama could count himself with a very elite group of men but even this could not inspire his team to success. Again Romania triumphed over Colombia, although this time 1-0, and an unimpressive 1-0 victory over Tunisia left Columbia needing to beat England to claim 2nd place.
Despite only needing a draw the English easily overcame the Colombians 2-0 through Anderton and Beckham sending Colombia home again at the group stage and ending Carlos Valderrama’s international career.
With 111 games (11 goals) he became Colombia’s most capped and greatest ever player and his career was further recognised in 1998 when Pele named him as one of the top players of the century and FIFA.
Valderrama ended his competitive playing career in 2004 with a star-studded tribute match that included the likes of Enzo Francescoli, Diego Maradona, Eric Cantona, Jorge Campos, and Iván Zamorano.