The masterful heroism of Colombia legend Carlos Valderrama

The masterful heroism of Colombia legend Carlos Valderrama

If there’s one word that describes Carlos Valderrama – apart from “hair” – it’s toque. Spanish for “touch”, the style was born in Latin America and involves tiring and confusing the opposition by keeping the ball moving, passing with your first touch where possible. It was the signature style of Francisco Maturana’s great Colombia side of the early 1990s, of which Valderrama was captain and midfield talisman, and it was a deadly way of breaking down opposing teams long before the phrase “tiki-taka” entered the football lexicon.

The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano describes ‘toque‘ as “a home-grown way of playing football, like the home-grown way of dancing that developed in the milonga clubs … The ball was strummed as if it were a guitar, a source of music.”

With his Noel Redding hair, Charles Bronson moustache and array of beads and bangles, Carlos Valderrama laid down the groove to which the Colombia team moved. Despite his eye-catching appearance and virtuoso ability, he was more Keith Richards than Eddie Van Halen: rarely over-elaborating with flashy solos, Valderrama instead knitted the performance together with a metronomic elegance, rarely taking two touches where one would do.

Toque, toque, toque.

June 23, 1990. Cameroon versus Colombia, World Cup second round, Stadio San Paolo, Naples. Valderrama will later call it “one of the most important matches of our generation and our country”. Colombia, in their first World Cup since 1962, have become a strong side under Maturana, but their opponents, having seen off world champions Argentina in the group stages, are equally dangerous. The game has gone to extra-time and Cameroon’s Roger Milla, one of the stars of Italia 90, has given the Africans a 1-0 lead with a superbly taken solo goal. Colombia are on the brink of going home.

With 109 minutes gone, the ball is played back to René Higuita, the Colombia goalkeeper. Valderrama, positioned deep in Cameroon’s half, looks on as El Loco, ten yards outside his area, plays a one-two with a defender. A dead ringer for the lion from The Wizard Of Oz, Higuita’s heart was never in question – but if he’d only had a brain.

Higuita collects the return ball and tries one of his trademark drag-backs, only to be dispossessed by Milla. The Cameroon player rolls the ball gleefully into an empty net. 2-0. Later, rumours will abound that Valderrama had given Milla, his former Montpellier teammate, videos of Higuita in advance of the game, rumours Valderrama will dispel – after all, who in world football doesn’t know about the madness of René Higuita?

Instead of blaming Higuita, Valderrama is sanguine: “We were a very united team, like a family,” he will say later. He stays calm, demands the ball. All is not lost.

Toque. Toque. Toque.

Six minutes later, a series of beautifully probing passes from Colombia’s number 10 ends with a typically unassuming lay-off that allows substitute Bernardo Redín to slot home. It’s 2-1 with five minutes to play.

The late flurry is not enough; Higuita’s error means Colombia are going home. But the team’s performance in getting through to the knockout stages has already ensured them legendary status in Bogotá, the country’s capital.

Valderrama’s personal journey to get here has been a long one.

Santa Marta, Colombia, late 1970s. While waiting for his professional footballer father to take him to training, the young Valderrama plays football with his friends on the streets of Santa Marta, his sun-kissed home town, which will later erect a statue in his honour. In the absence of a referee, he practises keeping possession of the ball amid a maelstrom of feet, knees and elbows. He knows he needs balance, skill, bravery and calmness. Above all, calmness. 

Toque. Toque. Toque.

Now a teenager, Carlos is given the nickname El Pibe by an Argentine team-mate of his father. Meaning “the kid”, the name will stick with him long after his playing career is over. At 19, he signs for Colombian First Division side Unión Magdalena, but “the kid” is the ripe old age of 24 when he makes his Colombia debut in 1985. He is not resentful at having to wait so long for his chance. Playing for his country means everything:

“I got my chance and I made it count. I was happy and very proud because representing Colombia was one of my dreams.”

May 24, 1988. England vs. Colombia, international friendly, Wembley Stadium, London. Strutting around the Wembley turf, all rolled-down socks and giant Afro like a Latin American Paul Breitner, Valderrama introduces himself to a European audience with a mesmerising exhibition of midfield play. In an entertaining 1-1 draw, Valderrama and Colombia as a whole make an impression on England’s manager, Bobby Robson:

“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.

However Robson, ever the proud Englishman, laces his praise with a caveat.

“We’ve stuck at it. A lot of their play was in front of our defenders anyway. If you look at the match from start to finish, we’ve had better chances and had more opportunities to score than they did, so it’s a case of, ‘How do you like your football?’”

Louis Nicollin, the Montpellier president, decides he likes his the Colombian way and signs Valderrama on the back of his Wembley masterclass. “He played like a dream in London,” says the Frenchman later. Nicollin adds Valderrama to a squad containing future World Cup winner Laurent Blanc and video-collecting enthusiast Roger Milla. Despite his talents, Valderrama initially struggles to make an impact.


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“In the fast and furious European game, he wasn’t always at ease,” said Blanc, the Montpellier captain at the time. Valderrama contents himself with a place on the bench for much of his first season in France. He rarely complains about his fate, focusing instead on working hard to get into the starting line-up. If he keeps making his passes, he knows he will get there.

Toque. Toque. Toque.

Valderrama’s breakthrough performance comes in the French Cup semi-final against Saint-Étienne. “It was in that semi-final that he really made people sit up and pay attention. He was absolutely fabulous,” said Blanc.

By the time Valderrama arrives in Italy to join up with his team-mates for Colombia’s first World Cup in 28 years, he has helped Montpellier win the French Cup, only the second piece of silverware in the club’s history – and Valderrama’s first. He is adapting his toque style to the European game and is feeling good, feeling ready.

June 19, 1990. West Germany versus Colombia, World Cup Group D final match, San Siro, Milan. Valderrama looks on from the edge of the centre circle, waiting for the West Germans to kick off. Pensive, concerned, he’s had a mixed tournament so far, scoring against the United Arab Emirates in the first game before being outshone by another brilliant number 10, Yugoslavia’s Dragan Stojković, in the second.

He knows that if Yugoslavia win against the UAE in the other Group D game, Colombia will need only a point to progress as one of the best third-placed teams. Today, his opposite number is Lothar Matthäus of Internazionale, who has already destroyed Yugoslavia with a performance of rare midfield dynamism. Valderrama knows there is no way he can be second-best this time.

But West Germany are strong and skilful and start well, creating the first chance of the game, Rudi Völler making a mess of a wonderful outside-of-the-boot pass from Stefan Reuter. Next, Jürgen Klinsmann forces an acrobatic save from Higuita before the Colombians being to impose their toque style.

Valderrama lays on a gilt-edged chance with a beautifully threaded cutback after Carlos Estrada bamboozles Guido Buchwald on the left touchline, but Luis Fajardo contrives to shin wide from six yards out.  A minute later, an inch-perfect, first-time through ball from Valderrama sets up Estrada, who blazes over when well positioned. Soon after, another chance for Colombia is passed up as Estrada heads over following sterling work from Freddy Rincón on the left. Estrada curses. Valderrama is unmoved. He demands the ball.

Toque, toque, toque.

Seven minutes into the second half, Estrada passes up yet another chance, a one-on-one with Bodo Illgner, before the West Germans’ class begins to show: Matthäus hits the bar with a delightful lob, and Völler begins to influence proceedings with his physique and close control, rolling the Colombian defenders this way and that before getting off shot or a pass. The Colombians hold on.

In the 88th minute, Völler picks up the ball deep in Colombia’s half. With Colombia just two minutes from glory, he slaloms away from two ill-timed lunges before feeding substitute Pierre Littbarski with the outside of his right boot. Littbarski, a brilliant attacking midfielder, shows Estrada how to finish, shouldering Luis Fernando Herrera aside before smashing in a left-footed strike at Higuita’s near post.

Heartbreak in Bogotá. The streets go quiet, save for the noise of television sets being tested for durability. Colombia need a goal, but with the clock ticking and a team as defensively sound as West Germany barring their path, they seem to have little hope of a comeback. Valderrama stays composed, demands the ball.

Toque. Toque. Toque.

The clock ticks on to 92 minutes. It’s Colombia’s last chance for an attack. In such circumstances, the true greats distinguish themselves. Fajardo feeds Valderrama just inside the West German half, but given the lack of space afforded him, it might as well be the crowded streets of Santa Marta. With Völler and Thomas Berthold breathing down his neck, El Pibe recovers from an uncharacteristically poor first touch, regains his composure, and turns the two Germans with ease before sliding a pass into Freddy Rincón.

Doing well to stay on his feet under pressure from the hulking Hans Pflügler, Rincón pops off a quick lay-off to Fajardo, who feeds Valderrama with his first touch. Rincón, having refused to go down under Pflügler’s lunge, is now tearing into the space where the German used to be. All he needs is a decent pass.

Taking a touch to steady himself, Valderrama looks up to survey the scene. Three West German players seem almost magnetically drawn to him; Klaus Augenthaler, panicking, goes to Valderrama instead of covering for Pflügler’s mistake. Delighted, Valderrama exploits Augenthaler’s mistake with the ruthless precision of a boxer jabbing at an open cut. With his left foot, and with a characteristic minimum of fuss, he slides the ball through to Rincón.


In Bogotá, the streets go silent again: a collective intake of breath. Rincón looks up and nutmegs Illgner. His celebration is Colombia’s Marco Tardelli moment: an un-choreographed explosion of joy that knocks the thumb-sucking, heart-making celebrations of today into a cocked hat. Valderrama finally loses his cool, launching himself onto Rincón in jubilation. The celebrations are mirrored back home. Valderrama would reflect years later on the impact of that goal on Colombia:

“It’s an unforgettable moment for our generation and for our country, which we all remember like it was yesterday because they replayed that goal every month on TV.”

Maturana’s Colombia would reach their zenith in 1993 with the iconic 5-0 destruction of Argentina in Buenos Aires, Valderrama again pulling the strings to deadly effect, but Rincón’s injury-time goal against the West Germans would remain the nation’s World Cup high point until 2014 and the emergence of James Rodríguez. Asked years later how he was able to keep the ball so well under such pressure, Valderrama’s response once again took him back to the streets of his home town:

“I learned to play like that in the neighbourhood. Just playing.”

They could almost be the words of the virtuoso blues man who has inspired a thousand hits but can’t understand what all the fuss is about, content instead to sit in a rocking chair on his porch and play, tapping out the beat metronomically with his foot.

Toque, toque, toque. Always.

By MJ Corrigan  @corriganwriter